“It’s not the points, it’s the poetry” spins in my head as I ride through Rowena, ride through The Dalles, and head up Sevenmile Hill Road, the back way. The line comes from Louder Than a Bomb, the video about the annual high school slam competition in Chicago. I’ve never heard/seen anything like those poets, those teachers, those metaphors. And at the end of the documentary, the team, that [spoiler alert] didn’t continue in the competition due to .1 point, realizes that indeed, the poetry matters most of all. Their poetry is crazy loud, crazy good.
So often on a bike ride, my obsession with numbers, the miles traveled, the speed, the time, keep my eyes on my monitor. Today was one of those days when folly is a mirror. Today was the first big ride for me, and my route was ambitious. Over 2,000 ft elevation gain in the last 2 miles. I checked the wind, and I knew there would be plenty.
Didn’t figure 17mph headwind, and gusts over 27mph. Didn’t figure 38 degrees. The force of the wind was too much for my speed of 3.7mph up the steepest parts of the hill. Physics ruled, and my bike stopped. Around a switchback, on my one earbud I heard Destiny’s Child sing, “I’m a survivor.” It cheered me up, and I was gaining speed until I switched back, perpendicular to the wind, and the wind almost knocked me off the pavement. Without guard rails, the wind might have knocked me off the mountain. So, I walked and rode and cursed and made it to the summit.
What triumph I had today over numbers and numbness is folly compared with what the young people in the video accomplished every day. In their teenage years, they are better poets than I ever will be. Their metaphors punch. Their grasp of history and popular culture and their family layers their performances with truth; they turn truth into minor chords. The audience feels the truth in the chest.
Once I had the good fortune of interviewing David Wagoner, a poet-god whose poems turn birds into songs. We talked about the new medium of slam, and he acknowledge that slam poetry gave rise to underrepresented voices. But he feared that the poems were not lasting because of the reliance on sound alone. The interview was twenty years ago, and he hadn’t heard:
Adam Gottleib, Breathe Now or Maxwell Street
Nova Venerable, Cody
Lamar Jorden, Shooter
Their poems have pitch perfect sound, depth, the staying power of words that cut, that open up holes in the listener. What I’m saying is that there are tests worth taking, on stage, on paper, on a bike. Writing has an edge, and the edge is what helps move experience, move culture, make judgments like Wagoner’s moot. Louder than a Bomb is a movement.
Do we have the movement in Portland? We have Verselandia, in its second year. Want to hear what’s raw and sweet and so loud it breaks? Let’s all go, and then, we’ll know to forget numbers, to look up at a summit, to honor poetry more than points.