Literary Criticism

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To write is to speak. To read is to listen.

I was crammed into a corner of a packed room at one of the weekly poetry open mic hot spots in DC at the time. This was a ritual, the seven day wait to share verse selected as meticulously as the boho-chic or hip hop fashions. Folk who were never punctual for anything else were, not only on time, but early for this because the list was first come, first serve. All the usual suspects were there, a finger or post-it pressed into the page they hoped would bring the house down.

This night was post-Love Jones, a film many veteran poets may have enjoyed more had it not sparked the end of an era. The purists who had built the poetry scene in our town, long before Darius parlayed a poem into breakfast for Nina; the reign of true wordsmiths who made open mics THE place to be but loved a workshop even more than a stage–and you might wanna check yourself at the former before you wreck yourself at the latter–suddenly had to contend with a new wave of folk who had come to poetry by way of the big screen instead of the griot or the page.

Any recollection, or opinion, I have of the film itself (other than its kick-ass score with that killer Dionne Farris track) is blocked by the fact that it darkened the sky and landed like a plague upon what was such a beautiful house. For weeks after its premiere, the post-reading conversation among those I like to think of as the indigenous poets, was a chorus of moody blues about “fucking Love Jones.” Hollywood had made poetry “hot.”  It felt like, overnight, open mics went from organic to processed GMO. A feast of undisciplined verse and contrived cadences, our beloved readings became less of a place to listen as to be seen and heard.

But how can you be heard if no one is really listening?…

That night crammed in the corner, I had no intention of reading. I had heard there would be a rare feature, a prolific writer whose work I had learned about from the O.Gs of the aforementioned poetry vanguard I so admired. It was no surprise the place was packed. I figured everyone was there to catch a glimpse of his greatness, until the host started to read the introduction. “There will be no open mic tonight, as we are blessed to give the whole floor to a surprise visit from the iconic poet…” A massive chorus of groans ensued, so loud you couldn’t even hear the brother’s name as he was called to the stage. Instead of applause, he was greeted with screeches of sneakers, mumbled profanity and eye rolls as a good portion of the room rose in exodus. “This some bullshit! How you gon’ close the mic at an open mic?”

Within moments, I was able to trade my spot in the corner for a front row seat. It was a mind blowing reading and the last night I would attend this particular event.

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.

When I was in grad school, we were required to write scores of critical essays in response to published works, an activity loathed and bemoaned by many. The common complaint was it wasted time that could better be spent writing one’s own work, but I dug it. It grew my skill and vocabulary to not only dissect a piece, but articulate my response in ways that far exceeded if I “liked it or not.” It allowed me to fully engage with a text either way, and revel in the “why” far beyond the “what.” If I disagreed, I could be specific about it, but also leave room to appreciate what may be working in terms of craft if not content. If I loved the text, I could surrender without getting lost in it.  For me, it had little to do with cleaving myself to academia. Doing this in writing meant I could take to the page everything I had learned and loved in those workshops with the O.Gs. The impressions they left on me guided my pen and I could hear them in my head as I stated my case in spaces where no faces looked like mine. It made my academic experience more familiar, to wander those hallowed hieroglyphic halls of what used to be.

Thanks to this evolution of my critical eye, with each text I became clearer about things I wanted to experiment with (or avoid) in my own work. Whether I liked the piece or not, the focus was on listening with a keen ear to what the writer attempted to communicate, and whether it was well done or not. That moment is all about them, not me, also an important exercise in a field that is often more focused inward than out. This ability has transcended academia to serve me well not only when confronting texts, but also people, in both pleasant conversation and heated debate.

When I think of literary criticism, I think of that night in DC. How quickly that room emptied. How the exit of those so hungry to speak instead of listen, made room for me to sit instead of stand. And end up in the small crew of folks who piled into a booth at Ben’s Chili Bowl afterward, to trade stories and laughter into the wee hours, with a brilliant poet.

Click here to watch The Many Uses of Poetry: A Conversation with Ravi Shankar, Lisa Pegram and Paul Corrigan