Thursday, 22 July 2010

Don’t be nice.

“Don’t be nice!”  “Poet – don’t be nice!”

This is what they were yelling from the audience as a youth poet stepped up to the mic today at Youthspeaks Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam.  The 13th Annual BNV is in L.A. this year, as it was in 2004.  I haven’t been to a BNV since 2006, when I was a judge.  In 2004, I both coached a team and helped to coordinate the event.

“Don’t be nice.”  That’s new.  We have a lot of things we say to each other in the silence before we start a poem.  “Bring it.”  “Rock the mic.”  “Speak truth” but “Don’t be nice” that’s fresh.

It’s the advice my friend G was giving me when I slammed earlier in the summer.  He’d say “Let Bitchy slam,”  referring to my favourite alter-ego Bitchy Winans.

You can lose points on nice.  For gross generalizations here we come – women and youth don’t often feel entitled to speak.  “Nice” is a way of mitigating the fact that we are about to tell you how we really feel.  But it doesn’t always ring true, because in truth, you’re not feeling nice when you’re doing a passionate piece about injustice, or foster care, or Marilyn Monroe (we’ll come back to that) – you’re enraged, or impassioned, or full-tilt desperate or you’re baring your soul like teeth in a way that you can never fully close up again.

Nice doesn’t cut it.  You’ve already written the words and the words are not nice.  The words are rapier thin, razor’s edge sharp, and they will cut you.  The words make demands; fill them.

I am learning about not being nice – not just on stage, but off.  Nice is a good hiding place but it is so very rarely real.  Kind is real.  Kind is always real.  And as Buddy Wakefield, who was hosting the semi-final I was judging added when the crowd once again was calling out “Don’t be nice”  -- “but be love.”

Because, truth now, the opposite of nice is not mean.  Nice holds its tongue, but mean carves holes in its prey.  Nice is a neutral zombie.  Nice is learned behaviour.The opposite of nice can be expressed, connected, soulful, deep, seated, real.  

And what was most striking – in fact, is always most striking – about the youth poets I had the blessing to judge today, was how real they were.  How grounded in their words, their art, how well-guided, and how humble.  There was real humility on the stage today.  Not learned or practiced humility, not I wish I was truly humble humility, but true humility.  In that, their truth is not obfuscated by their bodies, their voices, or their words.

A girl got up and began a poem about Marilyn Monroe.  One of my signature pieces is about Marilyn Monroe.  My piece comments on glamour and what it stands for and what it steals.  From the moment she spoke, though, I let this girl from Team Albuquerque school me on her Marilyn, because it was clear she had something to say.  Her Marilyn was broken, too, but her Marilyn was the icon women came to idolize who never deserved the status.  She wanted to see more women like Bella Abzug celebrated (oh, how I’ve been wanting to do a piece on Bella Abzug for so long!), despite their lack of photogenic beauty.  The piece was shockingly strong, both in writing, critical thinking and delivery.  A fellow judge said he was not fully convinced by her argument – that Marilyn was not only a pin-up – we didn’t get to fully have that conversation, but I see where he was going – the facts of Marilyn’s life don’t add up to her just being a shill for Hollywood.  I had to concede, though, that it might be generational.  That just as my Marilyn piece is about my perception of her, this piece is about her conception of Marilyn.  From her perspective, in high school in 2010, this may be the image she is privy to.  She knew her facts, but they may look differently to her now than they did to me ten years ago.

As always at BNV – there was an extraordinary act of kindness.  In 2004, it was the team who gave up the chance to win in at Finals in order to be able to bring up more poets on the stage, so everyone got a chance.  Today it was a member of Team Austin stepping up to the mic and giving up her spot for another team member after praising her growth and development.  It ain’t about the scores.

This was not my first time judging a slam, or BNV.  I started to really look at how I was creating a score in my mind.

The elements for me are:

-Personal – The story or poem needs to have personal relevance or connection for the poet – don’t tell me about THE hood – tell me about YOUR hood or tell me your perspective that is different from everyone else’s on the hood.

- Context – Even if your story is completely personal – put it in a context, give it a wider theme, show me how it applies to me or to everyone or connects to the larger picture of our lives.

- Originality – Please let something about your poem be truly original – have your signature as a poet or a team on it.  It can be language, concept, subject, analysis or even presentation, but a list of facts about injustice and a few clichés spewed with finesse at the top of your lungs do not a 10 make.  (10 being the highest score in slam.)

Performance and writing count, but in youth slam scoring, I think the above three are more important.  Once you get to the level of semi’s, you’re already assured that the poetry is going to be at a certain level of writing and performance.

I held myself to a pretty rigorous standard of judging today.  I know this because we kept an overall scorecard, and my favorite team, was not in fact, the team that I judged the highest.  I was surprised to find that Stockton – a team I adored – came in second in my scores to Albuquerque – who I felt were a very strong team.  The difference was an infinitesimal .1, but I believe it meant that I was judging the work and not the poets.

But I’ll tell you, this girl from Stockton about knocked me over with her piece about Stockton as the next Katrina waiting to happen.  That girl is gunning for the inventive and daring Rachel McKibbens as a take-no-prisoneres open a vein to say it poet.

Finals are tomorrow night.  You might want to be there.


Lady Writer said...

Again, awesome post. You said so many things I was thinking. Thanks for sharing your insight. :-) I'm working on following the advice I yelled out at BNV yesterday, too: "Don't Be Nice!"

E. Amato said...

Thanks, Lady! It's also nice to know there's a generation coming up that might be too nice! ; )

Let me know about tonight - I think my friend is too sick to go.

Dasha Kelly said...

I, too, LOVED that Marilyn Monroe piece! She did it on finals stage.

Yes, "nice." We're taught to execute, but rarely told that we don't have to swallow ourselves in the process. This post is so timely; not being nice is my lesson for the week!



E. Amato said...

Maybe it was the lesson for everyone. It was for me.

Thanks for reading.