Poetry Student Workshop at the White House


Uploaded by whitehouse on 11.05.2011

Transcript:
Elizabeth Alexander: Welcome to this White House celebration of poetry.
There's no place that I'd rather be than in a room full
of young poets.
You can feel the energy.
There are 77 young poets here today from all around
the country, coast to coast and in between,
and to the pleasure of that company,
we add the opportunity to hear from a group of esteemed working
poets who approach the art form from many different angles.
I can tell you we're in for a treat.
And it's a special honor to be part of the day when the
President's Committee for the Arts and Humanities is issuing
its inaugural report on the condition of arts education
across the United States.
As a poet and an educator, I cannot stop exalting about what
it means to have a president who understands the importance of
the arts and education.
The arts show us what we do not know in forms and languages that
take us by surprise.
Art reaches us where we do not expect,
transports us to other worlds, lets us pause in wonder,
challenges us to rethink our certainties.
Art troubles the water.
Art feeds the senses and the soul.
And if you imagine a single day without art, without music,
without careful language, without beauty,
you will understand how to quote and paraphrase William Carlos
Williams, "People die every day for lack of
what is found there."
The integrated study of art for young people invites them to
solve problems creatively using more of their big brain power.
Art takes discipline, practice, and devotion.
Art asks that we think and then rethink.
The core practices of art making and art appreciation
are transferable to achieving excellence in other interests
and types of work our young people pursue.
Today poetry will be showcased among all of the arts,
and I'm here to tell you what you're about to see that
American poetry today is vital and varied, alive and kicking,
flourishing in different forms and tones and communities.
American poetry is where the brilliance of American English
with all of its influences, many from other languages,
and all of its inventive life force is best found.
Poetry tries to say more and more in language that is ever
more precise.
And in great poems we find our individual
and collective expansiveness.
Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large.
I contain multitudes".
With the sacred word, we reach across the void to say,
this is who I am and this is what I offer you.
Poetry, to use an old vernacular expression,
is the church of what's happening now.
I think poets are the ones who best get at a sense of our rich
complex multifaceted Americanness as it's reflected
through language.
In his great poem "American Journal",
the poet Robert Hayden speaks in the persona of an imaginary
space traveler observing this country.
He sees what he calls a baffling multi-people and writes that
despite the clash and clamor of all of those voices,
"I am attracted nonetheless their variousness,
their ingenuity, their Élan vital, and that something,
essence, quiddity, I cannot penetrate or name."
Robert Hayden.
So, today we celebrate the arts, and before we hear from our
poets, we will first hear from Melody Barnes,
who is the President's Domestic Policy Adviser and Director of
the Domestic Policy Council, which coordinates the domestic
policy making process in the White House.
Please welcome Melody Barnes.
(applause)
Melody Barnes: Well, good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to the White House.
Thank you.
And, Elizabeth, thank you so much for being here and
for that introduction.
Over two years ago, when the President and the First Lady
first arrived at the White House,
they made a commitment that the arts would be alive and well,
indeed vibrant, in the people's house.
So what do you do?
They started inviting people, jazz musicians,
classical musicians, Latin dancers and singers,
country music artists, Motown Greats,
and today America's best poets and spoken artists.
But it's not just about the artists coming here to play
and to perform for the first family; they wanted to share
that with everyone.
The President and the First Lady believe that it's imperative
that the best and the brightest and the most creative in our
society should share their talents, their secrets,
their successes, their failures, to teach and inspire the next
generation at workshops just like the one that we're going
to have today.
That's because the President and the First Lady strongly believe
that educating our children is one of our most critical
investments and that an education without the arts
is incomplete.
Now, I don't have to explain to any of you how the arts can
teach us to look at things differently,
to find better ways to communicate and to be creative.
After all, all of you are living proof of just that.
But it's important that we emphasize that the arts are not
just for those who are going to go on and become professional
artists like the amazing people that we have in the room today.
Research shows that girls and boys, young men and young women,
who have art classes are more likely to be engaged in those
classes, to attend school, to get better test scores, and,
in fact, to graduate.
In fact, the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities
released a stellar report just this past Friday,
I was so pleased to be with them at that release,
and that report details just how powerful the role that arts
education can play in closing the achievement gap,
improving student engagement, building creativity,
and nurturing innovative thinking skills.
And the arts can't just be an afterthought,
something that schools take on when they address the many other
challenges that they face every day.
Instead, the arts should be an essential component of a
school's curriculum and an essential strategy to
deliver a complete and competitive education for
all of our children.
We want to support teachers and other educators who know that
one of the most effective tools for increasing student
engagement and motivation is to integrate the arts into English
and to science and to math.
And across the country we know that there are local arts
initiatives that are just doing just that,
they're proving our point.
They know that when we meet students where they live,
their love for the dance, or for music, or for writing,
or for drawing, or for painting, that at the same time you see
rising test scores and a shrinking achievement gap.
We know these things, I know these things,
because of all the data and all the research.
But, more importantly, I know it, and I think many of you,
all of you know it too, because of what we've seen,
and what we've observed, and what we've felt.
One of my Godsons is just a little younger than a lot of you
in this room.
He's a wonderful student, but he has a real passion for writing
and for drawing.
In fact, there are times when I go to visit him in Atlanta and
he'll take me through the comic books that he loves to create.
His teachers challenge him at school through creative writing
courses, and he was lucky enough to go to Mercer University for a
College for Kids Budding Authors last summer,
and this summer he's thrilled that he's going to Stanford
University where he can do a deep dive into his creative
writing and illustrating skills.
And I see in Robby what I have often felt when I have had the
chance to engage in creative endeavors,
the awareness that comes with self reflection and self
expression, a sense of strength when you get to use your own,
your authentic voice, and more creative and innovative ways of
solving problems when you get to use all of your brain.
For you, for Robby, and for all the students that we've had a
chance to meet over the past two years,
the students at Kenmore Middle School just across the bridge in
Arlington, Virginia who are in an arts and technology program
there, and the President and Secretary Duncan were just
visiting that school, for the Pittsburgh School for the
Creative and Performing Arts, they were semi-finalists and
recently completed Race to the Top Commencement Challenge,
another school that builds the arts into their curriculum.
And for all students who have this opportunity,
we know that that intersection of arts and education is a sweet
spot, and we want that same sweet spot for all
of our students.
We want that experience for them so they, indeed,
will be college and career ready.
So it's now my pleasure to introduce someone who is doing
this kind of work, engaged in this kind of work through her
own education, who is proof that we're moving in the right
direction when all of our policymakers and our business
leaders and our civic leaders appreciate the importance of
arts education, and that's Tiesha Hines.
She's known for quite some time that this is an area of
importance to her.
She's a senior at Ballou Senior High School here in Washington,
D.C., and she's been writing poetry since
she was seven years old.
She was inspired by her teacher and many of the amazing poets
that are in this room today, and she is now the president of her
poetry club at her school.
After she graduates, she's going to get to use those skills in
other ways, as she studies criminal justice at Fortis
College and Trinity University.
So please help me welcome to the stage Tiesha Hines.
(cheers and applause)
Tiesha Hines: Ten things I want to throw at you.
I wish I could throw my love at you,
but I'm afraid that you just won't catch it.
And if I could, I would throw you my heart,
but you might just break it.
I want to throw sweet kisses and embraces to comfort you in the
night, but I'm afraid if I throw you my all,
you won't hold it tight.
I want to throw my imagination at you so we can dream together.
And if I could, I would throw you the stars so we
could shine together.
If I had a halo, I would throw you that too,
so you can be my angel, my covering, my protector, my boo.
If I could, I would throw you my eyes so you could
see what I see.
I just want to throw you everything,
because I want you to be with me.
Good afternoon, my name is Tiesha Hines,
and I'm a senior at Ballou Senior High School where I
serve as the president of the poetry club.
I was chosen to be the president of Ballou's poetry club because
of my willingness and love to write poetry.
I also was chosen because of my positive attitude and compassion
toward other poets.
Being in the poetry club and a part of the A26 DC workshop has
had a very big impact on my life.
I'm a little upset, because I wish we could have had different
art programs, like the A26 DC poetry workshop in my school and
community years ago.
I say this because this art program gave students like me
more opportunities in life.
It also was a new avenue to share our thoughts and opinions
on situations.
Now, it is with great honor and pleasure that I introduce to you
the First Lady of the United States of America,
Miss Michelle Obama, who recently visited my school in
honor of Women's history month.
She is a woman who I deeply admire because of her confident
supportive and positive traits that I find in myself also.
Ladies and gentlemen, join me in welcoming our First Lady,
Mrs. Michelle Obama.
(applause)
First Lady Michelle Obama: Hey! Thank you, everybody.
(applause)
Good afternoon!
Audience: Good afternoon!
First Lady Michelle Obama: Like that.
That's good.
I like the (inaudible) part.
(laughter)
Well, again, let me welcome you all to the White House.
I am thrilled to be here today and to have you all here today.
I want to start by thanking Tiesha for that wonderful poem
and those words and that attitude and that suit and
everything else that goes along with it.
(laughter)
I had a terrific time visiting the students at your school.
You weren't in the classroom, but you
all were a terrific challenge.
It was an honor for me.
And I also -- before I go any further -- I want to acknowledge
one of my dear friends who is here with us,
the First Lady of Mexico, Mrs. Margarita Zavala,
who is here, right here.
(applause)
Yeah, I get to meet a lot of First Spouses in my work,
and sometimes you just click with people, and this woman,
who is an attorney, she's a passionate advocate for young
people in her home country and around the world,
she's somebody that I click with.
And she happened to be here, and I was like, you got to come,
you got to come and check this out.
So I'm pleased that she's been able to join us today.
I see some -- a bunch of people around here.
I won't start naming names, but we've got a pretty good room
full of people here.
So I want to thank the extraordinary group of poets and
artists who've taken time out of their busy schedules to run
today's workshop.
My dear friend, Elizabeth Alexander -- hey.
Ms. Alexander: Hey.
(laughter)
First Lady Michelle Obama: Rita Dove, Billy Collins,
Kenny Goldsmith, Alison Knowles, and Aimee Mann,
let's give them a round of applause.
We'll get to hear from these folks.
(applause)
They have moved and inspired so many of us with their words and
their music, and we're honored to host them here
at the White House.
And finally I want to recognize all of the student poets who are
here today.
You all are the reason why we do this workshop.
So we're going to do this big, fancy poetry reading this
evening, and that's all fun, and we're going to hear some stuff.
It's going to be good.
But this is the real reason, this workshop today,
this is why we do it, because we've flown you guys here from
all over the country because we want you to be a part of this
conversation, sitting here in the State Room of the White
House of the United States of America,
because you're just that important, right?
You're just that important.
And this is the best part of the day, every time we do these.
It's today.
So thank you for being here.
I was a budding writer.
Elizabeth doesn't know this.
She thinks she knows everything about me.
But when I was young, I was a passionate creative writer and
sort of a poet.
That's how I would release myself.
Whenever I was struggling in school,
or didn't want to go outside and deal with the nonsense of the
neighborhood, I would write and write and write and write.
So this workshop and celebrating you all is important to me,
as well, because I think it was my writing that sort of prepared
me for so much of what I've had to do in my life as an adult.
But you all come from all different backgrounds and
different schools and different states across the country.
But all of you students have one thing in common,
and that is that same passion for poetry and writing that I
had when I was young, and I understand that you all are a
pretty talented bunch.
I think that's why you got to come here,
because you're pretty good at what you do.
(laughter)
As poets, you all work wonders with the English language,
arranging, rearranging words to tell stories
and help paint pictures.
That was something I loved to do with words,
is just to paint a picture and make it real so that you felt
like you were right there; to evoke the emotions of
your readers.
But in addition to being very talented,
you all are something that -- what I think is even more
important for being a poet, and that is you're brave.
Robert Frost once wrote, "A poem begins as a lump in the throat."
In writing poetry, you all put words into that kind of emotion.
You give voice to your hopes, your dreams,
your worries and your fears.
And when you do that, when you share yourself that way,
and make yourself vulnerable like that, you're taking a risk.
And that's brave.
Not many people are willing to do that,
to put themselves out there like that.
And when you write poetry, you're not
just expressing yourself.
You're also connecting to people.
And that's the key to everything we want to be and do as human
beings -- is our ability to connect to one another.
Think about how you feel when you read a poem that really
speaks to you; one that perfectly expresses what
you're thinking and feeling.
When you read that, you feel understood, right?
I know I do.
You feel less alone.
I know I do.
You realize despite all our differences,
there are so many human experiences and emotions
that we share.
And poetry doesn't just show us how much we share.
It also exposes us to wonderful new ideas and experiences.
It helps us see the world in an entirely different way.
As Rita Dove once wrote, "What writing does is to reveal.
A good poem can awaken our senses and help us notice things
that we've never noticed before.
It can take us to places we've never gone -- to a mountaintop
or a battlefield or a city halfway around the world."
And I know that writing poetry is not easy.
I know that sometimes you really got to work hard to
make it happen.
I know that it can be discouraging when you're
struggling with writer's block and you can't find that word
that is just right, or get that line exactly the way you want it
to be.
I know I was talking to Malia last night -- was working on a
paper, and it's her first draft.
And she said, I hate first drafts.
(laughter)
It's the toughest thing, is the first draft.
And I know that feeling.
I know we all know that feeling of the first draft.
But when you start to feel that kind of frustration,
when you feel like you've been working on a poem forever but
it's just not coming together, I want you all to know that you're
not alone.
Rita Dove goes through as many as 50 or 60 drafts when she's
writing a poem.
I try to tell my kids that all the time.
It is not the first draft.
There's no such thing as a first draft.
You write and you write and you write.
And for Rita, she might take as long as two years
to finish a poem.
Is that true?
Does it take you two years to finish a poem, Elizabeth?
Ms. Alexander: Upon occasion.
First Lady Michelle Obama: See there? So even the best.
So I want you all to keep at it.
Keep taking those risks.
Keep having the courage to share your work,
which is so important.
That was the best part of writing -- it was reading it
back to my mother, making them sit and listen to my work.
And I also had to read it and perform it.
So keep sharing, keep reading poetry,
and learning from other poets.
And even if you don't grow up to be a professional poet,
I promise that what you learn through reading and writing
poetry will stay with you throughout your life.
It will spark your imagination and broaden your horizons and
even help your performance in the classroom.
And that's what Melody was talking about just a little
while ago.
That's why it is so critically important that we integrate the
arts into schools.
It is a must.
It's critically important that we continue to encourage
after-school programs and engage community partners to help young
people like all of you develop your gifts and
to fulfill your potential.
This is not an option.
This is a must.
For so many young people this will be the air they breathe,
the reason they keep going to do the right thing.
That's what you'll all be doing today here with these brilliant
poets and artists.
This is a true gift to you all to be in this
room with these people.
They will share their own stories with you;
give you tips and advice that are invaluable.
So I hope that you take the fullest potential of your time
here in the White House.
I want you to ask lots of questions and listen carefully.
Do not be afraid.
Don't let the cameras or the lights intimidate you.
We're just here.
I just happen to be the First Lady, but that's not a big deal.
(laughter)
Hard to say.
Because these folks have a lot of wisdom to share,
and I know that they are as excited as I am to be sharing
it with you.
And know that, as I always say, you got to keep passing it on.
You got this experience to be here, right?
So you are fortunate.
You are blessed.
So the question after this is what are you going to do to pass
it on?
What are you going to do to give this gift back -- because not
everybody could fit in this room?
If we could, we would have had -- it's small rooms.
The White House seems big; kind of small.
So it's up to all of you to keep passing this on.
So with that, I'm going to stop talking so that all of you can
start learning.
Thank you again for joining us at the White House.
You're going to get to see the performance this evening.
So we'll wave to you into the cameras.
So I hope you have a wonderful time today.
I'm going to sit for the first session and hear a little bit,
but we'll probably get up while you keep going.
So with that, do I turn it over to you, Elizabeth?
Ms. Alexander: Yes, you do.
First Lady Michelle Obama: All right. It's on you.
(applause)
Thank you all.
(applause)
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you, madam.
How lucky are we to be with you?
It's a joy.
So I'm operating from here for now,
and I'm going to tell you how this workshop with a lot packed
into it is going to work.
We've grouped together some extraordinary voices.
I will introduce them briefly in small groups, some pairs,
and a sextet, and then one person who will be working
alone, and we'll hear a few words from them about how they
approach the writing of poetry.
I may ask some questions, but mostly you'll have a chance to
ask some questions.
We're going to be moving fast because we're trying to do a lot
in the time that we have allocated.
So as you listen to these folks talk about their work,
please start formulating any questions that you might have
to ask them.
Got to take off my glasses.
And so we'll begin with our first two poets,
Rita Dove and Billy Collins.
They have in common that they are two former Poets Laureate of
the United States.
The person who holds that position is the most visible
exemplar and ambassador of the art form,
and they've thought in very different creative ways about
how poetry might be brought to the people and the people
brought to poetry.
Many of our greatest poets have been asked to serve as poet
laureate, and what's nice about that job in the United States is
that you're not expected to write poems on state occasions
on behalf of your country; rather,
you represent your country simply by doing the thing that
you do best the way that you do it.
I will introduce in sequence Rita Dove and Billy Collins,
and then they'll both come up and join us and
talk in sequence.
Rita Dove was the youngest person ever named Poet Laureate
of the United States.
She held the position from 1993 to 1995.
She was educated in Ohio, Germany, and Iowa,
and first began teaching in the English Department of the
University of Arizona in 1981, and then in 1989 moved to teach
at the University of Virginia where she is today.
She published her first book of poems, a miraculous book,
"The Yellow House on the Corner", in 1980,
followed by "Museum", followed by "Thomas and Beulah", in 1987,
which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Her gorgeous, intelligent, meticulous poems have inspired
countless poets who follow her, and I must say including myself.
She's written short stories, a novel, a play,
collaborated with composer John Williams on a piece for Steven
Spielberg documentary called "The Unfinished Journey",
and her most recent book is "Sonata Mulattica".
Billy Collins was Poet Laureate of the United States in 2001.
His poems, always witty, sometimes ironic,
often hilarious, always wise, have made him one of our
country's most popular poets.
His collections include -- this is among many, many,
many books of poems -- "The Apple that Astonished Paris",
The Art of Drowning," and "Picnic Lightning."
I particularly love those titles.
He's distinguished himself through clear,
accessible poetry that never sacrifices ambiguity and
subtlety -- very hard to hold all of that aloft at the same
time -- and has spoken out against the writing of poetry
strictly for an academic audience.
As U.S. Poet Laureate, he created a poetry collection
called Poetry 180, a project whose aim was
to increase poetry's popularity among teenagers by exposing
them to a meaningful, contemporary poetry for
each day of the school year.
So, please come to the stage, Rita Dove and Billy Collins.
(applause)
Rita Dove: I am going to start off.
First of all, it is thrilling to see all of you here,
and the energy really is palpable in the room,
because you are people who know that language is important and
that how you say something is perhaps ten times, maybe 1,000
times more important than what the meaning you put behind it.
But I'm going to talk fast.
I have five minutes, and then we're going
to do some questions.
I was thinking about what happened when I
was Poet Laureate.
And I received so many letters from students your age,
and they always began with, I don't know much about poetry,
or, well, I'm not really an expert on poetry, but,
and then after that little word but came some of the most
incredible descriptions of how poetry had moved them,
what it meant to them, and how important it was to the world.
One mother of three wrote me.
She was despairing because her daughter wanted to be a poet,
and she didn't know how she was going to make a living.
But she then said, I understand now that poetry is making the
language your own.
And I've carried that with me ever since,
because I think one of the most important things I can say to
you today is that only you can tell the story that you
experience and that you live, only you have that story.
And in terms of trying to find your voice,
your voice in a certain way will find you.
If you remain true to the experiences that you see,
if you remain true to the idea that maybe your first draft
expresses your heart but it's not getting across to anyone
else, and then you have to use your tools, which is language,
which is silence, which is the way a word can sound ugly or
prickly just by its very sound, to find the right word,
if you can get into the joy of rewriting so that someone else
can feel your heart and your story,
then you've got it made in the shade.
It's the most exhilarating feeling in the world,
and I too hate those first drafts.
They are, you know, a mess.
But to remember that once you get past that first draft,
there's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful sense of making it
just right.
You know, the very first book that I remember was a book,
it didn't have very many words at all, it was called,
"Harold and the Purple Crayon."
Oh!
(laughter)
It was a fabulous book, because there was this little boy who
had a purple crayon, his mother put him to bed,
and then he decided he wanted to take a walk,
so he drew a window with his purple crayon,
and he climbed out the window, and he drew his own path,
and he, you know, drew his own boat,
and when he sailed across an ocean,
he ate nine different kinds of pie -- I remember that.
(laughter)
In a way, you know, that was my first, I think,
meeting with metaphor, because that's really a symbol for the
imagination, isn't it?
I mean, you write and you write on the wave of your own writing.
It will lead you, and as you go through the revision process and
things begin to click into place,
you'll discover all of those people who are with
you on that path.
So, to remember, first of all, you have your story to tell,
your voice, be brave.
As the First Lady said, it is a very scary enterprise,
but it's an exhilarating one.
And follow the purple path.
(applause)
Billy Collins: Well, thank you, Rita.
I can do a lot of things in five minutes,
but teaching a workshop is probably not one of them.
I can make a bed in five minutes,
but it's not a very well made bed.
But, I wanted to talk a little bit about,
I know there are a lot of adults here,
but I want to talk mostly to the students here and just give them
a little advice about my experience in writing.
One of the phrases that you run into if you take a writing
workshop, or is finding your voice.
And it's true enough that one, if one is lucky,
someone said everyone is born with about 300 bad poems in them
at birth, you know, and the only way to get rid of them is just
to write them out until you got to the good stuff.
So there's always that period.
And you shouldn't worry about whether you're good now.
You're probably not that good.
But you'll get better, there is hope.
And it's true that finding your voice -- you can get to a point
as you're writing where you feel that you're writing like
no one else.
Seamus Heaney has a famous poem called "Digging."
And it's one of the earliest poems he wrote.
And he said after he read that -- after he wrote that
poem, he read it back and he said for better or worse,
no one else could have written that poem.
He knew that was his poem, not that it was great,
that he wouldn't be that immodest,
but there is that point you get to.
But what I don't like about the express finding your voice,
is that it's very mystifying, I think,
in the minds of young people.
It makes you feel -- made me feel when I first heard it,
that your voice is tied up with your authenticity,
that your voice lies deep within you,
at some root bottom of your soul.
And that to find your voice you need to fall into deep
introspection, like figuring out if you're one of the
elect or not.
You have to gaze deeply into yourself.
And your frustration or the anxiety is that maybe you won't
find anything there.
Then you're on this, you know, terrible quest to nowhere.
Let me reassure you -- which sometimes works out --
(laughter)
-- let me reassure you that it's not that mysterious.
Your voice has an external source.
It is not lying within you.
It is lying in other people's poetry.
It is lying on the shelves of the library.
To find your voice you need to read deeply.
You need to look inside yourself of course for material,
and because poetry is something that honors subjectivities.
It honors your interiority.
It honors what is inside.
But to find a way to express that you have to look outside
yourself, read widely, read all the poetry you can get
your hands on.
And in your reading you're searching for something.
Not so much your voice, you're searching for poets
that make you jealous.
Professors of writing call this literary influence.
It's jealousy.
(laughter)
And it's with every art, whether you play the saxophone or do
charcoal drawings, you're looking to get influenced by
people who make you furiously jealous.
And so I say read widely.
Find poets that make you envious and then copy them,
try to get like them.
You know you read a great poem in a magazine somewhere and you
just can't stand the fact that you didn't write it.
Well, what do you do?
Well, you can't get white-out and just put, you know,
blank out the poet's name and write yours in.
That's not fair.
But you can say, okay, I didn't write that poem.
Let me write a poem like that, that is sort of my
version of that.
And that's basically the way you grow.
So, okay, that's point one.
The other point is don't forget that poetry is play.
Poetry is play.
Because we often take ourselves, of course we
take ourselves seriously.
But poetry is not only a place to take yourself more seriously
than you take yourself in normal life,
it's a place to have fun with language, it's a place to play.
Kenneth Koch was asked, lovely poet, was asked,
you know what's the difference between prose and poetry.
And he gave a kind of illustrative example.
He said, here's prose, no dogs allowed on the beach.
That's prose.
Here's poetry.
No dogs or logs allowed on the beach.
No poodle, however trim, no dachshund unable to swim.
(laughter)
Why is that poetry?
Well, it's funny for one thing.
But also, it seems that the language is enjoying itself.
The words seem to be aware of the words around them.
And they seem, that self-consciousness seems to be a
chorus or a plot designed to fill you with joy and pleasure.
I think that's five minutes, I don't know.
But we would love to hear some questions from you.
And then we can extend this for maybe another five minutes or
two minutes.
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you. So a question.
Yes, right here.
Audience Member: I was just wondering --
Elizabeth Alexander: Why don't you stand up please?
Speaker: (inaudible)
(laughter)
Billy Collins: Keep wondering.
Audience Member: I know. I will.
How do you find or approach the balance between the need to
convey your own story and the need to convey your experience
to someone else?
Rita Dove: You know, I always think of Hemingway.
He said that the first draft of his novel was entirely for him.
And the second was a compromise.
And the third was entirely for the audience.
It was entirely for his readers.
There's a point I think when you're writing, you,
there is that interiority; you want to get that feeling out,
that story out.
But there's also a point where you want to reach out and touch
somebody else and say I want you to understand this.
And it's not so much finding a balance as it is a trajectory.
You know, you will -- there's a point where you will not be
satisfied with just writing it for yourself,
but you want someone else to hear it and understand it too.
So you keep working on it and it will tip.
Billy Collins: Can I just answer that too?
I think the difficulty in engaging, you know,
a reader's intention, is that basically readers don't care
about you, because they care -- they don't care about -- I mean
no one, no stranger is really interested in your internal
life, right.
I mean, it's hard enough to get the people around you interested
in your internal life.
(laughter)
They are always hung up on themselves.
What's up with that?
(laughter)
So, their intention is insufficient.
How do you get a reader -- you need to pleasure the reader.
And you do that through forum.
You do that through writing a poem in which the words are well
chosen, in which there's shape to it,
where there are signs of human intelligence.
And in fact to put it more bluntly,
to get a reader interested in your poetry you have to pretend
something that's not true.
You have to pretend -- your poem has to express this.
Your poem has to express the fact that you're more interested
in poetry than you are in yourself, which you are not.
(laughter)
But the --
Rita Dove: Speak for yourself, Billy.
Billy Collins: -- reader comes to you with an interest in poetry,
not with an interest in you, granted.
So if your poem conveys your interest in poetry,
than that will lock in with the reader's interest in poetry,
and then the reader will be interested in some fishing
trip you took with your uncle or whatever you want
to write about.
Elizabeth Alexander: Another question right here.
Audience Member: Hi.
You talked about finding your voice and imitating other poets
and things like that.
Did you stop doing that?
At what point do you stop doing that?
When do you know that you found your voice?
Billy Cullins: Well, after you find your voice, you realize there's
only one person to imitate and that's yourself.
But you do it by combining different influences.
I think the first part of it is you do slavish imitations which
are almost like travesties, you know.
And, but gradually you come under the right influences,
picking and choosing and being selective.
And then you -- maybe your voice is there,
a combination of six or eight or voices that you have managed to
blend in such a way that no one can recognize the sources.
So you can take, like "Intimacy" from Whitman.
You can learn the Dash from Emily Dickinson.
I mean, you can pick a little bit from every writer and you
combine them.
And this allows you to be authentic.
That's one of the paradoxes of the writing life.
That's the way to originality is through imitation.
Rita Dove: I'd also say that when you imitate you can do parodies
as well, which are sometimes very useful,
because then you understand how that,
that particular poet used the irony, or something like that.
Then I think that what happens too is that you become impatient
with the imitation.
You say, well, I want to go somewhere else.
I don't want a standing invitation.
That's a little bit of your voice poking out.
All right.
Saying, you know, I can do it different than that.
And so, you know a musician will practice their scales.
And they will practice all sorts of things.
Why people think that writers get struck by lightening and
suddenly write the perfect poem in one fell swoop, I don't know.
So, you know, this idea of doing imitations or writing sonnets
until they come out of your ears, is part of your craft.
Elizabeth Alezander: One more quick question. Yes?
Audience Member: How do you --
Elizabeth Alexander: Use your microphone.
Audience Member: How do you both teach play?
Rita Dove: Play?
Audience Member: Uh-huh.
Rita Dove: I have a thing called the wildcard which I
give to my students.
It can come at any time during the semester, you know.
It can take -- they are all different.
And they involve very strange things.
Like at the first sign of the moon tonight when it rises go
out into a field and look for something purple.
And then they have to open envelopes.
And the next envelope will say and now you must turn around and
sit and write, you know, a haiku and then go back inside.
So I give them all this stuff that makes them so angry at me
because they are like, especially, you know,
I'll tell someone, you know, put on your heels and go out
in the field.
What do you mean go out in the field with my heels on.
Because I want them to feel how uncomfortable that is.
But in the end what happens, is they say I don't even care what
I write anymore because I have to open another envelope,
and they just play.
They just say I'm going to let it out.
Those wildcards are so much fun to write,
and in the end many of my students say the most fun they
have ever had of writing a poem is the idea of letting go of
your ego, forgetting who you are,
playing with that language and seeing what comes out of it that
touches you instead of trying to impose something
on the language.
Billy Collins: Students will start to play once they get irreverent about
poetry, once they stop taking it dead seriously.
And the hope is that they will stop taking themselves dead
seriously because the dead seriousness,
the earnestness often overwhelms play.
So I take poems like Byron's "She Walks in
Beauty Like the Night."
And I just say, you know, substitute night for something.
So she walks in beauty like a nutcracker or she walks in
beauty like a tangerine.
And then, you know, suddenly everything is up for grabs and
you're into imaginative play.
And that's what poetry really offers.
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you, Billy Collins, and Rita Dove.
(applause)
And of course, we'll hear from them tonight.
But we do that for hours.
Our next group of poets fall into what some would call the
experimental camp.
But what I would prefer to say, what I think is maybe more
precise is that they are constantly questing for new ways
to solve the same problems that we are all trying to solve:
of how to wrestle with language to make poems to do the work
that we all do as crafts people.
But what is exciting about the work of our next two poets is
that they have each brought in other media, music,
visual media, interesting things with the computer to expand the
ways we can think about what a poem is.
Kenny Goldsmith's writing has been called some of the most
exhaustive and beautiful collage work yet produced in poetry.
He's the author of ten books of poetry,
founding editor of the online archive UbuWeb and the editor of
"I'll be your Mirror," the selected Andy Warhol interviews,
which is the basis for an opera called Trans-Warhol which
premiered in Geneva, an hour long documentary on his work
"Sucking on Words."
Kenneth Goldsmith premiered at the British library in 2007.
For many years he was the host of a terrific weekly radio show
on New York City's WFMU and he teaches writing at the
University of Pennsylvania where he is the senior editor
of PennSound, a remarkable poetry archive that I urge
you -- you all should check it out, PennSound.
Alison Knowles, in addition to being a poet is a visual artist
known for her sound works, installations, performances,
publications and association with fluxus,
the experimental avant garde group, formally founded in 1962.
As one of the founding members of fluxus she produced what may
be the earliest book object, a can of text and beans called
The Bean Rolls in 1963.
In 1967 she produced the House of Dust poem,
possibly the first computerized poem, 1967.
She expanded the scale of her book projects with the big book,
an eight foot tall book of environments organized
around a spine.
So you can see the kind of creativity that she brings
to the project of making poems.
So if Alison Knowles and Kenneth Goldsmith would please come to
the stage, we would love to hear from you.
(applause)
Alison Knowles: Is Jessie here? Hi. Hi.
Elizabeth Alexander: Okay.
Alison Knowles: -- my daughter into this wonderful house,
and she made it!
(applause)
Elizabeth Alexander: If I could just -- I just received a signal that our
First Lady has to -- oh, doesn't have to go.
Okay. Carry on. I misread my signal.
All right. Okay. Terrific. So, Kenny.
Kenneth Goldsmith: I'm so glad you can stay.
I would actually like to extend what Billy and Rita said,
but take it from a slightly different angle I'm actually
interested for my students, I teach a class at the University
of Pennsylvania called uncreative writing where they
are penalized for any shred of creativity or originality that
they show.
As a matter of fact --
(laughter)
-- these kids surreptitiously know so well how to plagiarize,
how to be fraudulent by creating and copying,
cutting and pasting.
But it's always on the down-low.
In this class, I say no, you must do that and you must be
accountable for those decisions that you're making.
So in other words, I want you to bring all that stuff that you're
doing underground.
I want you to bring it up to the surface and you become
accountable for what you're doing and why you're doing it.
What are the decisions that you're making?
So one of the things that I first have them do is I have --
I give them a very simple homework assignment.
I say retype five pages of your choice.
I leave the room and they go Oh, God,
my parents are really wasting their money here at school.
And they go home and I don't say anything else.
And they kind of struggle with it.
And what they come up with into class the next week are all
deeply personal original pieces of writing without them having
really written a word of that.
Okay.
So the question becomes what did you choose to retype and why did
you choose to retype that?
And you get wonderful personal stories.
One girl said I retyped five pages of a short story that I
thought was great when I was in high school.
But now, having retyped it I realized that it really isn't
that great.
Okay. So there's learning.
Other students begin to realize that writing is a physical act,
it's a bodily act, because when you're doing something so dull
as retyping five pages you start to notice the cramps in your
hands and you start to notice that your legs are getting a
little bit numb.
You realize that you have a body when you type,
and that writing is a tactile, writing is sculpting with words.
It's an extremely tactile experience.
And we tend to forget about this.
We tend to be so concerned with the sorts of things that
we are saying.
Now I think that writers, all of you try too hard.
I say, that you need not try so hard.
You need to just make better selections about
what you are taking.
Now, I say to my students you may never have writer's block in
my class, because the whole world is yours to type.
Now of course you're all on the web and you can cut and paste.
Now this is a very, very, powerful tool.
You don't have to retype anything.
You can just cut and paste the entire works of Shakespeare
and somehow manipulate it and represent it and
justify those representations.
This is an actual new tool that we have and the web is nothing
but language, miles and miles and miles of language.
I never want to hear that you have writer's block with the cut
and paste ability of the web, please.
Please, you can't say that.
So with that said, I also, my whole practice,
I've written ten books of poetry and I haven't
written a word of them.
I'm a transcriber.
I listen to things and I retype them.
And just exactly what Billy was saying,
I think the best way for our young writers to learn how to
write is the way that our young painters learn how to paint.
You go up to the museum and you set your oil and canvas up in
front of Van Gogh or Rembrandt and you replicate that.
I was teaching at Princeton a couple of years ago and one of
the students came up to me and she was very,
she was studying with one of the most prominent fiction writers
in American, but she was frustrated because she was given
an assignment to write a paper in the style of Jack Kerouac,
write a piece in the style of Jack Kerouac.
And she's like, you know, I really can't do that, you know,
I'm facebooking and I'm chatting,
and I'm doing -- this is, you know, how do I do that?
And she was very frustrated and many of the students in the
class were frustrated.
Now I think had she actually gone and retyped Jack Kerouac's
On the Road she would have learned a lot more.
Again, you know, about Kerouac's style,
why we imitate it when you can actually copy it directly.
And I think actually this is not so different from
what you were saying.
I just call it uncreative writing.
And I think, we are really both getting out of the way
of different ends of what creative writing really means.
Now I'm just about to finish up, but I wanted to share with you
some of my books.
I am the most boring writer who has ever lived.
I'm famous for that.
My books bore me so badly I can't read them.
I fall asleep when I was to proofread them.
They are horrible.
I tell you this is a book called Day.
And I retyped one day's paper from the New York Times from the
very beginning of the paper to the very end.
The stock pages alone, of course they don't do stock pages
anymore, the stock pages alone are 300 pages.
It took me a year and-a-half to type, retype this newspaper.
But I have to tell you it was transcendent.
It was beautiful.
I mean I looked forward to it.
It was meditative.
One of the most fabulous year and-a-half I ever spent.
And I came up with a 900 page book.
Now I want to just say that this is the greatest book that's ever
been written.
Of course I didn't write a word of it but it's got love,
it's got pathos, it's got war, it's got passion,
it's got victory and defeat.
You know it really is -- this was a very slow news day.
It was the Friday of Labor Day in September in --
the Friday of Labor Day in September of 2000.
I mean I picked a nothing day.
I didn't want a dramatic day.
I wanted a boring day because I'm a boring writer.
But it really is -- I want to just say that too, the newspaper
is a novel, every day and it's written 900 times every day
around the world or 9,000 times, who even knows.
And we throw it away and we write another novel the next
day, culturally.
I mean it is a fabulous literary production.
So you just simply take something and you reframe
it and it becomes literature.
It's very easy.
You're trying too hard.
(laughter)
Elizabeth Alexander: Thank you.
(applause)
Alison Knowles: I thought I would like to read from -- I would like to read
from -- is this turned on -- I would like to read from some
words of my great mentor who was a composer named John Cage who
maybe you've heard a little bit about,
but I had the good fortune to work on a few books with him.
He says here, "Art, instead of being an object made by one
person, it is a process set in motion by a group of people.
Art's socialized.
It isn't someone saying something,
but people doing things.
Giving everyone, including those involved the opportunity to have
experience they would not otherwise have had."
So, I'm emphasizing here just to get started with something,
make a way to have a process for yourself,
to have something that you can show to others.
Don't be lonely.
Don't be alone with the work.
You have people all around you who would like to hear what
you're doing.
And they can say that's just terrible.
Or they can say, gosh, that gives me an idea.
So then you see you can work yourself into saying what kind
of an art, what kind of a painter am I?
What do all of these people think of my painting?
Well, ask them.
Why don't you all copy the Rembrandt,
why don't you all see what you get out of that experience?
Because art is everywhere.
You can make art out of anything.
And this is what of course Duchant did this with putting
a urinal up there.
I had never seen a urinal.
How many woman have ever --
(laughter)
So that's something.
Use, use the people around you.
So, I started out as a painter.
And that just didn't work.
I was studying with wonderful people like Adolph Gottlieb,
and Richard Lindner.
But you know who it didn't work for?
It didn't work for me.
I would take these paintings home and show them to my dear
husband, and we would all agree that you know,
the colors were okay, but, I finally decided I was more
interested in something where I could more directly
give to people.
So I got into sound.
(rattling)
I started to put beans into paper.
(rattling)
So I became a papermaker and I became a composer.
And now I make instruments, most which have beans inside.
I know a lot about beans.
But, seems to me that what you have to get rid of is when you're
starting out is that that's what you're going to be.
Because that's not necessarily where you'll end up.
Thank you.
(applause)
Elizabeth Alexander: Someone over here. Who's got a question?
Audience Member: Who are your poetic influences?
Alison Knowles: Pardon me?
Audience Member: Who are your poetic influences?
Alison Knowles: Oh, Thoreau.
First of all Thoreau.
John Cage --
Elizabeth Alexander: Why don't you use the mic?
Alison Knowles: John turned me on to Walden and those poems.
And I was very much into being in nature more.
I was born in New York City.
And so when I get into the woods or something I go into a very
personal wonderful trip with myself, I think.
And, but I also had a lot of appreciation of Robert Frost.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I could
not travel both.
I took one as long as I could until it bent
into the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair.
And having perhaps the better call because it was grassy and
wanted wear, though as for that the passing there had worn them
really about the same.
I should be telling this like a sigh somewhere ages
and ages hence.
Two roads diverged in a wood.
And I took the one less traveled by.
And that has meant all the difference.
(applause)
Right, absolutely.
(applause)
Speaker: Another question for Mr. Goldsmith?
Right there.
Yes, you.
Speaker: Is there a limitation on imitation?
It almost seems like you could become too obsessed with
imitating someone and, you know, forget that you're still looking
for your own voice?
So is there a line?
Should we look for that line?
Mr. Goldsmith: Well, you know, imitation is the highest
form of flattery.
(laughter) Seriously.
And also bootlegging.
(laughter) I mean, it's an artist's dream to have someone
care about your work enough to want to bootleg it.
In other words, that imitation is a sense of validation,
you see.
You see, so it's not robbing.
It's not taking.
It's actually very generous and very giving and paying tribute.
So, you know, it's showing love.
And it's showing support.
(laughter) And I believe that that's really the sort of
communities that we're talking about here.
Speaker: Alison, did you want to add to that?
Alison Knowles: I just like the idea of putting forth that poetry doesn't have
parameters much.
You know, I do quite a bit of performance art.
And yet I always feel like I'm some kind of poet, even though I
do less with words than, say, someone like Kenny or a lot of
other people.
Poetry is, I think, the hugest category in our
Mr. Goldsmith: Well, it really is generous.
It's a really generous field because they allow
someone like myself in.
And I'm very grateful to this field because, you know, I mean
the fiction world wouldn't have a guy that reads
"New York Times".
But somehow poetry has been generous enough to allow people
like myself in there.
And I think that's something really great about the art form
because, quite frankly, in poetry, there's really
nothing to lose.
And so if you're not taking the greatest risks in your work,
why bother?
Sometimes a painter who has a wonderful market is afraid to
change their style because God forbid they should alienate the
collector base and the prices fall down.
But we have nothing to lose.
We have absolutely nothing to lose.
So you are obliged to make your work as risky as possible and
true to the art form.
And this is the purest and clearest of all of the art
forms.
As a result, we are incorruptible.
(applause)
Speaker: Thank you, Kenny Goldsmith, and Alison Knowles.
Now, I must say I would like us to thank the first ladies for
being here -- they have other commitments today -- so let's
give them a round of applause.
Let's give them a round of applause.
Thank you.
(applause) All right.
Now we are going to hear from some of our young poets.
We're going to hear poems from Destiny Campbell of the Bronx --
When I call your name, if you would please come up.
And I would like you all to come up.
Louis Zalia from Washington, D.C.
Will Fesperman from Baltimore.
Joseph Verge from Detroit.
(applause) Raeme Miccio Gavino from San Francisco.
And Mora Bass from Richmond, Virginia.
(applause) Well, look at you.
Hello there.
It's great to see you all up here.
So I think we will just go down the line and each of you will
share a poem.
A poem.
Yes, the whole thing.
Oh, yes.
Thank you.
Speaker: "Belly Song", dedicated to my mother who has been diagnosed
with kidney failure.
Eight months you carried me Morning sickness, wasn't ready,
Eight months you carried But I, I will carry you as long as need
Sit in my belly For I shall hold you Sit in my belly Listen to
the song It sings from my heart My belly song will cure your
sickness Cure you from kidneys that decided they had enough.
Feel soothing blood so that you heart will pump when my heart
pumps Memories of daughter / Mommy day Memories of pillow
fights and movie nights Memories of nite-nite and warm kisses
Kiss ...
my hands too My mother Princess Tiesha, my mother She taught me
Women are more powerful with brains than beauty Taught me to
love love all things even the one's I'd never Taught me to
love myself For no one can love you better But Mommy I love you
better Better than how the moon sparkles just right with the
stars Better than how roses love the feeling of each rain drop
dropping on its pedals Better than how viruses can love to
attach to your cells But I'm here to stop it!
Dare to fight God for what I love My love can make sick
better Mommy you taught me Remember to rejoice relove And
never regret reteach I will reteach you, teach you the
meaning of love Mommy Give me the key to your heart Allow me
to touch touch, your heart beat Beat beat, one more
time For the future.
Beat To open your eyes Eyes, to see me vow to love you Making
the kind of commitment that brides and grooms make But our
love is deeper This daughter / Mommy love Vowing to be there In
sickness and in health For richer or for poorer Till death
due us part Our love is eternal Thank you.
(applause)
Speaker: Wow.
(laughter) So I didn't memorize my poem unfortunately.
I should have probably done that.
Audience Member: That's okay.
That's all right.
Speaker: The poem I wrote was called "Memories".
I remember those good old days The days when I ran with a
Barbie in my right hand and a toy car in my left The days when
I ate the chicken and put my veggies in a napkin The days of
naptime and milk with cookies Yeah, I remember those days With
the screams and the yells the whips and the brooms The
ultimatums and the death stares Those were the days I remember
those days With the beer bottles and the hard liquor With the
tears and the blood Those good old days With police and jail
visits The CIA and immigration And lonely nights with no one to
tuck me in Yeah, those were the days I did my homework with no
help I cooked my own food I did the cleaning I got fatter and
fatter I remember those days Which I worked out alone Which I
exceeded without you Which I ate my burnt food Yeah, I remember
(applause)
Speaker: My poem is called "Wide".
And it actually has two parentheticals in it.
And I think the parentheticals are kind of important
to the poem.
So I guess I'll try to show somehow that those are in there.
We may be as you said softly One hand on a cup of hot chocolate
in a midnight November diner Nothing more than wet, messy
computers Wet, messy ugly and slow I mused into the brown,
curling mud flats at the bottom of my cup But maybe, I wanted to
say, somewhere in the zeros and ones of your brain In the flawed
gray tissue where all words shoot to electric life You will
find the synaptic language of love, the chemical pathways Of
desire, the scientific root See how you spark my ganglia with
your words of all joy (applause)
Speaker: 3, 2, 1, Pow!
Now, that's what a track race sounds like But I also like to
compare life as one big race On September 7, 1994
at 7:15 p. m.
, my mother shot me out of her womb I tripped over my umbilical
cord but I kept crawling because I wanted a head start in life
See, on this earth, we are runners And the track is the
circle of life So we just got to keep running until we meet the
finish line ribbon of death On April 16, 2007, my grandmother
died of cancer So I like to believe that her finish line
ribbon was pink.
And you know, it's funny How some people believe that they
can cheat death as if they were running on the outside of the
track, just so they can get a longer life expectancy While
other people like Michael Jackson who shot up drugs as if
it was quick silver just so he can end his race faster Because
when paparazzi chase you it makes you want to become a dove
and fly 3, 2, 1, Pow!
How we run in this life is determined by the pair of shoes
that's been given to us by our parents In order for us to run
successfully, our parents have to make sure that our shoes fit.
And let's just say that my shoes weren't always tied My father
never left me any footprints to follow or showed me how to stay
in my lane so I'd never wander off or get lost That's why when
my son is born I'm making sure that his shoes are fit
double-knotted And if they're an inch off I'm taking them back I
want to leave footprints bigger than Bigfoot for him to follow I
want him to Usain Bolt in life 3, 2, 1, Pow!
And that's what killed my friend Jamar Pinkney, Jr.
before he died, he told me Never reach for the stars Because if
you fall and land on a cloud that's just too close to reality
I remember when his father picked him up from school I
said, What's up, mailman?
But who knew that the mailman would send his one and only son
on a rush delivery to heaven What I wouldn't do to grab his
hoodie one last time just to slow him down But the sound of
his father's handgun made him leap like frog 3, 2, 1, Pow!
I've been running this race for 16 years.
Mushroom clouds of confusion and questions have been blocking my
view So I've been having to write the success of my own
future And I learned that the way we run is not determined by
our shoes but by the runner (Applause)
Speaker: Hello.
My poem is called, "In the Morning".
Sunshine is quiet in the morning It yearns to stay pristine But
the birds mar it with their flight and tea kettles boil and
buses start running Nevertheless, sunshine is quiet
in the morning Sometimes if you have big windows and you leave
them open -- the curtains, that is, and they'd have to be east
facing -- Then the sun would be a site to see It would sneak
over rooftops and expose things hidden in the night Flowers
perhaps The dark dawn recedes, the birds wake up The slummy
shops open the drunks wake from their sidewalk beds The tea
kettle boils (applause)
Speaker: "Shana".
Well, we all know, don't we then We're all ready for the worst
Shana, don't you give in I won't lie to you, girl I ain't going
to tell no stories Because there sure as heck is always going to
be another heartbreak.
But who said there ain't going to be someone who will just keep
on mending You just keep those music notes and stars floating
around your head And ignore the moans and groans Shana, don't
you give in None of our lives is filled with fluffy bunnies and
kept promises And, above all, true love Don't you go
pretending, child But Shana, don't you give in Your prince
will come But don't you go searching too early or it will
jinx your luck.
He's a waitin' somewhere just hold your dang horses!
Just cuz one left you, push on!
I'll be betting that there's going to be 20 seizing the
moment when they find out No one needs the waters to rise Shana,
Don't you give in You ain't one of them teeter-totter, blonde
headed heavens-to-Betsy, simple minded airhead chicks who's
always checking their hair in the mirror What do they care of
the future?
No, You got promise, child Shana, don't you give in That's
why they like you, you know Now, get your sensible head out of
the low-hanging clouds Move on and come out of this morning No
one wants a girl who cries during math class, caring more
about her problems than the ones in the book I love you, girl
Shana, don't you give in (applause)
Speaker: Thank you all very, very much.
Thank you.
You can probably walk that way.
Yeah, that's the best way.
Fabulous.
All right.
For our last segment of the workshop, we are going to hear
from someone who works with the human voice and with music, a
singer/song writer.
And it's important to remember, I think -- and I think that
Aimee Mann gives us an opportunity to remember this,
that people, across history, across time, across space, as
long as we've been on this planet, people have always made
some form of poetry and lifted their voice together in song.
So we're going to hear from Aimee Mann to conclude our day.
She is a rock guitarist, bassist, singer, and song
writer, born in Richmond, Virginia who graduated from
Open High school, attended the Berkeley College of Music in
Boston but dropped out to sing with her first punk rock band,
The Young Snakes.
She then, after that, cofounded a new wave band called Till
Tuesday, which achieved great success in 1985 with its first
album, "Voices Carry".
And that video became an MTV staple.
Some of you might have seen it winning the MTV music award for
best new artist.
In 1990, she began her solo career.
And her many albums include the soundtrack for the movie
"Magnolia".
Let's please welcome Aimee Mann.
(applause)
Aimee Mann: Thank you.
I think we have to set up some stuff.
Are we going to play or talk?
Speaker: Do you want to talk while you set up?
Whichever you prefer.
Aimee Mann: I don't think I can do two things at once.
We'll play first and then talk.
Speaker: Okay, great.
Aimee Mann: Usually we have a guy to do this.
(laughter) This is Jevin and Paul.
They're going to be helping me out.
(applause) (guitar strumming) You look like a perfect fit For
a girl in need of a tourniquet But can you save me Come on and
save me If you could save me From the ranks of the freaks Who
suspect they could never love anyone 'Cause I can tell you
know what it's like The long farewell of the hunger strike
But can you save me Why don't you save me If you could save me
From the ranks of the freaks Who suspect they could
never love anyone
You struck me down like Radium Like Peter Pan or Superman You
will come to save me Why don't you save me If you could save me
From the ranks of the freaks That suspect they could never
love anyone Except the freaks who suspect they could never
love anyone But the freaks who suspect they could never love
anyone C'mon and save me Why don't you save me If you could
save me From the ranks of the freaks who suspect they could
never love anyone
Except the freaks who suspect they could never love anyone
Except the freaks who could never love anyone (applause)
Thank you.
Speaker: I wanted to start with a question to ask you about
poetry, poetry that isn't set to music and how poetry is a part
of or isn't is part of your making songs, your whole
process.
Aimee Mann: I don't think it's really -- it's not like a
read a lot of poetry.
I mean, I think that my thing is I have a real love of language
and sort of whatever I come across with a person clearly has
a love of words.
I think, like Billy was -- when he was talking about that, you
know, you sort of come for the form, for the love of language,
for the love of the form.
That's kind of my thing.
And you know, in a lot of ways, I don't feel like
lyrics are poetry.
I mean, I feel like lyrics -- I think that it's like cheating.
Because you have music and as soon as you hear the music, it
makes you feel something.
So you're already -- you know, you don't have to rely on
language as much.
And like my personal feeling is that people get away with murder
with lyrics and that, you know, you can have a song that's still
a pretty good song where clearly the person is not really
thinking so much about what they're saying.
And that does drive me crazy because, you know, I love words.
I love the form.
I love having the form be -- you know, I love having rhymes that
are exact and internal rhymes and alliteration.
Like all the sort of classic things that poetry has to offer.
I feel like the more you have of that the better the experience
is as a listener because those things kind of click
in your brain.
They sort of -- you know, it's a fun thing for your brain to hear
that kind of, you know, like exact rhymes or words within a
sentence that kind of go together in an interesting way.
So you know, it's not poetry specifically.
But whoever likes to move words around, I'm a fan of.
Speaker: Let's hear from some other -- I'm sure that many of you have
questions as well.
Questions for Aimee Mann?
I have more, but I want you all to ask questions.
Right there.
Poet shirt, yes?
You all have shirts that say poet.
Audience Member: My question was how do you -- because for me,
I don't think that I could ever write a song.
So do you think you could ever write poetry in silence, like
without the music, if you could?
Aimee Mann: I think I could but I mean, it would probably be harder.
I mean, it would definitely be harder.
I mean, I've always sort of felt like -- I'm not a very
articulate person.
And writing songs is -- sort of became for me a way to talk
about things that I could not talk about in any other way.
And I think that really, like having music kind of jump start
that, it just -- you know, like if you hear --
(strumming guitar) -- you know, you feel something.
Or I do anyway.
And then I go, well, what is that I'm feeling.
(guitar strumming) And to me it feels like the music has a story
in it and I just have to kind of figure out what that is.
And maybe it's a little like having a dream and interpreting
your dream or looking at a piece of art and -- or it's like a
Rorschach test really.
You look at the inkblot and you go, it looks like a butterfly
with like a guy with a -- so maybe that's just what it is.
And I think that's okay.
But that's sort of how I approach it because that saves
me the burden of going, What am I thinking and How do I feel?
So I go, Well, what is the music saying?
But it does feel like cheating, I have to say.
Speaker: One last question.
You can stand.
Speaker: What lead you to cross over from like the hardcore punk
scene to a more acoustic sound?
Aimee Mann: I think when I was younger, I wasn't an accomplished musician,
so the punk scene was attractive because it was really
like anything goes and you could do anything.
You know, like my manager is here, and we were in bands in
Boston together.
And he was in a band.
They had a song, the lyrics of which were, "recipe for shrimp
flambé" There was something very fun and very playful about that,
having, you know, you could do whatever you wanted to do.
But then I started to realize that within that sort of, you
know, super arty underground punk scene, there were things
that you were not supposed to write about.
Like you weren't supposed to write about any kind of
relationship stuff or love songs.
That was out of the question.
And then I started to feel like, well, this is
kind of restrictive.
And so I did sort of an aboutface.
I don't think like I'm essentially very, you know, sort
of angry, punky type of person in the first place.
But it was a fun thing to try out for a while.
Speaker: Okay.
Well, thank you Aimee Mann.
Speaker: Thank you so much.
(applause)
Speaker: And so we have at an end of this part of the day.
I want to thank everyone for attending and, of course, to
thank the President and the First Lady for having us here
for this occasion.
I want to give one last round of applause to all of the poets.
Thank you so much.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
(applause) And I just want to send you off into the day with a
few words from the great poet from the South Side of Chicago,
the bard of the South Side, the late, great Gwendolyn Brooks.
I hope you all know her poetry.
And I'm reading out her words, of course, because the south
side of Chicago gave us our spectacular First Lady.
So I just want to leave you with Gwendolyn Brooks' words:
"Conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the
whirlwind".
So off you go.
Happy poetry!