At age fifteen, I made the decision, completely of my own accord, to move halfway across the world from my home in Accra, Ghana to Interlochen, Michigan so that I could attend boarding school and learn to be a writer.
Yet, still, three years down the line, I had to be told that I was a poet. Sure, I knew that I wrote poems, I even knew that some of them were pretty good, but to me, a poet was something larger than that, something otherworldly and infinitely wise that I could only ever hope to become after years of turmoil, some kind of Southeast Asian religious epiphany, at least one mutually-abusive romantic relationship, and lots of hard drinking.
But when I was named a YoungArts finalist in poetry and then, later that same year, a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts in poetry, reality intruded, and I was forced to give up my romanticism in favor of convenience.
Recently, after a performance with YoungArts in Los Angeles, in which I performed one of a series of poems that revolved around black women and the complex relationship we have with our hair, I was introduced to someone as a spoken word poet.
While they enthused about the authenticity of my poem and my presence on stage, I was struck completely dumb. “Hold on,” I thought. “I just barely reconciled myself with being a Jr. Deputy Poet in Training. How did I become a spoken word artist? Can you even become a spoken word artist without trying?” And then of course, came the perennial paranoid knee-jerk reaction familiar to many “Is this only happening to me because I’m Black?”
So, once again, I was suffering from an artistic identity crisis. I did not know how I felt about inadvertently becoming a spoken word artist mostly because I have mixed feelings about spoken word in general. Part of me, the part that used to watch YouTube clips of old Def Jam Poetry Slam almost every Sunday with my junior year roommate, was caught up in the energy of it all; this was where poetry, rap, and stand-up comedy met, where it was okay to be a clever smartass but it was also expected that you bring something visceral to the table.
I identified with these shamans of poetry because I knew that feeling of living in your own words, of occupying the space between original experience and artful retelling, of poetry made tangible like a stone in the mouth. These artists were to me as trickster figures, like Ananse in West African fables or Kokopelli of the Native American tradition.
On the other hand, I had been on the receiving end of far too much bad spoken word (too much screaming, too much ebonics, too much rancor). I recoiled from this side because, honestly, I don’t like writing about being black. To me, my race is just something about me, it does not define who I am and there is nothing less interesting than a group of black people getting together to talk about how black they are, especially if it’s under the guise of art. The bad side of spoken word was to me, nothing but the shrill cry of self-absorption, the poetry of Etheridge Knight without the finesse, without the swag; I had no interest in being a part of that.
So I am left in a poetic limbo; defined once again by the outside and not knowing how or being unwilling to find my own definition. What I do know is this; I don’t consider a poem properly recited unless it is conjured, unless I get to the end of a line and I am left gasping, realizing I’ve forgotten to breathe for three stanzas, unless it is spoken from memory with my eyes closed, my hands reaching out to find their way towards the light.