Performance Poetry by Eva Whitney

Between the two introductory weeks of Creative Writing where we swam, visited museums, attended readings and got to know each other better, and our Fall show, there is an empty period of time. During my past two years in the department, we have filled these weeks with Spoken Word and Experimental Fiction lessons in which we were introduced to niche genres of writing. Both lessons were fulfilling and gave me a new perspective to incorporate into my writing for the following months. This year, we had a Performance Poetry unit taught by Taylor Duckett, a local spoken word artist and MFA student. With our daily practice of writing to music and analyzing lyrics, she introduced the idea that popular music can have literary qualities and that words on a page can have musicality.

The class compiled a playlist with each of our favorite songs. From “Wigwam” by Bob Dylan to “Feel it All Around” by Washed Out, there was great variation in the choices. For the length of the song, we would all write in response to the music. In the beginning, I found it challenging to write in conversation with the song, especially songs I had never heard before. I soon realized that the only way to learn how to mimic rhythm in a piece of writing is through practice. By the last prompt, it felt more natural to write to music than to write in silence. I found it interesting to watch what came to while writing based off of what I was listening to. This is an example of a prompt I wrote in response to “In the Kingdom” by Mazzy Star, a song complete with an organ introduction, a swinging guitar melody, drums, electric guitar solos, and a mellow female vocalist:

In Hawaii, the whole island grows dark at night. People sleep with the sun, the animals too. Streets, unlittered with lampposts, are wide and welcoming for the late-night bikers. On the beaches, small crabs glow and the moon, like a stadium light, illuminates the sand. If you want to stay awake, you have to go to the beach. The water turns gelatinous, and the fish hold their position until dawn. Once, I tried to swim in the water at night, but it would not accept me. I wish I was one of those Hawaiian sea creatures, cradled nightly by the sea.

In addition to writing to music, Taylor taught us about our writing as music. We had various assignments in which we would write poetry to a beat. I noticed how, with the knowledge that the piece would be set to music, my content changed. I no longer tried to create a narrative but chose words that sounded nice together, typically ending lines in a rhyme. My group and I created a ridiculous rap that would have read awfully on the page, but, set to a beat, had a good flow. I realized how difficult it is to write music that both sounds good and reads well on the page, and now understand why most musicians prioritize rhythm over meaning.

The performance poetry unit introduced me to the importance of rhythm in writing. Even if the meter is subtle, the innate pleasure one finds in a beat will improve their experience as a listener and add a foundation the piece. As we prepare for the upcoming Fall show, I find myself returning to the lessons Taylor taught us about reading to an imaginary beat, and how to attract the audience by doing so.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

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