This week my Culture | Counterculture class is set to start reading The Breakbeat Poets, which offers me something I haven’t had in a while: poetry. I spent a lot of my younger life on poetry, but the past few years have left me uncertain where we stand. Poetry first took me to the city jail, and in many ways the incredible artists and writers there shifted my daily life. I’d always been committed to incarceration reduction and to reentry services, but seeing students I’d be lucky to have in a class at VCU live out time in a jail pod changed my priorities, significantly. I stopped thinking I was teaching people how to write: my students at the jail knew that already. They already had poetry. What they needed were better policies. As a global leader in incarceration, the US also leads the world in all of incarceration’s byproducts, one of which is a wealth of books, articles, news coverage, etc. etc. on one of my least favorite permutations of the white savior trope: prison arts programming. This is not to say prisons don’t need arts; they do. But so often our coverage of prison education or prison arts programs slips into a terrible kind of civilizing discourse: inmates receive Shakespeare and become human, etc.. In my experience, prisons are full of men and women who have read Shakespeare, and public policy was not any easier on them for it.
I still go to the jail to read poetry, but we also talk about public policy, about self-advocacy, about avenues for organization and meaningful change. I am not teaching, I’m listening and learning, and this means poetry often runs second to other goals, as I think it should. I still consume it, on campus I still teach it, but I’m often left wondering what it *does.* In some ways I’ve cheated, using my English class to test the boundaries of these questions. We’ve spent weeks exploring how counterculture movements work, and more importantly, how they work best. What is the relationship between arts and social change? The Breakbeat Poets is a beautiful anthology, and it takes this question seriously. Today’s reading comes from Roger Bonair-Agard, a writer with the enviable ability to stop your breath in both poetry and prose. His essay “Journeying to the break: The cost of the pilgrimage” offers an answer that is at once humorous, endearing, heart breaking, and hopeful. Art, he tells us, holds communities together. It gives voice. It tracks wrongs and speaks against them.
The Breakbeat Poets happened in our syllabus when I most needed it. I spent last weekend reflecting on the upcoming 30th anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel Prize. Brodsky was a survivor of the Soviet prison system. Remembering him, I wonder if we will see Nobels for those for survive the US prison system. I’ve been rethinking our methods incarceration by looking more closely at Russia’s. I’m reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag. I’m understanding a bit better, every day, that human rights violations of that scale (of this scale) happen, in part, because of language, because of how we talk about each other and how we talk about those with less access to a microphone. In my other classes we’ve been studying the myth of the juvenile “superpredator” and all the havoc that story wrought on public policy, on low-income communities, on people of color, and on public schools. The juvenile super predator was a myth, just a story, but it had power.
I don’t think I can stand with the camp that firmly commits itself to an art without politics. I don’t believe that exists. Poetry, like any method of storytelling, has power. That said, I am understanding a little bit better why Brodsky spoke so adamantly about keeping our faith in poetry. We could do better if we worked more on our storytelling. The cover of The Breakbeat Poets features a painting by the incredible Hebru Brantley from his “Myths” series. Brantley’s painting is transformative. In its world, kids are heroes. In that painting, they save us. His work resonates with the work being done today by Performing Statistics and Art 180. They’re seeing kids as heroes. They’re telling better stories.
Bonair-Agard doesn’t just speak to the power of community building; he also tells us how much value art can have for a kid beset by a dominant culture determined to deny his place in the world. To that kid, the poetry of Chic had the power to transform kids into superheroes:
I picked up the album Risque by the group Chic, encouraged by the heady beat and strident vocals on their hit single “Good Times.” I was take in too, by the group’s album cover swatter…That winter I stood in front of our record player and played that song over and over again, dancing until I tired myself out. I knew the song by heart, every instrumental entrance and exit, the bridge. I’d keep the cover out so I could look at them while I danced, so they could inhabit me, or I them, I guess (319).
I’ll leave this post, then, with “Good Times.” Look upon Chic that they might inhabit you, or you them.
Bonair-Agard, Roger. “Journeying to the break: The cost of the pilgrimage.” from The Breakbeat Poets.