Two nights ago, in celebration of National Library Week and National Poetry Month, I was the MC for Appalachian State University’s Student Poetry Slam. It was held in the University’s Belk Library and sponsored by the Richard T. Barker Friends of the Library, Lyric: Appalachian State’s Spoken Word Poetry Club, and the Verses Slam Team. About 150 folks showed up – and only eleven of them had signed up to perform. In other words, the audience and appetite for this kind of poetry is vibrant and ever-growing. The entire evening was rather incredible and I found the work provocative and inspiring. In fact, I was bowled over.
Edgy is a word I rarely use – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever used it – but that adjective captures perfectly the work that was showcased. Much of it was raw and unadorned – in all the best, unpretentious ways – memorable in an accessible vernacular that had pop and clout and an aural authority I couldn’t help getting swept up in.
I’m always seduced by narrative, and I found the work permeated with stories. The poets’ acumen about the world they live in, and their unflinching impulse to say what they see and feel, took my breath. Some of the work was angry, and righteously so, but it was funny and sage in the bargain. Politics, the environment, sexual identity, religion, war, peace. Undergirding all of the work was a decided social conscience. Not merely feigned. Not merely mimicking a perceived zeitgeist. But thought out, composed, revised, and mature. And terrifically vulnerable.
These slam pieces issued from the aesthetic of the Confessional Poets. In fact, most of the slam poets and the spoken word/performance poets I’ve heard seem to issue from the pedigree of Confessional poetry – that dire verse of personal extremity. That kind of honesty – I can’t imagine ever having that kind of courage (or talent) when I was the age of these students – stuns me. I’m not patting those young ASU poets on the head. No patronizing here. The writing I listened to was good (period), some of it frightfully so – whether read from a page or a cell phone or recited without dropping one blessed syllable and often flamboyantly performed.
What’s more, good will was abroad. Those students were deeply into it. They yelped and cheered for one another; and if a poet froze on a line, or got stuck mid-performance, the audience snapped its fingers and urged her on. A chorus of “Don’t be nice” met each new contestant, then the click of fingers snapping. It was too much. Walk into a room so alive with the word – this is happening in big places and in small pockets all over North Carolina – and you’ll be convinced that poetry is alive and well.
During intermission, I read a poem and got some snaps and hoots. I was pretty pleased.
Footnote: This kind of initiative, described above, gets jump-started every year with North Carolina’s Poetry Out Loud program. I’ve been to the finals the last two years in Greensboro. To see dozens of high school students from all over the state recite a battery of fabulous poems they’ve memorized, and put their own inimitable spin on, is rather life-affirming.
Happy Birthday to Julia Nunnally Duncan. We celebrate her birthday with the following poem, “Birthday,” seen here today for the first time.
That spring I visited my father every day,
and we sat together on the nursing home’s front porch
as we had sat on our own porch
in the summer evenings of my childhood
and listened to whippoorwills
and church chimes that played Baptist hymns.
we sat amongst strangers
and quietly watched visitors come and go.
It was my birthday,
and I wanted to remind him so;
it was something I thought he might care to know.
But my chance to tell him slipped away,
as he seemed anxious to get inside.
So I pushed his wheelchair to his room
and turned on the T.V. so he could watch
The Price is Right—
a favorite show that he still liked.
He never knew it was my birthday,
and I couldn’t foresee that it would be
my last one spent with him.
Julia Nunnally Duncan lives in Marion, NC, and teaches English at McDowell Technical Community College. Her latest poetry book,Barefoot in the Snow, was released in 2013.