From the Mouths of Poets

Poetry, as a literary form, is a relatively recent idea, yet weaving stories and thoughts in a concise structure that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time. Today spoken word is a popular, more democratic way for poets to get their work and words out. When the pandemic put a halt to groups performing together, dancers from American Ballet Theatre's teen training program found a way.

AIRED: December 25, 2020 | 0:26:46

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(cool music)

- Welcome to "Articulate",

the show that explores

the inner lives of great creative people.

(bright classical music)

I'm Jim Cotter,

and on this episode,

"From the Mouths of Poets."

Poetry as a literary form is a relatively recent idea,

yet verbalizing stories and thoughts in a concise form

that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time.

Today, spoken word poetry is a popular, more democratic way

for poets to get their work and their words into the world.

And the walls between traditional literary poetry,

that's usually only read,

and Slam,

which is usually only heard,

are slowly vanishing.

And, when the pandemic put a hold

to groups performing together,

dancers from American Ballet Theatre's

teen training program,

found a way to create and perform new work.

That's all I had on "Articulate".

(bright classical music)

- Things I tell myself about my skin:

I like it this way.

Remember that time I questioned

Why God molded me out of tar and sky?

Me neither.

Remember that time I met that girl

Who thought bleach would lighten

All the burdens off her back?

Me too.

- [Jim] Most of us were probably first exposed to poetry

on the page in a classroom.

But over the past few decades,

spoken word poetry has grown in popularity,

bringing verse from page to stage.

Today, performance poetry takes place in over 1000 cities,

large and small around the world.

And YouTube gives anyone with a camera

and an internet connection,

the potential for a global audience.

But this isn't just an evolution of written poetry

for the digital age.

It's really a return to the fundamentals of poetry,

the intense expression of ideas and emotions.

- Once they see poetry and experience, they're like,

"Oh, I didn't know poetry could be this."

And it's like,

"Yeah, 'cause you had the wrong introduction."

- It's an amazing art form.

And it comes down to every detail;

to line breaks,

to how you look at somebody in your eyes,

to the specific word that you decided to use at that moment.

- We feel poetry all the time.

You know, we feel it in music.

We feel it, sometimes, in language.

Yeah, we have an instinct.

- But to me, poetry is a live phenomenon.

It's something you really need to see to experience fully.

So I remained an only child,

In a house of cards that I'm waiting to be crushed by,

Or paper-cut to a slow death with.

The fear of living in a house of cards

is knowing the right gust of wind

can paper-cut you to death.

- [Jim] Shihan Van Clief has been writing and performing

poems for three decades.

He's one of the founders of Da Poetry Lounge,

the largest and longest running open mic

in the United States.

- So you introduce people to poetry

most of the time in middle school,

seventh, eighth, ninth grade,

you know, for...

You know, they read Shakespeare or Walt Whitman.

And so when you start reading,

and you don't care about what you're reading,

you read it in a disinterested voice.

And so it doesn't make you want

to know anything else about it.

Because I think Shakespeare is dope,

I think Walt Whitman was dope,

I think they're all dope.

But there's something from this

to this

that you get when you see it live.

I thought it was cool.

My mom...

Some spoken word allows young people to get in touch

with their story and who they are

a lot earlier than some other traditional means,


- [Jim] Alyesha Wise is the co-founder

of the Spoken Literature Art Movement

and the former head coach of the Poetry Lounge's Slam team.

Like many people,

her love for spoken word began when she was young.

- Homecoming happened.

It was the homecoming pageant in high school.

And I entered it and I decided

to write a poem called "Homecoming".

And I don't know why, I was just like,

"You know what? I'm feeling different about my life now.

I think I'm gonna switch things up."

I said, "I'm gonna write a poem about that."

About, you know, changing my life and being a better person.

And I wrote that poem.

And I cried up there, you know, after the poem was done.

Some of my family members were in the audience

and that was the beginning.

I wasn't perfect,

right after that poem.

But that was the beginning of a new me.

Tell me my voice is an ocean of violence.

I wanna know what it feels like to bloom,

To have the stage salute you.

Tell me,

Or don't tell me at all.

Remain a secret I yearn to break,

A vinyl leaning against my living room wall.


I will grow old,

And you will always look the exact age

You've looked since 1958.

My name is Wise,

I am an owl.

Your name is Prince,

You are a dove.


We can just hang out on the weekends.

- [Jim] Spoken word poetry

didn't originate in one place or time in history.

Humans have used rhythmic, poetic utterances

for thousands of years all over the world.

Across Africa, tribes used performance poetry for education,

entertainment, and ceremonial purposes.

The Greeks had a sort of spoken word competition

in their ancient Olympic games.

In Arabic, the word "Koran" means "recitation."

It's based on the belief

that the holy text was revealed by an angel

who recited it years before it was ultimately written down.

The modern interest in written poetry

that we read rather than recite or hear is relatively new.

- Poetry predates the printed text.

That's just it, right?

And that tells us a lot, right?

This idea that people have been speaking poems,

i.e spoken word,

for quite a long time.

- [Jim] Javon Johnson is a poet and director

of African-American and African Diaspora Studies

at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

His book, "Killing Poetry;

Blackness and the Making of Slam

and Spoken Word Communities"

examines the relationship

of contemporary spoken word poetry

to written and academic poetic institutions.

- We build our schools, our publishing houses.

We build awards for each other.

We build our own structures that if...

That has the possibility to be the things

that we want them to be.

Baby girl,

You should know that daddy only knows two options:

He knows go hard or go home.

He knows 200 miles per hour or burnt rubber stop.

He knows nothing in between.

You will soon learn that your daddy also loves this way.

You'll have a hard time understanding

How anyone in this world could ever call me mean

"Not my daddy," you'll say.

"He's the kindest man in the world."

- [Jim] Nowhere is the relationship

between poetry and power clearer than in the United States.

Around the turn of the 20th century,

singing poets emerged in the U.S.,

traveling and trading poems for food and lodging.

But the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s

is one of the key inflection points

in U.S. oral poetry tradition.

Writers and thinkers like Langston Hughes

and Zora Neale Hurston

planted the seeds of jazz-infused cadences,

oral performance,

and socially conscious subject matter

that grew to be the foundation of modern spoken word.

Like most artistic evolutions,

that history grew out of necessity.

For the generations of African-Americans

building lives after slavery,

poetry and broader artistic expression

became a means of survival.

- In a moment when black people were newly free,

newly emancipated,

and the country was asking,

"What do we do with," the so-called, "Negro problem?"


Art becomes a way to answer that,

to push back,

to say, "There is not a Negro problem.

There's a U.S problem."

But also to say that,

"We're fine if we're given access to...

But also on some level, we can prove to you

that we can do just as many creative things,

we can prove to you that we are just as human."

Learn how to scream, "No," and mean it.

Be as loud as the day you were (muted) born and mean it.

I cannot wait to sing the first song to you.

- [Jim] If art is a way

to prove power and worth in a society,

spoken word communities have evolved

to try to democratize that ability.

While literary poetry

became a hierarchical guarded academic pursuit,

oral poetry became a decentralized response.

A tool for the disenfranchised to express themselves

on a level playing field.

That's why one of the core tenets of spoken word

is that writers perform their own poems.

Authenticity is essential.

- See your body...

And that's one of the great things about spoken word;

Is the vulnerability,

is the connection.

Even if somebody doesn't connect to your exact story,

they feel it in some kind of way.

The look somebody gives you after a poem is done

and they're...

They go, "Wow, thank you."

And we're from like opposite sides of the city,

or country, or world.

And they're like, "Thank you. I get it."

It's like we're all connected in some way.

- [Jim] Today, spoken word

is a close cousin to one of the most widespread,

most popular musical styles in the world;

Hip hop.

The two art forms have a common ancestry.

In the late 1960s,

a group of black writers, musicians and activists

formed The Last Poets and began releasing albums

blending musical, poetic, and political stylings.

In the early 70s,

one of the last poets contemporaries,

poet and jazz musician, Gil Scott-Heron,

recorded "The Revolution will not be televised".

A track that likewise mixed jazz, blues,

spoken word and activism.

♪ You will not be able to stay home, brotha ♪

♪ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. ♪

♪ You will not be able to lose yourself on skag ♪

♪ And skip out for beer during commercials ♪

♪ Because the revolution will not be televised. ♪

- [Jim] Both Scott-Heron and The Last Poets

are credited as the godfathers of Hip hop and rap.

A lot of early Hip hop has much in common with spoken word.

But the main difference

is that hip hop focuses more on rhythm and rhyme.

- Hip hop;

You know how it's gonna sound the next line.

You know how the rhyme scheme is set up,

for the most part.

In poetry it's like,

especially in spoken word,

you can pretty much do what you want with the flow.

You can start rhyming then all of a sudden

you can switch it up and not rhyme anymore.

- With hip hop and poetry,

I think they all come down to story.

When they're told...

When they're done right,

it's story, it's a dope story.

And, you know, rap just basically...

And basically, rap comes from the word...

From rhapsodize,

which means someone who's good with words.

So I think it's clear where that is.

You know what I mean? Wording is important, so.

- You don't have to be a fan of hip hop

to write spoken word.

Most of my favorite spoken word artists grasp onto Hip hop

and are fans of Hip hop.

The word play that they choose,

the way they move up there...

You see how I just moved my head?

It's something that happens. It...

There's such a parallel between the two art forms.

♪ We don't do them split decisions ♪

♪ Nor do we split the pie with people who don't recognize ♪

♪ This is something special--

- [Jim] But as the poet and rapper Sugar Tongue Slim,

or STS, would put it,

it's difficult to be both at the same time.

- I tell people all the time,

"Just because you do poetry, don't mean you can rap.

And just 'cause you rap, don't mean you do poetry."

It's just two different worlds.

It's like, you know, with the beat constraining you

as a rapper,

and then you having to use couplets all the time.

Poetry you're free.

You can go wherever.

If you wanna obey the margins, you can.

But most people don't.

And so, you know, it allows you to do more.

But to understand how to do each of 'em perfectly,

you have to really focus in on it.

Like, when I'm focusing on rapping,

like, if I'm working on an album or something,

then don't bother me about poetry

'cause I need to stay rap.

But if I write poetry, then everything's gonna change.

Like, my whole mood is gonna change.

Shooting at the stars, almost hit mars.

Tag the sun on the side, trying to the Lord.

Give me 2, 3 or 12 and I'm gon' see hell,

7 or 11 I might just reach heaven.

And I can work a 9-5 or a 4-10,

But then I'm betting straight money

Don't (indistinct)

- [Jim] Because spoken word

is so much about a very personal expression

of personal experiences,

it's odd that one of the most popular forms of spoken word,

Slam poetry,

is judged and scored;

it's a competition.

Well, that competitiveness is also what keeps it open

and democratic.

- Slam is an oral poetry competition

judged by five random people selected in the audience

using Olympic style scoring from 0.0 to 10.0,

encouraging decimals so as to discourage ties.

Those five judges after hearing a poem

would throw up their score,

you drop the high and the low,

you add up the three,

thus your score from 0.0 to 30.0.

- The people decide what is and what isn't

in regards to the art form, right?

'Cause they support what they support.

There are certain people who will be supported,

others who don't.

And so that kind of becomes the...

How it maintains its relevancy

as the audience, kind of, does what it does.

- [Jim] Slam began in 1980 in Chicago when Marc Smith,

a construction worker,

decided to spice up poetry readings he was hosting

by matching up poets against one another, like a fight.

Since then the form has spread around the world.

But the competitive framing still tends to reward

the authenticity that's foundational to spoken word.

- The one thing Slam seemingly asks for

is a perceived truth.

And I use perceived truth

because it doesn't have to be truthful by any definition.

It just has to appear truthful, right?

That's a really important thing;

that Slam wants a truth, right?

Whatever the truth is, how...

You know, it's like, "Ah, that's that person's story?

Who am I to argue against that?"

And I think that's important, right?

- For the most part,

with my more vulnerable poems,

they've done very well,

especially when I was true to myself.

When I went up there really, you know,

not thinking about the performance per se,

but thinking about, "I need to get this out."

What I always remind myself,

"Be honest on a stage because people see that."

And I'm not always happy

when horribly written poems do well,

but I do understand why an audience connects to that

because they're like,

"Whoa, look at her, getting free up there."

- She wants to let me know

What's going to happen when she passes.

And I don't wanna think about the future,

But I anticipate its destruction.

See, in all my years on this planet,

I've never witnessed someone in a box

Lowered into the ground and then dedicated to the sky.

So when I die,

I wanna be cremated,

Burning up all of my imperfections,

And then have someone sprinkle what's left over,

Over someplace I've never been to

In hopes of inspiring someone

I will never know anything about.

- [Jim] Some people are uncomfortable

with the competitive environment of Slam.

The literary critic, Harold bloom went so far as to call it,

"The death of art."

But for the poets investing their time, energy and passion

into their work,

Slam and the broader spoken word ecosystem

that has taken root around the world,

are the opposite of that.

- So we started Da Poetry Lounge for us to hear each other,

and to support each other,

and to get us through what we were going through.

I think that lounge is important

because the consistency of what lounge is

and what it represents,

gives people the feeling that

even if they disappear and they leave,

they can come back and know it's still there.

- Many of us are coming to the conclusion that it is...

Or that there's a large place,

a place large enough to contain

all of these different impulses.

When I was a student,

like 25 years ago,

there was a big divide between academic poetry,

and performance poetry.

Now there are so many poets who do both

that that anxiety,

I think,

is diminished greatly.

- (indistinct) so much of, like, early poets

were trying to get into this sort of poetry literary world

to prove our merit,

to prove our value,

to prove our worth.

"We too are real writers,

not just people who rant on a stage."

And I said to myself,

"Why are we doing that?

Why are we trying to prove our worth to those structures?"

What I've found to be most valuable

and most brilliant about Slam and spoken word poets,

which is the radical potential,

does not lie in our abilities to prove our worth

or our merit to these sort of frustrating structures.

The radical potential is really in our ability

to build new structures altogether.

- Yeah, I think this art form still has a long way to go.

I do.

I agree with that.

But at the same time,

I believe that it's in a very special place right now.

It's definitely changing the world.

I am not here for the non-believers.

I am not here for those who cringe

When they see me seeing all of myself.

This bodily prayer is strictly between my sight and the sun

And all the good folk

Who answered the presence of this church

With no other words on their tongue

But amen.

(crowd cheers)

(bright music)

- [Jim] When the pandemic forced the world into lockdown,

there was collective shock

soon followed by what looked a lot

like the five stages of grief,

as defined in the 1960s by the Swiss psychiatrist,

Elisabeth K übler-Ross.

Denial and isolation,





Some moved quickly through this process.

Others got stuck along the way.

Those who found acceptance quickly, and could,

began adapting the way they lived.

Others, for whom human contact was essential to their work,


If working alone from home was already your norm,

this was less disruptive.

But as the summer came to an end,

some orchestras,

theatre companies

and at least one ambitious group

of young ballet dancers in New York city

began finding ways to rediscover their bliss.

- I guess, I was training to here and then ended up there.

(cool music)

- (indistinct) was a fun experience

and I know that we are very grateful

and, like, had a lot of fun doing it.

- This could be something that we could do instead

and keep ballet alive in our hearts.

- Well, I thought we were just, like,

maybe performing on the stage, or, like, in a studio.

And I had no idea, like, it'd become this big.

(cool music)

- [Jim] These are members

of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ballet school,


Co-founded by the late first lady,

it's the incubator,

the pre-professional division of American Ballet Theatre,

one of the world's foremost dance companies.

Many of its more recent graduates not only danced with ABT,

but in many other prestigious companies around the globe.

The work these future ballet stars created

began backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House,

ABT's home stage.

- Around two years ago now,

my friend, Audrey and Molly,

who's also in this ballet,

and I were just playing around and it was the year

that Misty Copeland was performing "The Firebird".

And then Charles would always play the piano

in between our classes.

And he saw us doing it.

He's like, "Oh, I wanna create music for that."

I'm like, "Okay, go do that."

And then he comes back two weeks later,

with, like, a 20-minute long piece of music...

At the beginning we were all saying,

"Charles, this is a joke.

Come on, this is never gonna be a real ballet.

We're just kids. We can't do it.

And especially now, I mean, we can't even go outside

and ballet's canceled."

And he really was like, "No, no. We can do this

and we can make something."

- I asked people what characters they wanted to be.

And then I took all of those characters and made a story

and then I sent it to Ava.

And I told her what each character was doing in each song.

And she choreographed the dances for each song.

And then she sent it to the dancers who were doing it.

Since we couldn't rehearse in the studio,

we rehearsed on Zoom.

- We decided that now we could use Zoom

and different technologies to meet.

So this is something that just completely evolved

and something we've all been looking forward to every week.

- Yes, Ely. But make sure to turn your head at the end.

- So really, it's... (piano plays)

- Yes, yes.

But make sure the arms are still bended a little bit.

So like...

So we have Zoom rehearsals and I have to run them;

to show people the choreography and teach them the steps.

That's very nice, yes.


(piano plays)

- So the main characters are The Waterbird.

Then she has like a rival,

and that's Ava, the choreographer.

And she's called The Evil Duck

and she, kind of, rules all the ducks in the story.

Then there's The Fairy.

And The Fairy and The Queen Swan are sisters in real life.

- Hi, my name is (indistinct).

- And hi, my name is (indistinct).

- But I go by Shui. - And I go by Mei.

- And I'm The Queen Swan.

- And I'm The Fairy Queen.

- And my name means water. - And my name means beauty.

- So The Fairy turns Bird into The Waterbird

and that's how she gets the name.

So the bird gets trapped by The Evil Duck.

The Evil Duck kid kidnaps her, in this story,

and then two raccoons find her.

But they can't rescue her by themselves so they go get me,

who's The Eagle,

and I'm, kind of, like, the king of the land, I guess.

So I have all the keys and all of, like, the knowledge

(indistinct) we go rescue The Waterbird.

(bright classical music)

- [Jim] But they could only make so much progress on Zoom.

That's when they decided to call in the grownups.

- My grandma has put so much into this farm

to make it beautiful.

And like, "Why not use it?"

- [Jim] Grandma Helen Chapman's farm

in Frenchtown, New Jersey,

is a farm in name only.

The animals here are her pets,

family members,

breakfast companions rather than items on the menu.

(upbeat music)

- This is Racket

and he fell madly in love with Leona.

(playful music)

And my son-in-law's named Neil

and his nickname is Cecil.

So this is Neil and that's Cecil.

(playful music)

- [Jim] And then,

two dancers from ABT's main company came forward to help.

Luis Ribagorda,

a member of ABT's corps and a seasoned filmmaker,

and principal, Sarah Lane.

- They came from a really pure place in these kids' hearts

and their talent is just incredible, really.

So those two things put together,

I think it makes something really special.

- And I remember the first time they talked to me about it,

I was just so impressed by the amount of work

and what they've created.

I feel like most of professional ballet companies

they haven't even attempted to do something like this.

I mean, it's very difficult to create a full ballet.

And for children to do something like that,

I was so inspired.

- I think that we can all learn from children.

They see the world so simply,

and we tend to make things more complicated

than they really are.

We want more, more, more all the time.

And sometimes just to be grateful for what you have

and to fill your life with more of that simplicity,

love and gratefulness, I think we would all be better off.

- I think that just whatever you put your mind to

you can do.

And just because we're kids...

Like Charles and Ava choreographing and composing

the ballet,

they were still able to do it

just as well as any adults would.

So just anyone can do anything that they put their mind to

and they can make it as big as they dreamed of.

- I guess when people have time, they can do amazing things.

And if they care about a project,

if they're inspired by a project and, like, they can do it.

We just put all of our minds together

and made something really cool.

(bright classical music)

- [Jim] Today, this group of young dancers

are showing the rest of the ballet world,

and maybe all of us,

that it's possible not merely to overcome,

but to boldly move from isolation to acceptance

and in the process to find joy in dreaming,

in creating,

and being.

(bright classical music)

For more "Articulate" find us on social media

or on our website,

On the next "Articulate": comics are nothing new.

For at least 8,000 years we've been using pictures

to tell stories and communicate new ideas.

Today, graphic novels have a lot to say,

and so do the creators behind them.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next "Articulate".

(bright classical music)

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(bright music)


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv