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Andrea Gibson, a grown-up, has thought about what she wants to say about America. This is what she came up with: “thank god for denial/thank god we can afford the makeup to pile upon the face of it all…and the voices of a thousand broken nations/saying ‘wake me,/wake me when the American dream is over.’” Atessa, a 9-year-old student at Horace Mann Elementary School, has a slightly different vision: “America is the place to be./You can wear your hat back and just relax/Here the sax on the street/playin it’s old beat/Right under your feet/It’s a treat!” Atessa’s sentiment is reinforced by a small pencil drawing of a head sporting a backward hat.
Gibson and Atessa both submitted their poetics to Split This Rock, an anti-war poetry festival that kicks off its four-day celebration today. In November, Split This Rock sent out a call for entries for its political poetry contests: one for adults and one for kids. To the adults, instructions were fairly broad. Organizers wanted poems “of provocation and witness.”
The callout to the kids in District schools, however, included a few more details: “What about your neighborhood/city/country/planet makes you happy and proud?” the contest asked in a note handed out by teachers. “What makes you sad? If you were in charge, what would you change? Are there issues you care deeply about? Situations in the news or in your neighborhood that make you mad? Or glad? Tell us in a poem!”
“This is the first time that I’ve done a political poetry contest for 8-year-olds, and I think it’s really weird and bizarre,” says Split This Rock executive committee member Regie Cabico, who serves as artistic director of the nonprofit Sol & Soul.
“None of those poems were a waste of my time,” he says. “It’s great to be able to open yourself up and let kids transport you into the land of jewels and unicorns.”
Jewels and unicorns—granted. But what does a kid really know about politics…or poetry? And can what the kids produce be actually worse than what their parents come up with? “I think I’ve probably heard the worst poetry from adults,” says Cabico. “I’ve read a poem called ‘Testicle Tree.’ The worst…are the poems with really predictable rhymes. After Sept. 11, I heard, like, 30 poems rhyming ‘Osama’ with ‘drama.’ Of course, there are no rules in poetry, so if you want to rhyme ‘Osama’ with ‘drama,’ be my guest.”
“When you get older, you learn that your first spew is not a poem; it’s the beginning of a poem,” says Sarah Browning, festival director. “You should spew, because that’s how you get access to the unconscious. But then you have to take the time and discipline to craft that spew. It’s in the crafting that a poem can achieve its greatest impact, and that’s where we hope that adults are studying their craft.”
You’d hope so. Here, kids put the adult winners to the test.
Kid: “As if an egg/Outside peace/Inside totally different/Be careful with the egg./Break the shell, here comes a messy clean up.”
—“War in Peace”Giselle Baccio Namata, age 9
Adult: “Make room for the nineteen year-old veteran/rolling his wheelchair down this/immaculate airport terminal hallway,/his face fresh as a high school diploma.”
—“A Nineteen Year-Old Veteran”Joseph Ross
Verdict: Kid, hands down. Just when you think the egg simile reaches its peak at “Inside totally different,” there comes “here comes a messy clean up.” “Immaculate airport terminal hallway” wishes it had this much style.
Kid: “We drove to a gym/And heard Obama give a speech/The gym was very crowded and filled to the top./It was exciting and fun but there was no band./And at the very end I shook Obama’s hand.”
—“Barack Obama”Eric Holder, age 10
Adult: “I don’t know what to do/with this rage/like Achilles twitching/Hector behind his chariot/for 12 days until even/the gods were ashamed.”
—“Achilles in Jasper, Texas”Jeffrey Thomson
Verdict: Obama is hot right now, but this young bard somehow fails to finagle a slant rhyme with “Obama’s hand” and “Yes, We Can.” Adult wins by default.
Kid: “In the election/I wanted Kerry to win./When he lost I felt bad/On the inside I felt sad/And I also felt mad.”
—“The Election”Eric Holder, age 10
Adult: “The smoke rises between us forming walls so high/They split the sky like slit wrists/And when the stars fall like blood/We’re all left with nothing but a death wish.”
—“When the Bough Breaks”Andrea Gibson
Verdict: There’s nothing like rhyming “slit wrists” and “death wish” to reveal the restraint in the child’s oft-rhymed emotional trio. Bonus: This kid is the only person still reflecting on John Kerry, adding some much-needed historical perspective to this insular election season.
Kid: “I think people should be able to go places/I think people should have chances to go places/I am espeshally proud that I can go places/If you cant go places/You should go places.”
—“Going Places”Bella, age 9
Adult: “he says/sorry sorry sorry, so that he is/his sorry, so he says he’s his/sorry, or sort of sorry, some sort/of sorry, something to sort out,/the sort of sorry something is sure/to sort out of, sure, he’s sure/of the sorrow, or something.”
—“American Afterlight”Alyssa Lovell
Verdict: Kid. Sure, we get that the guy’s sorry, but the adult’s foray into language poetry ultimately chooses quantity over quality. The child, however, manages to bend the meaning of “go places” at the end, with the chilling Catch-22 turn: “If you can’t go places/You should go places.”
Kid: “I am going to tell you a story about me and the planet. Me and the planet have 2 things in common. The things we have in common is joy and happiness. Because we do the right thing and calming ourself down for we don’t have peer rejections and angry outbursts, me and the blue and green planet has joy because we like to spend time with our families for we can play together.”
—“Me and the Planet Earth”Angelo Alfaro, age 8
Adult: “When the sea rises in front of you, shrugs its huge blue shoulders, takes back everything it said before in the receding foam, keep walking. Try to leave a small mark of protest in the sand.”
—“On Learning That My Son Will Not Be Fundedin a Group Home Because All Social Services’Money Has Gone to Fund the War in Iraq”Barbara Crooker
Verdict: While the child’s integration of school counseling terminology into eco-poetry is visionary, his assertion that the planet “do the right thing” reeks of complacency. Adult, despite describing the sea as “blue,” wins.
Kid: “I am a kid that rolls in dirt and my mom and dad gave me birth. My family loves to have fun and I don’t because my homework’s not done. I’m the only one to make my wishes come true and every day something has to be due. Sometimes I make bad decisions and still can watch television.”
—“The World Inspires Me or Not”Dillon Clary, age 8
Adult: “He sits on a salvaged lawn chair/In the shade of the stark white FEMA trailer/With the neat, tiny porch out front./His ragged t-shirt proclaims,/With a florid illustration,/That the wolf is his spirit guide.”
—“III. Red Brick Dust: The Banks”Maria Padhila
Verdict: While the youngster chooses to reveal the irony of his position through the time-tested Wayne’s World “Not” device, the adult opts for a newer form: The screen-printed wolf T-shirt. Still, the kid edges out the adult by daring to address the complicated moral issue of television privileges.
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