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

Writing to Music by Xuan Ly

Last Wednesday marked CW’s last day with artist in residence, Taylor Duckett. For the last two weeks, Taylor taught us the foundations for performance poetry. In the unit, we differentiated a storyteller from a music artist and analyzed what being a storyteller meant; we wrote and performed pieces written to a sixteen beat, and compared a line of poetry to a measure of music. As these lesson changed each day, one aspect would stay the same: the free-writes.

At the beginning of the unit, Taylor asked each student for one song in order to compile a class playlist that we would listen to for each free-write. Every day to start class, end break, and end class, Taylor would play one of our songs for us to respond to. Her challenge for us was to keep our pen moving for the entire song. Which is difficult when I am trying to jam to a song that I have not heard before, or trying to make out lyrics on the first listen.

Taylor’s hope was that we incorporate what we hear into our writing. For each song, maybe we would use the song’s beat in our piece, maybe sample a few lyrics, or respond to how the song made us feel. Typically, when I listen to music, I am reminded of the events surrounding the first time I heard the song, but what happens when I hear the song for the first time? With a pen in hand and paper in front of me, I found that, for me, I am transported back to a time that resembles the mood of the song.

Oftentimes, listening to a certain song on the list brought up a memory that I had not stopped to think of since. For example, the song “Handle With Care” by The Traveling Wilburys reminded me of when my brother and I would go on bike rides to a school near our house during the summer. I found that music can evoke emotion by relating to its audience with parts like the beat or lyrics. The ability for music to bring up instances from the past is something I found fascinating.

While I was able to enjoy the music and relive, mostly happy, memories that the songs brought back to life, it was difficult for me to write a creative response to the song. I felt that I was too focused on listening to the song, or trying to uncover more details of a memory that the song evoked rather than allowing the song to aid my creative writing.

Everything that Taylor taught during her performance poetry unit were things that I had not attempted or observed before. Her lesson also prepared us for our upcoming showcase.

CW Performance Poetry Playlist

  1. I’m Not in Love – 10cc
  2. And the Waltz Goes On – Andre Rieu
  3. Millionaire – Kelis
  4. In the Kingdom – Mazzy Star
  5. Wigwam – Bob Dylan
  6. Cassiopeia – Joanna Newsom
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. Moody’s Mood for Love – Tito Puente
  9. Heavenly Father – Isaiah Rashad
  10. Every Planet We Reach is Dead – Gorillaz
  11. Will of the Wisp – Miles Davis
  12. Thinning – Snail Mail
  13. Feel It All Around – Washed Out
  14. Pienso En Mira – Rosalia
  15. Fireworks – Animal Collective
  16. Transit – Fennesz
  17. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
  18. Handle with Care – The Traveling Wilburys
  19. Lonely Girl – Oceanlab
  20. Mythological Beauty – Big Thief
  21. Pool – Tricot
  22. He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat) – Jill Scott
  23. Wham Bam Shang-a-lang – Silver
  24. Fancy Shoes – The Walters
  25. Come Together – Beatles
  26. Powerlines – Riz La Vie
  27. No Other Plans – Sunny Levine
  28. Graceland – Paul Simon
  29. Hear You Me – Jimmy Eat World

Xuan Ly, Class of 2021

Creative Writing Butterflies by Solange Baker

With our first show of the year coming up, this week has been a rush of preparing and excitement. As I am a freshman, this is my first show in creative writing. During my eighth grade year, I came to “Rebel Rebel”, the fall showcase last year. To put it simply, it was one of the best shows that I’ve been to. It’s interesting though, to know see the mechanics and behind the scenes of the making a writing show.

Putting on a performance takes a lot of work. I’ve been in enough plays and such to know this, but this is a new experience for me. There’s a certain feeling of nervousness that comes with reading your work that’s different than being in a play. Writing is very personal and difficult to share. So of course we all get nervous about the show. But the community that we’ve built makes it easier. We’re definitely one of the top three most close knit departments. It’s nice to be able to walk up to someone who’s older than you and have them help edit a piece or get rid of jitters without feeling too intimidated.

Everyday this week we stay from 1:10 to 5 (sometimes later) rehearsing. We have the theater for a week. So while the first act is practicing on stage , the second is outside practicing by themselves. The more I revise my piece the more I stand on that dusty black stage, the more real this seems. It’s weird knowing people who performed in a show that you loved. It’s like meeting a celebrity, being starstruck at first, and then getting to know them and forgetting about that feeling like they were godly. In a way it’s even weirder seeing my fellow C-dubs in rehearsal. They’re all incredibly talented and it makes me proud in a happy way to be part of their creative writing family. I can’t help but wonder if someone in the audience will feel the same start-struck  feeling I did– that I do. All I can hope is that as I walk onto the stage, shaking and nervous, that someone in the audience will feel inspired, changed at least for a moment. But in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Rehearsal Week by Emma Bernstein

We’re in the SOTA theater, sprawled out over the seats with the house-lights on. Somebody reads their piece on stage. Heather and Isaiah give feedback. I fidget, stare up at the blinding overhead lights. Tuck my hair behind my ear. Untuck it. Wiggle my toes and refocus my attention on the stage. Someone (anyone) is reading and I’ve heard their piece enough times already that I know what they’re going to say a second before they say it. I think about my own piece, look down at the crumpled paper in my lap, at the words that have begun to lose meaning with all the times I’ve said them. 

This is rehearsal week. It’s long, mundane, and exhausting no matter how much coffee I drink, but I am aware, even as I drift off and am jolted awake again by a crash backstage, of how precious this time is to me. I will remember this rehearsal week as I remember all others before it, as the kind of anxious monotony that is enjoyable only when it’s over, and when Friday rolls around and we go on stage to share our work with friends and family, I know I will be excited as I was my Freshman year of high school. 

Emma Berenstein, class of 2017

Writing Is— by Harmony Wicker

Writing is a wonderful, yet solitary art. Unlike ballet, opera, or any other performance-based art, you don’t need to train with others to hone your craft. In fact, one tends to learn more through reading established authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Isabel Allende, Stephenie Meyer, and so on. And, unless you want feedback, or planning on becoming the next J.K Rowling, you can write your entire life without having a single human being read your work. While all of this is true, none of it means that writing is not meant to be performed.

When our department began preparing for our first Creative Writing Show of the year I came to understand why writing is a performance-based art in its own right. At the time, the reality of having to read my work in front of an audience terrified me. I felt that my work would not be understood by the audience or worse yet, writers in my own department. I was wrong. We came together as a department, searched each other’s work for deeper meaning, and broke down walls of fear. During this time I was connected to everyone and understood why writing should be performed.  

Writers are storytellers, whether it be through poetry, fiction, or playwriting. As storytellers, writers have the ability to create familiar experiences, bring joy to experiences that are unfamiliar, and help connect people to each other through their words. When my name was called and I stepped onto the stage, I was connected to my story, my vision, and my passion. My passion, in turn, brought life to my performance and gave life to my audience and connected everyone to each other.

Harmony Wicker, class of 2018

 

Creative Writing Shows by Colin Yap

This week Creative Writing will put on our first show of the school year on the mainstage of SOTA: It’s Personal. It will be the very first show for ten of the twenty-six C-Dubs, an inaugural night. For the first time they will walk silently up to the microphone, adjust it to their height as the stage lights strand them on an island of brightness in a dark room, and read aloud the words that are theirs, solely theirs, as their heads fill with the sound of rapid heartbeats. For me and my seniors, however, this is the beginning of the end. The inevitability of a last show, the last time we take the stage at SOTA, is fast approaching.

Three years of doing shows, of presenting myself and my work in an intensely individual way, has changed the way I think about my work. For most of us, I think the shows begin as a non-voluntary activity. We don’t fight it, but we don’t see the presentation as ideal. When I began thinking seriously about writing, and the necessary narcissism of wanting to be listened to, I imagined my presentation a little differently. My ideal was quiet and reserved, my words appearing between the covers of a book, the only personal identification the postage-stamp sized picture of me on the inside of the dust cover. It was to be perfect in its impersonality, and the intimacy would come from the words themselves, and their own weight.

My first CW show was 2012’s The Nature of Offense, where I read a long, prosaic poem about Chinatown, what I then considered my crown jewel. I was a bit delusional about this, of course, but it was one of the only pieces I had written until that moment that felt original, a unique response to the world. I was convinced in that period that my work was supposed to be journalistic and artistic; that “my art” was supposed to be about meeting my words to reality.

The poem was about four bodies, three of them walking, talking, and moving adjacent to me in a lane in Chinatown. I was the fourth body in the lane, leaning quietly against the wall. In retrospect, the piece suffered a bit from a lack of imagination; I wrote down what I noticed, rendered it as poetically as I could, and I thought it turned out pretty darn good. My senses had not failed me; I had taken in the world, and turned it into lines and phrases.

When the time came to read aloud, however, I was hesitant. I was nervous about going on stage and not being understood. It wasn’t a belief in the advancement of my writing but a fear that, out loud, released into the world, the writing would have no effect and no meaning. Nobody would be able to make it come alive in their own heads when it was just left out like that.

I did what I had to do. I practiced, and mastered my enunciation. I practiced and practiced more. Nervousness gradually faded in the face of relentless repetition. I made the words permanent in my mind. By some miracle, when I went out on stage, in a crooked tie and a beanie, I didn’t speed up or trip on words. I let them into the physical world, one phrase at a time, then left the stage. And I felt really good. (The applause and support and Heather’s constantly enthusiastic, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” at the end of every piece helped that, admittedly.)

The argument I’ve come to is that it’s not about the cliche of “making words come alive.” The words are alive already, and exist alive on the page. The importance of presentation comes with the fact that it takes the whole body. The voice of the reader has to be right; the tone, the rhythm and speed too; even the posture, and especially the eyes. It requires the stance to be steady and the projection to be confident. But when it’s done right, it resonates in the crowd. The audience responds to the concrete realness of the words in front of them, to the body and mind of the writer in harmony.

In a way, it comes full circle. The writer receives the world, in sounds and sight, and transforms it, makes it beautiful, or maintains its beauty, or appreciates its reality; then, the writer become a sound and a sight to receive, a new phenomena of the physical world.

Colin Yap, class of 2016