A poem about poetry

How my grandfather inspired me to be a poet

All the dinner plates have finished clanking. The spoons and forks have been put to rest in their drawers. The red coils on the stovetop have faded to black.

With full bellies, the adults rest with hands on heads. Their murmuring can be heard from the TV room, where the kids sit and watch cartoons. I am one of those kids.

The voices then hush.

My grandfather clears his throat and out comes a poem he read when he was a boy. Not a pause out of place or a word misspoken.

I hear my uncles and aunts and parents lean in toward his voice. Their wooden chairs creak under the shifting weight.

The cartoons somehow seem muted. I tell my cousins to quiet down.

His voice is powerful and reverent. It hangs and spins round the ceiling fan.

I wanted to be so captivating. I wanted to draw people in. I wanted to say something that changed people’s day. Something that changed their mind. Something that changed their life.

Fast forward to grade school. I am given an assignment to write a poem. I write one about the difference between a boy who grew up with white privilege and a black boy who is cast aside. For the first time, I discovered my words could have power. I learned they could be shocking and cutting especially if they were true.

Now it’s middle school and the assignment is to create a book of your own poetry. I am struggling with what to write. I ask a friend for help and he says to come over to his house on the bus, so I forge my mom’s signature (a regular middle school occurance) on a note.

My friend helps me write a poem about Muhammad Ali. The one true fighter Muhammd Ali, float like a butterfly sting like a bee, was the first line. I learned that words can be slick and fluid and fly off the tongue like poisoned darts.

In high school, I started writing raps. The leaves turn to gold and everything you say fits within the mold. Are you who you say you are or did you buy that car to be someone that you’re not. Hoping you don’t get caught in all the lies that you speak that suppress the weak and strangle their anger into something that’s meak. Let’s speak of all the conforming that you do. A fake sense of true that blinds what’s really you.

I learned about memorization and the impact your poem can have when you’re able to spit it like drive by bullets outside of a casino.

With college came creative writing classes and lectures on poetic forms. I learned that adhering to a form doesn’t limit freedom, it can simply refine it.

My poetry teacher looked the part — a beard down to his chest and earthy-toned clothes. He was a great teacher because he pushed us to create and to learn about poetry.

I hated the stuff I produced in his class. Hated it with a passion. I learned that sometimes you have to struggle before you can create something you love.

As Ira Glass would put it, I had all of the taste and little of the talent.

When I first moved to Cincinnati, I played a lot of open mics in bars. I invited my friends out to watch me one night and as I was playing, a string broke. I took my strap off my guitar and was going to sit back down in the crowd when my friend Bevan shouted, “do one of your poems!” Afraid of looking afraid to perform a poem, I stepped up to the mic and delivered my first public spoken word piece.

I’ve been called a creative dude, maybe more appropriately I’m just not scared to create. Could that be all that separates us? Fear and boldness in the face of it. Insecurity and the willingness to let God replace it. All of it. Call it what you will, I’m just not backing down from challenges. Less that challenge is wearing a skirt. Then you’ll probably see me running with my tail between my legs. Saying something catchy about coffee dates. Like ‘Yo girl! I’m trying to find my coffee mate.

I learned a whole bunch of things from that night. One thing was to hold on to compliments dearly. A black man the size of a refrigerator (he was not refridgerator Perry) grabbed my hand and said, “Your poem was the shit, my brotha!” A young FH (that’s fly honey) came up to me and said, “Your voice sounds real nice,” and then she leaned in and whispered, “and the poem was sexy.”

I think all a man needs is to be told once that what he is doing is sexy and he’ll be hooked.

On top of that and some other real cool feedback, I won the open mic’s prize. Sure it was only 20 bucks, but now I could pay for my bar tab and have ten bucks left. It was the first time I got paid for a poem I wrote.

I started to perform weekly at a poetry open mic. People there praised me for always having my stuff memorized. My grandpa and I share a bond that way.

I got asked to perform at a youth conference at a nearby church. I acted like I had been performing poetry for 10 years, when it was more like 10 days. Literally. I wrote and memorized a piece on the fracture in the heavens between God and the devil and about how pride puts the “I” in sin. That means myself is at the center and only I come in. All other matters take a backseat to my pride. You want a piece of me? Then take a number and step aside. We only feel better when we feel like were better than. Our popularity and our status consumes us. And while our ego’s balloon up, it’s only in ourselves we can trust.

I met this guy John Michael who did the spoken word stuff with me at the conference. We went back and forth for the verses of a larger poem that we co-wrote. I learned the people you meet while you’re doing what you love, are frequently fast friends.

The rapper Propaganda is one of my spoken word heroes. Since I was a kid, I have thought that christian rap was missing a grittiness and a fire. I felt like he came with that.

He posted a spoken word challenge online to all of his followers. The challenge was to create a thank you poem for all the people in your life that have helped you succeed. I found out about it on a friday. On Saturday I wrote the poem and on sunday, I memorized it and had my friend record it with a video camera.

It was a really quick turn around.

I got to thank a lot of people that inspire me and build me up. I got to tell a lot of them what they mean to me. I suggest you do something similar. It can be a video. It can be a letter. Put your heart into it and see what happens when you tell folks their worth in your eyes.

I have now performed at house shows and Easter Sunday services too. It is all because of my grandfather and his love for poetry.

“Your mind is a muscle,” he would say. “You have to exercise it daily.”