I fell in love with poetry in the first grade.
Ms. Pascucci would play Shel Silverstein cassettes tapes on our class’s boom box and I was hooked the first second we heard Where the Sidewalk Ends. Shel Silverstein’s voice was some sort of crazy, all electricity and gravel, like if Bob Ross had a twin with ADHD. That was Shel.
I had my first real spoken word performance in high school. I performed a poem that I still share today when I need to impress people, a poem about sin and grace. It’s crazy how art transcends time, or evolves along with it. That poem is my high school angst wrapped up in words but I just as easily could have written it last week.
Nowadays, writing poetry doesn’t come as easily as fear does. I haven’t written a poem that I’ve been proud of in years and when I sit down to write I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to sound like. I feel like I’ve been exposed to too many influences, too many poets I wish I could be, but I end up sounding like some flea market knockoff—I am the Folex of spoken word. I don’t know why I keep writing for an audience, as if I could cater to every person who would hear my stuff. I can’t just write for the love of writing, or speak simply because the spoken word has beauty in itself. I have to appease somebody, to work for someone, to prove myself.
In his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie says,
I made visiting schools a part of my adventure for the next couple years…. I always started with the same introduction:
“Hi! My name is Gordon MacKenzie and, among other things, I am an artist. I’ll bet there are other artists here, too. There have to be with all the beautiful pictures and designs you have hanging in your classrooms and up and down the halls…. I’m curious. How many artists are there in the room? Would you please raise your hands?”
The pattern of responses never varied.
First grade: En mass the children leapt from their chairs, arms waving wildly, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist.
Second grade: About half the kids raised their hands, shoulder high, no higher. The raised hands were still.
Third grade: At best, 10 kids out of 30 would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously.
And so on up through the grades. The higher the grade, the fewer children raised their hands. By the time I reached sixth grade, no more than one or two did so and then only ever-so-slightly—guardedly—their eyes glancing from side to side uneasily, betraying a fear of being identified by the group as a “closet artist.”
I wonder how many of us have simply been tricked out of our art, how fear and self-consciousness consistently trump creativity and expression, why I can’t write without being obsessed with what other people are going to think. There is no fear in love, no self-consciousness when we truly believe in what we create. That’s why I respect every single artist even if I can’t appreciate or agree with what they make, because it takes courage to put yourself out there. It takes a certain kind of faith to be yourself in public. And art will always carry with it the potential of the prophetic because mere exposition can never explain the Mystery of God; every artist is a theologian, every Old Testament prophet was a spoken word poet, and things like heaven, justice, renewal, and joy are all understood better in images and movement, in sweat and breath.
Perhaps I would do well to channel my first grade self, the one in love with Shel Silverstein and who wrote simply because he loved the sounds and because there was paper lying around. Maybe childlike faith is more creative and courageous than we’ve allowed ourselves to be. And maybe we’ve just bought into this lie that the highly edited professional version of us is better than the clumsy but honest artist version. Maybe if we stopped being so concerned with who will love us, we would start loving ourselves, and we would remember the God who said “It is good” in the first place, a God who put his faith in his creation, who for some reason continues to put us on stage like we were the best poems he ever wrote.