Seventeen Ways of Looking at Black Talk:  Selling Produce in the Poetry Youth Market.

Michael C. Ford

There is a new breed of urban adventurers looking for action with a black man’s code. The hipsters absorbed (his) existentialist synapse and, for practical purposes, could be considered a white Negro.

 -Norman Mailer, 1957

     Young poets from large cities are inclined more towards trendy hip-hop, skip-hop, trip-hop media exploitation and, along with it, a bogus translation of street-corner poetry into urban street-rap rhythm. Teen-slam poetry competitions are nation-wide: more of an outgrowth of the international slam contest mentality which seems, at its core, inclined to promote a concept of not how good a poem is, but how loud it is: much of it, interestingly, augmented, by the uniquely questionable notoriety of alternative television success Def Poetry Jam (even, for the time being, an installation on the maligned Broadway stage) or endless recordings of polluted spokenword from stereotypical gangsta post-disco hybrids. Personally speaking, I am not what you would call a major fan of street rapping: although I admit to being impressed, once in a while, with the rather savvy abilities of some of the more authentic street-corner poets: no not the kinds who rattle with an incoherent slam-jam gibberish, but those who appear to be projecting a contiguity with obsessive city-dweller survival; along with an understandable difficulty in comprehending how somebody can take a microphone and just be connected to some high-tech gear performing these multi-coordinated high-velocity rhymes-within-rhymes inner-city street songs.
I find myself reasonably empathetic and have consensual standards towards high school classroom kids who feel the need to infuse their personal poetry with gang-bang cadences and homey in-the-hood metaphors.
     The average age of classroom participants to which I’m generally assigned is 17. Now, there wasn’t a major difference about teaching l7-year old people in the more or less isolated agri-community schools of California’s San Joaquin Valley: and the question of whether or not the city poet is in any way a better writer or any worse than the rural poet turns out not to be a question at all: mainly because, as it is experienced in both cases there are instances where white kids freely associate with hardcore black jargon. This interestingly reveals a natural inclination to reflect their immediate environments: and by virtue of the nature of imaginative writing, they measure this as a means towards self-expression.
     It becomes evident that young poets (despite what might be construed as limitations) always demonstrate a very clear willingness to turn left brain liabilities into creative assets: an almost intuitive desire to discover startling images, to find a few dangerous visions of a conflicted society supporting international policies which, sometimes, turn buildings into rubble and human beings into Fahrenheit.
     Within the construct of a special education division of Pen Center USA (so named Pen in the Classroom) high school students who would not otherwise benefit are discovering the act of making more concrete, through language art experiments, their own conceits and concerns which may often be a healthy humbling experience.  The best justification for creative writing release time is exemplified by published authors working in cooperation with core English teachers in Pen Center schools like Hamilton High, Venice High and Santa Monica High Schools in Southern California. This doesn’t always, necessarily, imply “teaching’’ writing itself, but finding a secure place for the wise and witty gathering of inspired young storytellers deeming their individual attitudes of self expression: sharpening the tools of their creative imaginations, in order to align thoughts and feelings with their evolving perceptions: then defining their ideals and dreams, revealing secrets to anybody who’ll listen: solving mysteries and exploring regions of emotional landscapes.
It isn’t just my opinion that all serious students of literature should have the experience of monitoring a creative writing workshop; if for no other reason than to acquire an uncommon knowledge of what surrounds us everyday, not to mention an escalating self-esteem.  The median in a sense, has robbed us of a certain innocence. Most of the time we’re trying to figure out whether or not television information is there, in truth, to inform or simply there to make us more paranoid and because of this, children (the real philosophers of our current age) today have become more sophisticated, more critical, more cynical, more realistic than kids coming of age in the middle-20th century.
     Media blitz actually allows contemporary adolescents to witness all the motor disturbances of these, well. . . disturbing times: all of which brings us back to why Pen USA installs authors of books into a classroom environment. I believe it has everything to do with encouraging kids towards the act of writing about things which are, essentially, frightening, dreadful, frustrating, wretched, negative: then, somehow thorough it all, perhaps, even, making it preferable to suicide. Further, there comes with this an incredible responsibility: abstracting the truth, in order to clarify it.  You must understand that composing anything relatively individualistic, whether it be in linear or non-linear terms, is like being a jazz musician in all of its variations: the 2-beat shuffles: barrelhouse boogies, the big band swing charts: be-bop chord progressions, progressive orchestral experimentation with complicated melodic textures, contrapuntal tonal shadings and polyrhythmic patterns: it’s all there in these selected city and county high school anthology pages celebrating the poetic imagination. The jazz musician, like the poet, has chosen an art form which, by its nature, does not, under ordinary circumstances achieve either a wide or catholic mode of popularity. And, like most of those jazzers, poets many times find themselves facing an audience who might be too drunk, or too doped, or unappreciative, or uneducated or just completely indifferent to take advantage of a possible conscience-altering experience.  It is sufficient that we realize these gifted Pen in the Classroom poets would be difficult for American literary media to ignore: that, if these musical talkers of truth and revelation could somehow be recorded, they’d be forever living, not only in our brutalized eyes, but in our ears.