March 20, 2001
By SALLY ACHARYA
The jeering escalates. "PULL that eight!"
Al-Fatah, appreciating poetry. The seventh grader from southeast
D.C. is showing
a General Education class exactly how much poetry can matter.
Lounge is rocking as Washington poets duke it out at a poetry slam,
with scores held up Olympic-style by student judges and rules weighted
on the side of enthusiasm: be raucous, be noisy, and if you hate
the score a friend gets, shout at the judge.
in LIT 245: Experience of Poetry will end up astonished at what
they see. One will be so energized he'll e-mail the professor a
new poem that night. And perhaps, like last year, this taste of
poetry in the classroom will even get a few students hooked on the
wilder side of words in the D.C. community.
A poetry slam
isn't just poetry as performance. It's poetry as boxing. These contenders
are an eclectic group, from AU law professor Jamin Raskin to Al-Fatah,
hair in braids, standing on a coffee table because she's too short
to see over the lectern. Soft-spoken Kahina Robinson ("I am
frozen fire/jalapeño ice cream") squares off against
a hulking, knit-capped poet with the stage name of D. J. Renegade
("I am in love with a woman/who leaves footprints in the sand
of my dreams").
One after another,
they deliver their poems, and after each poem is finished the scores
are held up. Raskin weighs in with a piece about punctuation marks,
"pregnant teardrops . . . a lawyer's best friend," but
the pint-sized Al-Fatah slams back:
I diluted my
mouth with narcotics
trying to visit the saints . . .
there I was, free of the disappointment of church
And by the time
she's into the "metamorphic sanitational cravings" in
which clouds are like Palmolive dishwashing liquid, scrubbing the
world squeaky clean, she's downed the law professor and his "high-flying
The poets chew
on words, get dismembered by vegetables, see moons as shiny as the
side of a tuna, and react to friends' scores in the proper style--"the
judges SUCK!" Later, after the poets depart, the students collapse
in their chairs as if the door has shut on a wild wind.
In the sudden
silence, a plaintive question rises: "Do you expect us to write
literature, College of Arts and Sciences, tells the Gen Ed students
not to worry, that all writers have their own voices-although, truth
be told, for the moment the students in this class are speechless.
"The name of the course is Experiencing Poetry. This is one
way to experience it," says Bennett.
A student struggles
for words: "The way it sounded-it just sounded like I was hearing
Bennett leans toward him, nodding vigorously: "Right!"
She goes on, "Writing is about telling the story of our lives.
It's another form of history. The record of our society."
poets have helped her make a power- ful point: Art can take root
in spaces opened up with honesty, and that honesty, and not only
wordplay, is what poetry feeds upon.
The AU Distinguished
Professor is well known for her scholarship on Mary Shelley. While
the depth of her knowledge gives her a natural interest in graduate
classes, "All the professors in the Literature Department have
made the commitment that we'll all teach in the Gen Ed program,
because we feel we should be sharing our knowledge at all the levels
at the university," she says.
it very exciting. It allows me to meet students at an early stage
of their development, and really no matter where they go-no matter
what their major becomes-to really introduce them in a meaningful
way to the creative side of not only literature but of themselves.
And I shouldn't say 'introduce,' because a lot of them write now,"
she adds. "What I really do is encourage them."
Most of the
visiting poets came from D.C.'s Duke Ellington High School for the
Arts or Charles Hart Middle School, where, through a magnet program,
they take after-school workshops in creative writing and, earlier
this year, interviewed AU's Henry Taylor, literature, CAS, and a
Pulitzer Prizewinning poet, for their arts magazine.
the young poets to AU for the first time last year-as a way of adding
a new dimension to her poetry course.
In April her
class will host its own poetry slam, modeled on the March event,
which ends in a dramatic playoff between adult poet Denise Johnson
and seventh grader Al-Fatah for third place and another battle for
first and second places.
It's a nervous
moment when Larry Robertson rises to compete against the formidable
D. J. Renegade (Joel Dias-Porter), a nationally known poet who has
appeared on the Today show and in the movie Slam and is armed with
Love is stronger than grog,
can convince you to build a house
in a volcano's mouth.
The gangly eighth
grader stands up after him, gets as far as
I am into your
cotton-candy-coated appeasing notes
when he chokes
on the cotton candy, twice, and decides to change his plan of attack.
He'll recite another poem, he's got lots of them, and by the time
he reaches the part where he says,
his intelligence by asking him the square root of masculinity
his mouth drops like the gravitation of Jupiter has joined his false
it's clear that
Robertson has beat everyone, including D. J. Renegade, who will
be his own teacher next year at Duke Ellington.
of the D.C. public schools here? That's an eighth grader from Southeast,"
says emcee Nancy Schwalb, writer in residence at Charles Hart Middle
School and executive director of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop.
The AU student
judges later admit they downgraded the adult poets just a tad for
being so clearly well skilled. But the fact remains that the AU
class was dazzled by this poetry experience and the emotional bravery
of its young poets.
I predict he's going to be famous," one student says. "I
was like, he's in eighth grade! He's awesome!"
I don't even know how she knew so many words," says another,
dazzled by the seventh grader who let loose from memory about the
"metamorphic sanitational cravings" of clouds
and beat out an adult for third place.
we saw a prodigy," says Bennett, putting the experience in
perspective. "We can't all be prodigies." But, she says,
anyone can enjoy the experience of poetry and let it open a window
on other peoples' souls.
And she had
another tip for would-be writers in the class: "You know these
workshops they're doing? They're working at it. This does not 'floweth.'
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