I am an auditory person. When I meet someone, the first thing I notice is the musicality of their voice––how they let the taste of a word linger on their tongue or send sentences flying into the ether. Breath. Intonation. Word choice. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is close my eyes and listen.
In my sophomore year at Harvard I took a kick-ass course with Prof. Robin Bernstein called “Race, Gender, and Performance.” This course introduced me to the work of Anna Deavere Smith, an actress, playwright, and professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts whose art inspires my own. Back in the 1980s, Deavere Smith began interviewing and recording stories from people across the United States. Then, using the exact wording of the recordings, she translated those interviews into performance pieces. In her TED Talk, Deavere Smith outlines her creative processes and performs excerpts from her solo show “On the Road: A Search for American Character.”
So my grandfather told me when I was a little girl, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” And having grown up in a segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, I sort of use that idea to go around America with a tape recorder — thank God for technology — to interview people, thinking that if I walked in their words — which is also why I don’t wear shoes when I perform — if I walked in their words, that I could sort of absorb America. I was also inspired by Walt Whitman, who wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him.
Everything I do is word for word off a tape. And I title things because I think people speak in organic poems.
— Anna Deavere Smith (full transcript here)
“If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” We are, in other words, made of the words we give breath to––the very sentences we speak into existence. The interplay between language and identity is at the core of the questions I want to ask of poetry. How do poetry and storytelling intersect?
I started to explore this question in my senior thesis, a book-length work of poems entitled There Are No Straight Lines. In August 2013 I biked 800 miles from Memphis, Tennessee to Venice, Louisiana following the Mississippi River Trail. Along the way I collected fifty hours of stories from the people I met who call the Mississippi riverbanks their home. At times, a single word or phrase sparked a poem. In other cases, I deferred to lengthy transcriptions to capture the rhythm of a storyteller’s speech. I love working with the raw material of others’ words––it has proved to be a river of inspiration. In the words of Anna Deavere Smith, “people speak in organic poems.” Where there are people telling stories, there is organic poetry.
(Poetry lives elsewhere, too, but it is the people side of poems that I am most interested in.)
But my time spent playing with these questions is far from done. By listening carefully and making audio recordings of the voices I hear about water-based climate change on this year-long trip, I hope that I can, as Deavere Smith does, “walk in their words”––let the voices I hear guide my writing.
So, readers: I’m curious. What questions are motivating your own work and play? What questions do you want to ask of the world? How do these questions resurface in your own stories? Do you have any favorite poems that tell a story?
I want to leave you with this wonderful comic on questions, A DAY AT THE PARK, by Kostas Kiriakakis. The whole thing is worth a read.
“I would never trade a question for an answer.” –– Kostas Kiriakakis