Monday, December 14, 2015

A Marriage Between Literary & Performance Arts

Last week, Leanne Harple invited Steven Willis to work with Hazen students on the art of slam poetry.  In this guest post, Harple shares an account of the workshop and evening performance:

On a sunny, December afternoon, a small handful of students at Hazen Union School take time out of classes to bear witness to a marriage: “the marriage between literary and performance arts,” as guest artist Steven Willis defines spoken word poetry. Willis, a champion slam poet, describes for them the blend of wordplay, choreography, pop culture, awareness of social injustice, and pure passion that he infuses into his art. At 22 years old, Willis has already discovered what he identifies as his life’s purpose. He refuses to do anything else, turning down more lucrative offers of employment to participate in upwards of 100 slam poetry events a year. In order to prepare for competitions, Willis has to write seven poems each year, ranging from one to four minutes, with the ultimate goal of competing in the Individual World Poetry Slam. Willis’s message to the students is that the most important thing in life is to follow your passion, and that nothing, not even money, should get in the way of that.

Willis grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he began performing slam poetry as a teenage boy with the single purpose in mind, he says, of impressing girls. However, a few supportive teachers in his life quickly noticed that he possessed a real gift, and encouraged him. Now, he’s passing along that gift to others. One of his most important pieces of advice to students is to never give up: he tells them how, in his early years of competing as a slam poet, he lost every single competition that he participated in for fourteen months straight. He assures them he’s not exaggerating. Fourteen months straight. And then, all of a sudden, he won one. During those fourteen months, instead of wanting to give up, he networked. As more and more people began to notice this young man who kept coming back, he was given more opportunities to complete. He found coaches and mentors. Eventually, he began winning championship tournaments.

The students seem enthralled by Willis’ story. Students who openly profess to hate English class are enthusiastically volunteering to read poems that he hands out, and trying their own hands at writing poetry for themselves. Willis encourages them to think about wordplay, creating new twists on old clichés, infusing their lines with idioms and new cultural phrases. Words like, “fleek”, “yaaaas!”, and “bay” are thrown into the ring, earning immediate affirmation by Willis and looks of confusion on the face of their 33-year old teacher sitting in the back of the room, who, up until this moment, thought that she had a good handle on the English language. As trust is built, students get personal. One girl writes:
Oxycodone -- more like oxycodon’t 
Patrone -- more like Patrone won’t, 
I’m supposed to call you dad but you don’t deserve it. 
You were my first love and my first heart

When the students have all had an opportunity to share their poetry, Willis opens the room up to questions about his art and his career. He doesn’t write his poems down; instead he speaks them into his phone, occasionally playing them back when he needs to remember a line, which he does that evening at the public performance in the school auditorium. However, his need to check his lines is infrequent. This is in part due to the fact that he won’t even perform a poem until he’s been practicing and memorizing it for three months. This way, he says, he can be sure it is already a part of his body. It is inside of him. For this reason, he doesn’t get nervous. Well, not about poetry, he jokes: he still gets nervous about whether or not he will pass a test, or handing a girl a note that says, “Will you go out with me? Check Yes or No.” But he doesn’t get nervous about performing. “Nervousness is for the unprepared,” Willis says.

In the evening, two of the students from his workshop are brave enough to perform their poetry alongside Willis for a small audience in the Hazen auditorium. One of the poems is a play on words about the family guard dog, whose bark is worse than his bite. Another is about a student’s first encounter with social justice and public protest. Willis performs a number of poems that he has written in the last year, including one poem on the linguistic patterns of Ebonics, or black vernacular English, illustrated throughout with pointed references to social injustice: 

Any English word that holds an -or combination, the -r sound becomes silent. 
Like Emmet screaming, “Don’t beat me no mo’.” 
Like Rodney screaming, “Don’t beat me no mo’.” 
Like Trayvon axing, “What is you following me fo’?” 

Willis’ combination of of poetic charisma and genuine audience connection inspires a five-year-old girl to write a poem right then and there as she sits in the audience, but she is too shy to read it. Her mother reads it for her, and Willis praises it as beautiful. At the end of the performance, students flock around him, shaking his hand and thanking him for the experience, for the inspiration, for bringing purpose to their writing and making the magic and possibility of the English language real to them again in a way that is sometimes easily lost in the day-to-day tasks of classroom learning. Hopefully, long after Steven Willis has returned home, the passion and inspiration that the students carry with them out the door will burn on.