After months of assembling and preparing teams of talented wordsmiths, (selected through a process of competitive performances of their poetry known as slams) the participants will share their words and their hearts with one another in the hopes of being one of the top teams to make it to “final stage” and compete to be the 2012 Brave New Voices champion.
To those unfamiliar with the event, it may seem like a poetic sparring match of sorts, and there are indeed plenty of battles (freestyle, that is), but there are no trophies involved. It has been said over and over again that the true BNV prize is the opportunity to be surrounded by so many powerful young voices and to discover one’s own in the process. I can attest to that fact because exactly four years ago this week I embarked on my own journey to BNV as a member of the 2008 Urban Word NYC slam poetry team.
My team happened to win 2nd place and HBO chronicled the experience in the first season of a reality show/documentary blend called Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices that first aired in 2009, but that’s not the story I’m here to tell.
Sadly, yet honestly, the week-long experience is kind of a blur to me, including standing on final stage in Washington, D. C.’s historic Lincoln Theater while the entire audience stood on its feet, arms raised, as my teammates did the same behind me. I did, however, truly appreciate the moment when it was ultimately played back on TV. It was beautiful and I was overwhelmed. Ironically, as many people told me it would be, for me, BNV was all about the journey.
If you did happen to watch the show, you probably saw some of that, but like everything else with most media, there’s more to it than that…My four year anniversary from that experience is significant for several reasons. Four years ago, while preparing to head to BNV, I had just graduated from high school and was about to go off to college. (That year, BNV actually took place in D. C. and final stage took place just blocks from where I was to attend college at Howard University.) Today, I have just graduated from college and am preparing to go off to law school.
Although I like to think that my essence is the same, my 22-year-old self now is very different from my 18-year-old self then, and I owe a lot of that growth to my BNV experience. In many ways, both professionally and personally, I can’t help but feel like I have come full circle. So I wanted to reflect on some of the things that poetry (and the experience leading up to and including BNV) taught me.
In hindsight, I can say that the most important realization that I had during that time period was that I had never really taken the time to meet my whole self. I have always prided myself on having a mind of my own and a strong sense of self, but the journey to BNV showed me that while I had a great sense of my outward self, meaning external goals, ambitions, and the self that I wanted to project to the world, I was not good at expressing and revealing my internal self–my motivations, fears, thoughts, insecurities, etc. I was horrible when it came to introducing myself to the outside world.
That’s why poetry has been so important to my life. It sounds like a cliche now, but I learned a lot about myself through writing. While I think I have always been pretty good at recognizing patterns, traits, and feelings in others (a good writer is a good observer), my poetry forced me to do the same thing for myself. I was forced to ask myself questions like, “What types of things do I write about and why?”
Even my writing style revealed things about myself to me. For example, on my team I was known for being “the storyteller.” The majority of my poems had/have a narrative flow to them. I never really reflected too much on that fact because I loved books and I was always writing short stories and things like that, so I just assumed that I was blending my genres together. However, confrontation, time, and reflection forced me to think more deeply about that.
Storytellers create worlds in their heads. They create characters, conflict, background (exposition), and resolution, and my idealist self always wants to explain, and most importantly, resolve situations. Like stories, all my poems seemed to have a moral lesson that I wanted the antagonist (audience, society, world) to take to heart. Stories also created ways for me to convey my emotions without doing so explicitly. I could focus on other characters and their wrongdoings and allow the audience to assume how I felt about those actions through my portrayal of the characters.
Ironically, or more like purposefully, in “Crutches,” the poem I performed on final stage, my coach challenged me to direct my pronouns at their targets (e. g. “Most of the time you’re (they’re) oblivious/The only thing worse than my conspicuous invisibility is your (their) 20/20 blindness…). “Who is “they?” she would ask me. Talk to whomever you’re addressing this to.” I could no longer diffuse my feelings through characters or pronouns.
The Urban Word NYC director once called me “the Queen of the metaphor.” I wrote poems about breakfast to talk about the effects of racial discrimination and simulated my identity as a crutch to talk about my life as a disabled person, among other things. And I admit, I love metaphor. Mostly, I love discovering the ways in which objects that people may think are completely different can be amazingly alike. It’s like a writer/nerd challenge to me.
Still, on a deeper level, I can hide behind a metaphor like nobody’s business. For example, instead of saying, “I’m tired of being taken advantage of. It hurts,” I’ll say, “Like a kettle, I lay in the fire/Rationalizing your actions as attempts to purify my contents/But patience gives way to realization somewhere around 100 degrees Celsius/And I just burn.” The latter may be more “poetic,” but sometimes honesty can be the most beautiful literary element of them all.
My spoken word experience taught me the beauty of my truth, sometimes in all of its ugliness. I think even the practice of having to perform in front of an audience was important because it forced me to really listen to my own words, to feel and confront my own sentiments. It taught me that even in the midst of striving for outward excellence, there is value in analyzing and expressing what’s on the inside.
What’s on the inside doesn’t have to be drama or turmoil. It can just be real. It can be as simple as “I’m sad,” “You hurt me,” or “I love you.” I learned that you can’t truly live your life to the fullest until and unless you introduce yourself to yourself and introduce yourself to others, when necessary. As we BNV poets like to say…”go in, and get free.” A song on the new SWV album says, “Never been the frontin’ type, cuz I believe, what you put out is what you will receive…,” and that’s exactly it.
Just as poetry helped introduce me to myself, it also helped me to realize that many people never get the opportunity to truly meet themselves. Thankfully, my BNV experience did not just make me more open in my art; it made me a more open person. I understood that although I had always been one to speak my mind, it is equally as important to be able to speak my heart. Yet, as I continue to learn the importance of this, I keep running into people who seem to still struggle to do either one.
I might not have liked to reveal my feelings to others in my work or in public, but I always knew how I felt, even if I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it. Many people just don’t even take the time to talk to themselves, but there is value in being able to say “I feel___ or even, “this upset me because____,” because so often when we say other things to people, that’s what we’re really saying. There would be less resentment and fewer Twitter battles and online faux personalities if we all just learned how to say what we feel to one another and work through it.
So I’m grateful for my BNV experience for showing me what it means to truly speak in a world where so many people have mastered the art of talking loud and saying nothing.