The Operating System

5th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 17 :: Nada Faris on Andrea Gibson

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


[line][script_teaser]”[T]he poem does not simply remind us of the ways in which all things are connected. Rather, it dwells on human agency. The poem reminds speakers of their potential to impact the world. A modern-day prophecy. [/script_teaser]
It was late 2010. My office. Filing papers for the Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at the College of Arts. My phone rang. I picked up. A woman from the Jamaican Embassy. Said she was hosting Kuwait’s first national slam and would I be interested in joining? What’s a slam? The phone went silent. Changed tactic. OK. Who recommended me? She said an employee from the embassy who’d seen me perform a couple of poems at college events. Impressed with the awards I’d won, said she. Except they were structured poems. Except they were written in iambic pentameter. Except they rhymed. Performed to my peers. And occasionally, in an accent. I said sure. When I Googled the term, I came across Andrea Gibson’s poetry, and my life was never the same.
Take “Say Yes” for example, a poem about hope and agency. This is how it starts:


When two violins are placed in a room

if a cord on one violin is struck

the other violin will sound the note.

If this is your definition of hope,

this is for you.

The ones who know how powerful we are.

Who know we can sound the music in the people around us.

Who is the “You” of the poem? Many. Different. People. Something one encounters in a variety of Gibson’s poems, Gibson who is not only an award winning poet, but also an activist, a strident advocate of difference. There are moments of sheer poignancy, such as “This is for the grandmother who walked a thousand miles on broken glass / to find that single patch of grass to plant a family tree,” and ones that are raw yet packing a punch in their profligacy:

and this is for that moon

on the night she seems hung by a noose

for the people who cut her loose

and for the people still waiting for the rope to burn

about to learn they have scissors in their hands.

But let’s go back to the beginning in order to explain a divergence between page poetry and spoken word. The image of the two violins. Where the strumming of one chord inadvertently or inevitably impacts the other. Obviously, this is a metaphor. In page poetry, the metaphor is often stated, and then complicated. One of the pleasures of reading page poetry is discovering new information. Readers have the luxury of stopping midsentence, picking up a dictionary, or logging onto their computers to search for information. When standing in front of a diverse audience, however, spoken word poems that introduce metaphors tend to explicate their relevance or else lose the most coveted aspect of performance art: engaging with the audience.
In “Say Yes,” members of the audience don’t just visualize the impact, but they then hear the significance spelled out: [line]
[articlequote]this is for you. / The ones who know how powerful we are. / Who know we can sound the music in the people around us.”[/articlequote][line]
Specifically, then, the poem does not simply remind us of the ways in which all things are connected. Rather, it dwells on human agency. The poem reminds speakers of their potential to impact the world. A modern-day prophecy. Gibson writes:

The world needs us right now more than it ever has before.

Pull all your strings.

Play every chord.

If you’re writing letters to the prisoners,

start tearing down the bars.

If you’re handing out flash lights in the dark,

start handing out stars.

Never go a second hushing the percussion of your heart.

Play loud.

[ . . . ]

Play like the apocalypse is only 4…3…2

In addition to the words (the content of the poem), spoken word poetry depends upon the performance itself. Slam is about the poet, and the way he/she/it/they appear(s) to the audience. It’s about the tone. The voice. The hand gestures. The eye movements. The pauses. Intakes of breath. While searching for the meaning of “slam poetry,” back in 2010, I began to compare and contrast the two terms: performance and pretense.
I figured that to perform, in the artistic sense, is to expand one’s vessel, to stretch out one’s sense of self, a self initially limited by social expectations and norms, a self further constricted by the five senses and the material, practical world. Performance shatters these bars. It rebirths identity. It mixes. It matches. It generates new ways of being. They may start on the stage, but they certainly seep into the back-stage-you. The you, you go home with, duck under the covers with, and with whom you share your fears and aims. Pretense is the opposite. It is the shedding of essence, of one’s creative self to “fit in.” In the long run, it chips away one’s humanity, one’s creative potential, and renders one a silhouette, a mere poltergeist amidst concrete.
[line][articlequote]Obviously, as a female from the Middle East, try as I might, I could never say all the things that Gibson can and has. There’s a line in the first minute where Gibson says, “This is for the women / and for the men who taught me only women bleed with the moon.” A reference to menstruation. But I did promise myself before my first performance that whatever I utter on stage has to be real, not factually correct, but real.  And that the journey will be about performance, never pretense, from now on. Poems I write should not only be designed to touch an audience. They should specifically enable me to expand my sense of self, to stretch me out into a fuller human, to help me transcend the limiting sets of beliefs society has tried to implant and which I had agreed to obey.[/articlequote][line]
I went to the Jamaican embassy with two poems, “Why We Still Write Poetry,” and “Stasis is the Mark of the Dead” and won first place. That event launched my own journey as a performance poet.
In 2013, I received a fellowship from Iowa University where I spent ten weeks at a writing residency. I heard that the Women’s Music Festival was coming to Iowa and decided to check it out. It was by chance that Gibson was performing. She agreed to do the show at the last minute after stepping down from another event which declared negative sentiments toward trans-people. It was by chance, that I went up to her and said that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her, and she asked me what I meant by that. It was by chance that I explained the story of the office, the phone call, the Google search, the poem. And finally, was able to say, “I was that other violin. Thank you for strumming my chord.”
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Nada Faris is a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet. In seven national poetry competitions, she came out in the top two positions. In 2012, her article “Every Child Deserves a Home: Zeina Al-Sultan Unveils the Truths Behind Adoption in Kuwait” won the Voice of Success program by en.v Earth magazine. In 2013, Faris represented Kuwait in London’s Shubbak Festival, UK, an event that is supported by the mayor of London, and at Iowa’s International Writing Program, USA, a ten-week writing residency often described as the United Nations of Writers. She is known locally as “Kuwait’s Finest” slam poet. Her first US collection will be published by The Operating System in 2017.
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