A young lady by the name of Shannon Leigh passed away Monday. I didn't know her personally because she did slam poetry, and I haven't been as connected to the slam community as I have been in the past. Yet, her untimely passing at age 20 has me thinking today.
I have been reading all the fast and furious blog posts in tribute to her from slam poets across the country. Most of them are genuinely touching, beautiful. Some, not so much: the elegy is a form, I believe, best executed upon some reflection...at least 24 hours is not unreasonable. But that's just me.
By all accounts, she spent half her life experiencing the various poetry communities that nurtured her (she was a sort of poetic wunderkind and started out around age 13). She ended up doing well at the National Poetry Slam and had just started garnering a national reputation as a touring poet. She made stops over at louderARTS, and at the Cantab Lounge in Boston, places from where I heard some of my friends hanging on to each other for comfort and support today.
It's senseless to hear about a young woman passing away at age 20. I'm still trying to fully accept my sister being gone at age 49. So of course my heart goes out to my friends who are trying to make sense of this thing, and to her family as well.
In my world, poetry is not an abstract concept or a creature to be dissected beneath a microscope. It's not something to mourn because people don't buy or read enough of it. It's an art form around which I've seen people genuinely gravitate. It's a way to see the world, to reimagine it, to make sense of it.
You'll pardon me, therefore, if I give a hearty middle finger to critics and poetry bloggers who berate and bemoan the excess of poetry movements and communities that form around poetry. While I sign on most wholeheartedly with Symborska's image of the solitary poet facing the naked page, I would be nowhere if I didn't have the friends I made in the poetry communities I came through. Why, for instance, would I have assigned any meaning in my writing life to the Blue Ox Bar, an otherwise annoyingly noisy cop and fireman bar, unless I knew that my people from Acentos were going to show up and help me push out some new work every two weeks? It's much easier for a young poet to face that naked page when he/she knows that he/she has friends who are there doing it too. Might I have been a poet without them? Probably. Maybe. Would I have had license to write in Spanish and English? Might I not have felt the freedom to choose?
I don't view poetry as an end product to be labeled in the manner one might label a can of corn. I think poetry is the answer to a question that only the individual poet can rightfully know and ask. I'm not in the business (at least not anymore) of deciphering what the question was. I'm not a contestant on Jeopardy. And I'm not in the business of telling groups of people not to ask the questions they want answered, especially when no one else is asking them. If they want to answer their questions together, so be it. I maintain hope that not every answer will sound alike.
I fear that in the rush to demonize labels like "avant-garde," "language," "formalism," "slam," or "performance," or what-have-you, young poets will get lost in the shuffle and forget how to speak. Sometimes I wonder if I've forgotten how to speak myself. I fear that individuals within these groups that come together to question their own status quos will be intimidated into American poetic mediocrity. I really don't need to read another focus-groupped, overworkshopped book of poems about one lame theme, so here's to groups (or...GASP...movements) that push and question and answer back.
Today, I'm heartened to read about one young lady who was not yet tongue-tied and still managed to enjoy poetry, even as she was in school and working. And she was brought along by a national community that, while certainly not perfect, still manages to attract a few smart young people into its ranks and nurture the attitude that poetry doesn't have to be just a hobby. And yeah, while we're at it, by the way, it is damned nice to be able to claim family (dare I say, an identity?) through one's poems.
Raise a glass for Shannon Leigh today, and be glad you can.