I knew that working with students on Saturdays on the cusp of summer was not going to be an easy job. Trying to teach the arts in an education system that doesn’t get the opportunity or funding to prioritize arts nor explore its benefits is always going to be a difficult job. Yet, as a poet, activist, and believer in the benefits of speaking your world into triumph, here I was on a sunny Brooklyn Saturday, waiting for the students to arrive, waiting to prove what I have already experienced as an artist myself: poetry performance = freedom in motion. Each student, each community, each opportunity I have to teach poetry or facilitate a workshop is different and each time I learn something different about myself as an artist and a human. Teaching is as much a mental experience as a spiritual one. I have found that on the days I want to give up the most, I am given the energy to continue through my students. If they can show up for me, I can show up for them.
When I sat down with one student on the first Saturday, I was not sure what I was to learn or if the workshops would continue with numbers like these. But there is an inspiring moment in one grain of sand if you consider the millions of things it is made of and how far it has come. One student became two then two became five and all were already full vessels of creativity, dreams, and ideas… not all devoted to poetry. I had my work cut out for me. However, the moment that took my breath away did not happen when the students were offering their own writing prompts; not when they were taking to line breaks with the same urgency as the Dunkin Donuts I brought for them; not when they inspired me to write a love poem to Dunkin Donuts confessing how much I can’t stand their hot chocolate; not even when they decided they wanted to perform the group piece I helped them create at the eighth-grade graduation on their own. It was during our morning practices that I was reminded of one of the many benefits to performing your story in real time.
“We need to practice more.”
“I think she’s going too fast, she should slow down”
“Yeah she’s going too fast. You need to slow down! You're getting too distracted. Can we go again? More energy!”
“Can we add Danny to the piece? He missed one day but he’s been to every class. He should be a part of it too.”
“I don’t need paper. Let’s all have it memorized!”
It was as if I wasn’t even there! My mouth hung open as they bickered and workshopped their own group piece. My presence was nothing more than, “Do you all feel that you’re ready?” and then they would be off again performing and talking it through. Poetry performance offers a rare opportunity for young people not only to see themselves on the written page but also to claim their voices in the open air. What’s more is that when poetry is being performed, rarely is it in a vacuum, alone. When poetry meets community–be it at the Nuyorican Poets Café on a Friday night or a lively group of five students on a Saturday morning–your words are in the care of an audience. Individuals feel supported to take risks, to trust, and to speak their mind. These five students were not all fans of poetry nor performance. Some of these students could barely be heard when they first introduced their name, but when it came to performing at the graduation, I was looking at young people who wanted the stage, who wanted to do their best, who wanted to work together, and who after having a successful performance, wanted to do it again.
This. This is why I want to do this for the rest of my life. To see those students take off and claim their work and their identity in an art form they had no prior experience in. To see them owning their words, taught me just how much I have gained myself, as a poet. From the moment that I was put in a spoken word class until now, my story has always had a home on the page and a separate vacation home within the hearts of artists and audiences who are open to hearing me. These five students now had an example, a tangible experience, that couldn’t be taken away from them: an entire auditorium open and ready to hear and accept their voices. It was amazing to see them after they got off stage, invigorated ready to “go on tour”. The arts, it’s contagious. Performance means power and poetry means freedom. When you let them loose in a room, anything can happen.
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Tayllor Johnson currently resides in New York City where she has begun her journey into Poet. Passion. Period. In between those learning moments, she sometimes has just enough time to jot a few lines...