Poetry Up in the Big House

I was incredibly moved to watch the live stream of today’s poetry jam/slam at the White House. For 45 minutes solid I was amazed and stunned to see poets, mostly poets of color, telling their truths, naming their ancestors & deities, speaking their languages … IN THE WHITE HOUSE!

[Edited to add video links: HBO “Buzz” story (3 minutes), or official White House videos (9 segments approx 7 minutes each)]

President Obama started by introducing his wife as “someone who brings a lot of poetry to my life.” Aww, how sweet is that? Then the First Lady spoke passionately of the importance of poetry and spoken word in helping to “turn the White House into the People’s House.” People telling their own stories is, she said, essential to democracy. She said she had been wanting to do this event “since Day One.” What a difference from our last presidency, when Laura Bush cancelled a poetry symposium at the White House because some of the poets were going to read pacifist poems; she said it would be “inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.” Did anyone in the White House five months ago even know what “spoken word” is?

But enough of the bad ol’ days.  The poets I admired today were unabashedly political, as was the act of placing these poets—voices of their People—in the seat of power itself.

Mayda del Valle gave us a gorgeous and moving poem about her abuela and about faith:

I need it to reassemble myself whole from these shards of Chicago ice and island breezes
so I can rewrite the songs of your silence and pain. 

◆ James Earl Jones threw a monologue from Othello into the mix, and wow, what a great use of his talent.  As my friend Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (an amazing performer/poet herself) commented, “this is some deep statement shit about Black masculinity in the White House right now, damn.”

2628_1059510724553_1129440071_1220971_6794461_n◆ Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, who mixes smoothies at a juice chain store while attending my alma mater, came out strong with the opening lines:

what happens to the ones forgotten
the ones who shaped my heart from their rib cages
i want to taste the tears in their names

and built it up from there, crescendoing with phrases in Hawai’ian that made their meaning oh-so-clear. (She came up through Youth Speaks and did them proud today.)  

◆ And in between there was gorgeous music by bassist/composer Esperanza Spalding as well as other musicians and spoken word artists. 

 How beautiful it was to hear the diversity of cadences and languages, to watch the faces and take in the voices that—finally—made sense. When June Jordan created Poetry for the People, this is what she meant;  today was evidence of her legacy as much as anyone else’s.  And to watch it all streaming out of www.whitehouse.gov … well, that was just magic. 

Here’s hoping this is a sign of things to come from the new presidency when it comes to funding for the arts, diversity/equal opportunity policy, economic justice, and other topics of importance to the People.


June Jordan

June Jordan

One thought on “Poetry Up in the Big House

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *