Monday, April 28, 2008

Poetry Slam

A few words about the poem I scratched out at the Fish House, Calvin College’s coffee house. This was the last event of the Festival of Faith and Writing last week. I attended the Poetry Slam as a spectator because I knew little about it. Got caught up in the energy and started writing. The moderator – Patricia Johnson, past winner of National Poetry Slam competitions -- kept looking at me and saying, ‘You’re gonna finish that, you’re gonna finish that, you’re gonna be in this…”

As written poetry, it needs work. But here is the rough draft, as written and performed that night at the Fish House. I pointed to a round analog clock on the wall next to the stage, and started in an angry chopped tone:

Night Watch

I don’t want to see a clock.
Cover that damn white face and hands,
shut up that tick, tick, tic,
it penetrates my tapping foot
tapping to a metronome I refuse to meet
When I really want to run these feet
where my 2AM terrors don’t last till dawn.

Cover that damn white face and hands.
I can still run this five decade carcass
up any mountain peak I want
on the rocky range of my life.

Cover this damn white face and hands and hair.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Festival Slam

I no idea how a Poetry Slam worked. I sat in on a session with Patricia Johnson, a past winner of National Poetry Slam competitions, and a devout Christian. She currently works as the PIO for the Sheriff Department in Roanoake, VA. She read some of her poetry, but she primarily discussed the emotion behind belief, faith, and poetry. She was sincere, real, and dynamic -- even, and especially, in prayer.

She was hosting a Slam at the Calvin College coffee house tonight. I was tired after a full day of sessions and presentations, but my goal has been to absorb as much about poetry, and poetry presentations, as I could. So i went to the Fish House to watch.

I heard some of the best poetry all week. Where were these folks on open mic night the past two nights??!! And there was true diversity here; plenty of pain, emotion, excitement, and wonderful use of words and cadence. Rap and hip-hop without the music -- altho some of the presenters did sing part of their poetry. Each reader has three minutes at the microphone, and Patricia had three tables of judges on hand to do the scoring, on a 1-10 scale.

I didn't sign up initially, so I did not bring my poetry. But i was fascinated by the quality of the material, and the fun that people had on stage. So I started writing, and under prodding by Patricia, I finished enough lines to read. I was the last of about 12-13 readers -- and I came in 5th! The top 5 do another round, but I had no more words left.

So I was exposed to another facet of poetry, one that fosters incredible emotion, lyricism, and fun. That's what words are for.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Festival of Faith and Writing, Day 3

My goal is to focus on the poets at the conference. To listen. To learn. Rod Jellema is a teacher of poetry, and he is a very giving person -- he even handed out a worksheet with his cell phone listed. He is an open, encouraging, and clearly loves his craft. He did not take up poetry himself until age 40, long after he had settled into his career as a college professor. It was my first poetry lesson.

I have a long way to go.

There is a difference between a message, and the means with which that message is delivered. Prose, poetry, essays, novels, are all delivery methods. The message at this Festival is clear: faith, prayer, the discernment of the word.

Why would I expect differently?

How long is the way?

Oh, yeah, and Yann Martel's recommendation on how to interpret his Life of Pi? Read Part I and Part III. The link is between those two sections. The middle is just a shipwreck story.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Festival, Day 1

How to describe this Festival, its participants, the attendees.? This is an energizing place on two fronts -- religious and literary. I admit that I am here more for the latter, but the religious themes are paramount here at Calvin.

Many people here are devoted to Christianity and dedicate their skills and work to it, give of themselves totally and willingly. Poet Luci Shaw describes it as giving one's self over to a massage from the hands of God -- just turning yourself over to his hands. She believes that it is her calling to write about the beauty of the world as brought to us by the Creator: "Beauty is grace embodied -- something extra given that we don't deserve." She believes that we fail the Creator if we do not celebrate beauty, particularly if we celebrate things that man created instead. "The natural world is where I find the transcendent."

Contrast this belief foundation and background with that of Mary Karr ("The Liars Club"), a tough, up-front, unreserved fireplug who grew up in a hard-scrabble Texas home with abusive and addictive parents, who fought for everything, with everybody; who abused drugs and alcohol as a young adult. She began using prayer to help guide her life decisions, did it reluctantly and with little faith that it will work -- and has discovered that the power is in letting go: "I surrendered. The solution to my problems is a spiritual solution." She began to see life connections when she prayed. She started her presentation with a prayer, which included, "God, I know you have a lesson here for each of us today, please guide us and show us what the hell it is."

Not your classic liturgical methodology. She has become a Catholic, and uses Jesuit prayer guides to help her through life.

The final startling highlight was at the poetry open mic tonight. One of the presenters was a young man who did performance poetry -- rap, without the music. He stepped away from the microphone, bounced with the words, pointed and waved his arms, shouted, whispered. This, amid some of the more traditional poems read by the rest of us...

Creativity comes in all forms.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Travelin' to Grand Rapids

The wonders of the American transportation system.

At 7:30 this morning, I drove less than 2 miles to connect with Interstate90 in upstate New York. Eleven hours and 646 miles later, I arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan -- never leaving a four-lane highway. Crossed the Niagara River, drove by three of the Great Lakes, went from the rolling hills of the Mohawk Valley to the flatlands of Ontario and Michigan.

Four generations back, an American might have gotten to the next county in one day of travel. Today, I went a quarter of the way across the country...Well, two countries, since the most direct route took me through Canada.

The interstate system is Eisenhower's legacy, the federal government's major foray into the road construction business. Ike used the government's security and defense rationale for building one of the largest road networks in the world, a ribbon of red four-lanes across 48 states. We can all use our four-wheeler engines to go anywhere we want on the American map.

There are consequences to this, some of them negative. Our reliance on highways for such a high proportion of our transportion keeps a huge auto industry in business. We are pretty lonely in these cars, as far too many of us commute to work by ourselves. All these cars have helped deplete our supply of fossil fuels. We haven't done much to improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine for over a hundred years, and apparently these things aren't friendly to the atmosphere.

I contributed to the problem today. Drove by myself. Probably got 32 miles to the gallon, but still burned plenty of gasoline. Coulda slowed down and saved gas. Might have found someone else to go with me.

So what is in Grand Rapids? The Festival of Faith and Writing, a biannual conference on writing and spirituality held at Calvin College. An impressive roster of novelists, poets, essayists, screenwriters, graphic artists for three days of lectures, workshops, conversations, interviews. I wandered the campus tonight (always been intrigued by college campuses), found the conference center and was able to pick up my registration materials early. Spent an hour trying to select the sessions that I will attend over the next three days -- not an easy task! For instance, here's the description of a session with author Kathleen Norris:

Acedia...Again: Few people today have encountered the word 'acedia', which literally means not-caring, of being unable to care -- or even being unable to care that you don't care. In some ways, though, acedia defines today's culture, expressing itself as willful indifference, restless boredom, or even frantic busyiness. Norris discusses both acedia and its opposite -- the zeal that draws on faith, hope and love.

Yikes! Wanta hear that one, but it competes with another poet at the same time. The whole weekend is like this!