What’s Your Question?

Poet Claribel Alegria

Poet Claribel Alegria on her “seed book”:  “It’s a simple notebook, and when I read something that really touches me, or when I hear something, or when I dream…I put all these things into my seed book…Sometimes I go to my seed book and all of a sudden there’s a click.”

I cling to the wise words of my elders.

Poet Lucille Clifton - "If you fill yourself with venom, it is you who will be poisoned"

Writers conferences and workshops provide excellent opportunities to gather bundles of sage wisdom.  Poetry readings offer the chance to wrap the brain around revelatory truths and fascinating stories told through diverse voices.

Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca -"cry our differences into a lake, where we can all cleanse our goodbyes and apathy"

Many years ago, at one of these gatherings, I heard a statement I’ve stored in my soul to inspire me.

“It’s the poet’s job to ask questions”.

What I like about a lot of young poets is they are doing an excellent job of asking the questions.  Besides dealing with their own inner conflicts, they are experiencing life in an unstable economy, a dismal job market, a scandal-filled political climate…and they are asking WHY?

Whether through rap riffs, vocal lyrics or poetic verses, they are expressing their thoughts and emotions with a frankness and openness that is breathtaking.  Earlier this year, I watched with amazement as young people stepped to the microphones on HBO’s Brave New Voices 2010.  Through a creative marriage of producer/director Stan Lathan, hip-hop businessman Russell Simmons and the Youth Speaks organization, HBO has provided many teenage poets a voice in BNV’s annual poetry slam.

These young poets question the effectiveness of public school systems, the price of beauty and even the vacancy of a mother’s love.  Our abuse of nature is played out through an abusive male and female relationship.  The foster care system is viewed from the aisles of a toy store.  Even the slam’s scoring methods are challenged by a trio of young Denver poets who aggressively turned themselves and microphones to face the judges.

Because we live in a world that is complex with a lot of grey areas, a lot of young people have been forced to grow up fast.  They are dealing with issues and topics many of us adults were never faced with at the same age.  But many of today’s youth are astute enough to give careful thought and consideration to their experiences and observations.  And they are brave enough to ask questions.

To all the young poets….be brave, be honest, be your authentic self.  Tell the story only you can tell.  Ask questions, even if the answer seems obvious.  Ask questions, even if they are rhetorical.  Ask questions because you are observant and you are thinking about what you see.  And you are processing what you feel in your heart and in your soul.

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Marie Rilke


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