This July, I got a message from Commaful co-founder Sydney Liu asking if I would be a guest judge of the website's Poetry Slam competition. "The focus of the site," Sydney told me, "is on short form content." It is, a DIY blend of images and text, wildly original and an interesting way to engage poetry. And it was right up my alley: New poets, evolutionary forms; revolutionary writing in new skins housing poetry catharsis as old as time itself. Learning that happens in layers, in ages, in extractions, and in abstractions.
I read hundreds of poems, and when it came to the authors, I did not get their names. I did not get their exact ages, except that I know these artists submitting their work were 13-18 year old "aspiring poets." " And I believe this is part of our era: Layered into our hybrid content, our identities are more complex than biographical information. And that was the way of this slam.
But there's nothing aspiring about them. They ARE poets, strong, unique, and all. All of them. Sydney told me that "the goal was to get young writers who were passionate about writing and poetry to share their work." But Commaful, the self-publishing art-and-text interface, is so much more than a place to showcase work. It's a reminder that poetry itself is incredibly important to the spirit, to documenting the zeitgeist and the times, and to marking stakes in our human terrain as we grow. Whether we're writing pissed-off Facebook statuses about the election or promoting our books or works (or reading them), we cannot forget the spiritual, creative cosmic dust we came from, filled with wonder and joy and heartbreak, all those points where what we feel is our truth. What are we in this world but our evolving truths? I'm proud to have read every one of these.
Lo and behold, I have selected a winner and 10 finalists. I've written a bit about each. Moving, powerful work. And I felt it was important to publish here on TL;DR.
-Russell Jaffe, Editor.
WINNER: How To Respond To A Cyborg This is really something else. This is moving, it moves like a conversation under glass, or like people in a zoo of humanity texting each other before clusters of moving spectators. The action is also the display itself. When Dante wrote The Inferno, he did so in Italian. This was the language of the people, as this is here. This conversation about intimacy, the body, slut-shaming, promiscuity, and communication itself IS the voice of youth, it is discovering the self, it is questioning the fallibility of the ways we live and learn with (in and out) each other. The future is now, but it's always been that way.
And in no particular order, here are my 10 finalists:
Finalist: Shoeboxes This one is a thoughtful, introspective story. The hidden nature of our hiding, what Sonic Youth called the “poetic truth of high school journal keepers.” These are artifacts to hold.
Finalist: Your ocean Longer, but full of love and adoration. Has lines that we hope for when it comes to simplicity: Childlike innocence, which is actually NOT how a kid’s writing brain works. A kid’s writing brain gets stuck in the ephemera bramble more often than being plain spoken. The complexity of being plain spoken is complex.
Finalist: The Stars and The Moon Like a bucking bronco of sound, this poem makes you fight its fight, pouring you like liquid into ice trays of meter. It is a drum circle that makes life in you. Do you ever wonder if poets write about outer space because our desitinies lie up there, or because the earth is such a hard place, such a harsh place full of facts, and we're so fragile and so temporary? That there really is a great beyond?
Finalist: Danger Ahead A poem about the disconnects not just between ourselves and our worlds, but our selves and our skin, our moves to be and claim ourselves. This story isn’t just about second-person putting us in the narrative of alienation...it’s meaningful shared experience.
Finalist: Unicorns and imperfections... This is really funny, and guess what? Kids cuss, too! When do we let our wild imaginations take flight into outrageous realms of worth and adoration? Unicorns have problems, too!
Finalist: What I've Learned Epically long indictment of the disconnect between school “learning” and the harsh injustices in the world. By the end, you can see what a husk the school system is and what a husk it makes us: hollow, frivolous vessels for learning, and for what? This is a poem that refuses to let us forget that we're lying to ourselves and to our young people. Like scolded dogs, our noses are rubbed in our refusal to clean up--let alone acknowledge--the messy lie, and the chasms we form between actual learning and going to institutions ostensibly designed for it.
Finalist: Writing A tremendous ars poetica about writing itself, almost a primer for understanding what this contest, this site…this, all this, is all about. “Because you bear with me and I bear with you.” May we support each other in the ways we document a world askew.
Finalist: Nightmare The rhyme and sing-songy model of children’s poetry is the only sane backdrop to present the brutality of civil war, complete with onomotopia sound, graphic imagery, and a nightmarish concept spun simple and sad. Sometimes the only way to encounter the nightmare asylum is to do so walking plainly into it. itsmoeyyy's profile
Finalist: edited persona The most contemporary poetry friendly, this one’s strange turns in language and command of realization make odd rooms to inhabit. Where do we find ourselves when we find ourselves? Or do we? joelysdalton's profile
Finalist: Block This one is interesting and feels like staring. Maybe there’s art in the staring and the noticing the staring. The realizations flit like paper in the dry wind. The dry wind runs the course of you, sitting there, staring. Worth documenting, and often isn't.