Breath, Body, and the Living Poem
“…The audience is usually made up of young people, which means that this is not a custom that is dying out— as prophets of the end of poetry maintain—but a living tradition, one that is being taken up and renewed” Octavio Paz
The living tradition that Octavio Paz wrote about is not the act of reading the poem a loud from a page or reciting what you have memorized, but rather the unity of poet and poem, an utterance from the soul of the author. A poetic message birthed in necessity and resistance. A spiritual moment of spontaneity that connects the artist with the audience, in which the higher-self of the artist is alive far from the limitations of mortality that flaw the consciousness of the lower-self.
Nowhere has the art of the oral poem been more cultivated over the last twenty-five years than the poetry slam. Two very important factors have really fostered this development. First, the fact that poets are under a time limit of three minutes creates a sense of urgency pushing the poet to evoke not only a clarity of their work, but also a desired response of that work from the audience. Second, the heightened sensory elements of competition give poets a chance to live in the space given. A packed room containing a boisterous audience, especially when placed in a national competition, generates an aura of energy that permeates every surface of the venue.
The poet must harness the energy swirling through the crowd. They must focus the energy that the onlookers not only give, but also receive from the poet and their work. The ability to feel the energy of the space and to have awareness of the give and take of that energy is of paramount importance to the poet. A live body exists within the internal happenings, but also the external circumstances.
The breath (living moment) of the poem must have a body balanced in between, an open valve, a conduit that carries the conviction of the art. When done correctly the poem is an effortless communication, from the beginning of the motion it is fluid and natural. This living moment of spontaneous creation is what I call the breath of the poem. This developing delivery from the whole of oneself is the voice of our modern times.
In all its incarnations—high school slams, collegiate slams, or in the adult venues—you will find on the slam’s local, regional, and national stages, poets have pushed the boundaries of communication and breath. The slam community is discovering ways of delivering the poem from the core of the body beyond the inanimate limitations of the page; and by so doing constructing works that culminate in a unity at its highest expressions between the audience, the poet, and the poem.
A fluid movement of energy, in which, the eternal act of creation becomes a living entity of the mortal instant. The present becomes the fragile thread binding the poem’s breath. The artist, disconnected from the lower self, appears to be a conduit more than a source. Even in the silence of the poem, a harmony of energies exists filling the air around the poet.
To experience, a poet who reads the meter of their poem or the cadence of the syllables as the focal point of delivery is often flat and without emotion. In that thinking, the form is more important than the breath of the poem. As if, the boundaries of their creativity are the two-dimensional confines of white space. These poets deny the natural home of the poem, the body. Even worse if their own work is not an ingested expression; this often will leave the audience feeling like this is the first time the poet has ever seen the poem. Why would an artist expend so much care and energy to create a work, if they do not intend to put care and energy to the re-creation of that work?
A poet should be natural and fluid on the stage. That transcendent moment is where the higher self of the artist is the vehicle for the art that is being received by those it touches. There are two ways of receiving or acknowledging something as truth—with your head and with your heart. Art has the possibility to stir one or none of these receptors. At its highest level, art can cause one to awaken the other creating enlightenment for whoever is receiving the art. The live performance of the poem not only offers this transcendent moment for the audience, but also for the poet. This only occurs if the breath of the poem is fluid, natural, and located firmly within the poet’s body.
I can best describe what slam poets search for in the coming together of the craft of writing and craft of performance to where the body and the poem are one— seemingly outside the constraints of time, living in a present moment, an unrepeatable movement of time where the magical becomes possible. A genuine soulful utterance brought to life from the truest part of the artist.
In other words, the poem is alive. To create a living thing, not just the mere audible sounds of words spoken in real time, one must be one grounded in the body. All art is spiritual in nature, to think of your writing in lesser terms, I feel, speaks to the lower self. While the human artist is very flawed, the energy of creation that uses the artist is flawless. When an artist can tap into this energy and connect with the higher self, the poem ceases to be limited.
Jason C. Carney
What America needs is an Honest Conversation
In December 1988, Judge Jack Hampton, when asked why he gave a lenient sentence to the convicted killer of two gay men, Tommy Trimble and Johnny Griffin, in May near the Oaklawn section of Dallas, Texas, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I equate the killing of homosexuals to that of a prostitute. I would never sentence anyone to life in jail for killing a prostitute” (NY Times).
William Waybourn, then President of the Dallas Gay Alliance, stated in that same article how violence against gay men was a common activity for high school aged boys in Dallas, Texas (NY Times). Mr. Waybourn was right, violence against homosexuals is common place for high school age boys in Dallas, Texas. More importantly, these crimes and statistics are not limited to the near or distant past. In 2012, there were 44 reported Hate Crimes in Dallas and Tarrant Counties.
I knew the boys that participated in the killing of Trimble and Griffin. We went to school together. I too have committed hate crimes in Dallas, Texas. My name is Jason Carney, I am a poet, educator, and activist. My big idea is that America needs to have an honest conversation with itself.
In July 1988, I was placed in a Psychiatric Hospital on the other of this city. My roommate a gay man, who could have hated me for everything I encompassed. He extended to me a simple act of kindness, which changed my world (Carney 158). He showed me, as our friendship developed, how poetry could redefine my world, how this moment was a starting point.
I learned how inventory and writing could redefine my ideas and beliefs, so that I might have some knowledge of self instead of a prayer outside of myself. Beliefs are outside of us, someone else’s prayer. Faith is inside you, faith is knowledge and truth. Patrick helped me to find the questions that led to truthful answers; like how I equated homosexuality to what my father did to me. How I equated gay with sex, more specifically rape and molestation (Carney 162). He helped me to see how the love between two men is no different from the love between a man and a woman; that the emotional bond is a guiding force in any healthy relationship. This was the gift he gave to me. It allowed me to begin to have an honest conversation with myself through poetry.
Through poetry, I saw the truth of how we learn about white culture. I realized that racial slurs had been a part of my rhetoric since I was four or five years old. I discovered that we are not born with hate, like language this skill is taught to us—through laughter and love, stories and anecdotes, passed down generation to generation. I learned that we can inherit not only the greatness of our ancestors, but also their flaws. History repeats itself, when we refuse to learn.
Now, my Papaw was a good man, taught me a lot about life. How to really love a woman; how to be accountable to your family; sacrifice; determination. Yet he also referred to every black man he ever saw or met, other than Hank Aaron or Muhammad Ali, as boy. He tore the cover off the TV Guide when Red Foxx or George Jefferson were on the cover. My family would say, He just comes from a different time.
He came from a different time. This is an excuse to keep us from acknowledging our own culpability in the re-telling of history. Our families need to have an honest conversation while raising the young.
It is true Papaw grew up in Arkansas at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, as a young man lived on a hill known for all the lynchings that took place on the slopes of the wooded meadows. My Grandmother remembers, as a girl playing in the yard on Saturday mornings, watching the horse drawn carts amble up the hill, as loved ones went to retrieve the dead. It was a different time, but not that different: James Byrd, Mathew Sheppard, the forty-three shots that killed Amadou Diallo in New York City, Travon Martin, and Michael Brown.
This is the cycle of ignorance—we are taught discrimination and bigotry as children, who grow up telling jokes on playgrounds, honing our technique until we are water-cooler comedians filling the air of our businesses, churches, and homes with an assimilated one-sided hateful history. An indifference to what happens outside our window. I am not responsible for what I was taught as a child, but I am for my actions because of it. This is what I began to understand. I have a personal accountability. Think of inheritance. We gain money, land, property, prestige and status. However, we never own the flaws. We invent rhetoric that deflects ownership and denies our inheritance: I never owned any slaves, I got lots of black friends. No different from the political correctness of today that allows for such rhetoric as tolerance. Tolerance is when you know someone is wrong, yet you allow them space anyway. Tolerance is not acceptance. Tolerance falls well short of love and is no different from other politically correct racist rhetoric—Black-on-black Crime, Black-on-white Crime. This allows us to hide the truth, we never discuss White-on-black Crime. This allows us to repeat the mistakes of the past and deny ourselves an honest understanding of who we have been.
Papaw always called me a prize-fighter; I never understood that phrase, until I started fighting with poetry. The more I read, the more I saw, the more I spoke and interacted with people in healthy conversations that challenged the status quo, the deeper my heart saw the truth of our history. A history that we sugar-coat, water-down, so that the genocide within out text-books seems patriotic. Have you ever studied The North Atlantic Trade Triangle or the Trail of Tears? Our text books need to have honest conversations, which spill over into our classrooms and the lives of our students.
Today I am a prize-fighter running a non-profit organization, Young DFW Writers. We go into high schools and educate young people to be agents of change within their community. To define themselves and their surroundings, so that the world does not define them. We use old school poetic craft mixed with new school American Poetics. In other words, we teach Robert Frost alongside LL Cool J. We build an honest conversation that cultivates the voice and desire of young people in focused artistic endeavors, so that they may break down the barriers of segregation that divide this city in which we all live. We teach honest conversations through poetry.
This poem speaks to a past which repeats itself. From the Vagrancy Laws of Post-Civil War America and the rise of the KKK, to the War on Drugs that brought us the Mandatory Sentence Crack Epidemic of the 1980’s and the resulting 800% growth rate of our prisons (CNN). From the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII to the Muslim round ups in the wake of 9/11. From the stereotyped generalizations of Mark Twain’s characters of color to Darley Ruttier and Susan Smith, White America has crafted feared caricatures of Black Men, Hispanics, and Homosexuals, blurring the lines between what is imagined and what is real. This is an honest conversation. We speak about Christian values and deny others the right to be married and openly love. We celebrate the proclamations of pilgrims, while we clamor to protect borders and cities such as El Paso, Los Cruses, and Los Angeles from the same people who founded them. We appropriate black culture and jail the black man for stealing. We segregate ourselves and preach about freedom.
My name is Jason Carney, I use poetry to change myself and the world around me. Thank you for taking part in this honest conversation.
Belkin, Lisa. “Texas Judge Eases Sentence for Killer of 2 Homosexuals.” Editorial. New York Times. NY Times, 16 Dec. 1988. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/17/us/texas-judge-eases-sentence-for-killer-of-2-homosexuals.html>.
Carney, Jason Christopher. Starve the Vulture. NYC: Akashic, 2015. Print.
Mercia, Dan, and Evan Perez. “Eric Holder Seeks to cut Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences.” CNN. CNN, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/12/politics/holder-mandatory-minimums/index.html>.
Paz, Octavio. the Other Voice. Trans. Helen Lane. N.p.: Harvest International, 1990. Print.
Epilogue – Glue
The heat rises off the pavement like a tossed away prayer; evaporating into the august Texas sun. I melt on the sidewalk with anticipation of the white Kia minivan turning the corner into terminal E; the first sight of my wife, who I have not seen in two weeks. She is always late, so much so, that I would be disappointed to find her waiting for me. Over the years, I have grown acclimatize to her standard of time; she usually runs about twenty minutes behind everyone else. Truthfully, the flaw of hers drives me crazy. Crazy has become comfortable. She blames her super creativity. I think her super creativity is a nice way of saying insanity.
Painters are seldom sane. She holds a B.F.A. in studio art with an emphasis on painting and sculpting from the University of North Texas. Her sophomore, junior, and senior year she was the featured artist in the programs spring exhibit. They recognized each of her yearly projects as outstanding works and urged her to further her education. The day she graduated was one of the proudest days of my life. It took her ten years, two births, and several fights with herself to get to walk across that stage. My favorite moment was when all the art graduates walked in front of the Professors, sitting in their black robes with green and purple sashes draped across their fronts. She was the only one the head of the art department reached out to recognize. The way his hand touched her arm, as she walked by, said thank you for not giving up. He knew her talents should not go to waste.
Watching her paint is an incredible experience for me; her hands, larger than mine, can make a three dimensional figure come to life with a brush stroke. Our home resembles art museums with every wall floating a canvass upon its skin. During the first year we were together, we did not own a television. Our time in that apartment spent with her on the floor creating school projects, designed to help her explore her developing abilities. Me on the couch writing loud aggressive poems that I could awe a bar of drunks. Now, when I look at charcoal drawings rolled up in our closet I know I would not change a thing.
December 13, 1996 was to be our only date. She had just had her heart broken; so the gay couple that she lived with at the time, Thom and Jason, had hooked her up for a one-night stand. I was to be that casual sexual experience. Just old enough to drink legally by about two weeks she was not that experienced. I would come to find out I was the fourth man she ever slept with. We flirted with each other and never said a word, across the picnic bench tables of the Barley House. They had over fifty beers and ciders on tap. She ordered the pear cider. Pears are my favorite fruit; to show her I remember the curvature of her eyes against the glass I will surprise her with pear ciders on nights when the kid’s madness makes the weeklong. Once we were in the car to go home we made out in the backseat while our gay friends drove us to happiness.
The first time I saw her I remember telling Jason how fine she was. Half Thai, from the east Texas town of Tyler, her candy apple red hair barely scraped her shoulder. The chrome half-circle septum ring in her nose reminded me of an angry bull in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Lisa and her sister popped into a poetry reading I was hosting. I spoke to her from the stage about twenty times as I made banter with the audience in between poets. She made me nervous with her large smile. When she spoke, her appearance became a conundrum. This woman with strong almond shaped eyes the color of light caramel, exactly the shade of the light brown plain M&M candies I loved as a kid, has a furious twang. She sounds as if she came right off the set of Hee-Haw, especially when she talks on the phone; putting a southern giggle at the end of every line, she speaks. The perfect punctuation.
Tyler, Texas unfolds in her mannerisms, a large rural town that has more Baptist churches than fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations put together. The white conservatism that exudes from the smiles of four wheel drive Ford trucks and the gun racks that protect them, never let her forget where she came from. There was only one other Asian family living in the area at the time. They owned the Chinese food place and everyone assumed that was her family. Her father is white. A successful executives in town; his family has prospered there for generations.
At night when we lay cuddled in each other’s secrets. She speaks of her grandmother. How her love never treated her as different. They walked through the department store where women smiled with respect and called her by name. Her grandmother made her feel like she was from Texas, not a foreign land where she did not speak the language. Her picture watches over our living room and every time Lisa looks at the gold frame painting on a rectangular glass, I can feel her breath caress a young girl’s contentment.
Before she died, we drove down on weekends so that our daughter received the life experience of this wonderful woman around her. Confined to a wheelchair and barely able to keep her wits about her some days, she never saw guests without her hair and makeup done. She always properly attired. Her face light up like a little girl at Christmas when Lisa entered the room. They sat and talked the entire afternoons we were there. Olivia perched on her lap she reminisced over her life in grand smiles and laughing eyes. A proper woman, who never uttered a sideways word about anyone. Lisa lives to her example.
Over the years, my wife has not changed much, still that Texas girl. Only the hair is longer, back to its natural darkness, and the nose ring has long since vanished. When her hands create my being still fills with possibility.
She holds a height that folds her head against my heart whether we are standing or curled up on the couch. She is the greatest believer in this white trash poet, who has struggled to fight ignorance as if it was a sixteen-syllable word.
Even when I traded my pen for a crack pipe, she never waffled. Lisa packed my kids into the car, she left me homeless on the front porch of the house we bought, I had smoked away. She was strong enough to say, “When you are done dying I will return.”
We both come from divorced marriages and step parent resentments. The idea of achieving something denied to us both as children is the bond that holds our flirtations to this day. Our home is full of laughter our children never go without hugs and verbal accolades for their accomplishments. We eat around a dinner table ingesting each other’s lives. She packs school lunches every morning and places a note within each bag. She saves all of them in a plain brown lunch sack stuck high in the cabinet. When everyone is asleep and I have doubts about my poems and direction in my life, scared that I might waiver, I read them. I cherish the notes simple act of love. She heals the little boy broken within me. She is the glue that holds together our family. My wife is the most loyal person I have ever known, at my side since that car wreck a few years ago, the night I stopped killing myself. The past couple of years a real struggle, my family left in the aftermath of my ruin. I hold onto the lesson of Ernest and Bill, I dream of sitting at a wealthy table. I celebrate my mother by being a good and decent man. We are on the right path.
I franticly scan the bend of the entrance to the terminal for my chance to believe again to appear. As the van slows, her eyes speak to mine. To her I am a prizefighter; someone who will never give up. I want to be a simple man— a father worthy of the name dad. Our relationship began as a night of sexual chance for both of us; has blossomed into that thing I think my great grandparents had. We are only thirty-six years away from fifty. I look forward to finding out; blessed with love and freedom of our hearts, there is nothing better than doing what you love supported by the people who love you. Time cannot contain us.
Be the change you want to see in the world. —Gandhi
This is a simple exercise that builds individuals ties within their own neighborhood and community. This is a great thing to do with your kids.
Look outside around the neighborhood where you live. Notice the first five things that need to be improved, cleaned, fixed. Pick one of those things, then set a course of action to get that thing you have chosen either improved, cleaned, or fixed. Can you do it by yourself? How many other people do you need to accomplish this task? What steps are needed to accomplish this task? What is the outcome you hope to achieve? Do you need permits or permissions to do this project? Think this though to completion, be organized in your efforts, and have a purpose of helping others with this outcome. Even the smallest tasks can create positive change in the world around you. Best of luck.
Civic duty is absolutely a requirement of freedom.
I thought today I would post a poem. enjoy.
After American painter Ivan Aldridge
This razor is for you. A sterile tongue longs for wetness,
I am only able to consecrate myself with its shine.
Behold me. I vertical my veins, you rejoice
with slumber, vulgar boy who cannot perspire. What wicked song
like heaven can you thrust from your gut? What poison
ingested with laughter?
I crave you in the silent spaces of my anguish. I carry misfortune
over my bones to hide the scars of your resurrection. My hair,
a bundle of thorn, the songs of seraphs cannot nest
in its bark. Behold me When you gaze
into the mirror, I cannot be a liar. I am a luxurious burden.
Call me your lover , crawl inside my grave.