First Wave at ‘Shake the Dust’

Last night’s ‘100% Proof’ event showcased the coach mentors for today’s National Youth Poetry Slam final plus we also got to see an amazing performance by ‘First Wave’, a group from the Spoken Word and Hip Hop Learning Community course at University of Wisconsin, Madison (USA). 

This group, now touring the UK, used their own experience of race and racism in the US education system as the basis for this piece. It was mesmerising: a performance of such power, and such polish, and also such rawness, love, humanity. And great tenderness. I went with a friend completely new to this way of working with poetry, and he was overwhelmed by it. The slam groups from around the country filled the audience and you could have heard a pin drop from the concentration and appreciation. 

The hispanic-american young man falling between literacies, falling between gangs, not fluent in Spanish, not fluent in English; not supposed to be ‘American’; made crazy, educationally pigeon-holed and pushed from X category to Y category, from someone else’s frying pan to someone else’s fire; seeking explanations, desparate, angry; and so wise.

The young black woman’s repeated surprise “I feel so black today”… Her yearly trip to Africa that makes her feel white, which she likes… Whose language, whose values, whose skin…how to get through?

The young man’s urgent appeal to his white grandma, his black grandma; the chaos of the playground, his hair too kinky, too straight, his skin too white, too black… How to find himself for himself; how to find others; be strong; all those hundreds of thousands of others. “Obama – first ‘black’ president??” Kinship with his Vietnamese-American friend, not vietnamese enough, not Euro enough… Whose problem do we make this?

“I love you” says the young black man to another man who is desperate to disassociate: “You are Not a black man, you can’t be”. 
The way this particular duologue unfolded, troubled us, brought us in, was truly transgressive, truly revolutionary.

A young woman sings commandingly, enunciatedly, the song ‘Little Boxes’ as she weaves through the stage. So simple, so arresting. Every point made through this one song, reinvented for this context.

This group had everyone wired into a level of concentration and wonder that is so so rare.  Catch them on tour or on Youtube if you can.

Find out more about First Wave, and the programme at University of Wisconsin, Madison, here.

* * *
Sophisticated poetry begats beginner poetry:

‘WHITE’ WITNESS to FIRST WAVE 

As a ‘white’ woman, I sit in the audience of this night of a thousand hues,
Night of a thousand cries,
Night of a thousand bruises,

And yet of such joys. Of irrepressible hope.

“You’ve got to open the bruise up to let the bruise blood flow out, to show them.”*

Of such release.

I test ‘the skin I’m in’, 
My mixed heritage is generally all whitened out. 
Not put to the test. 
Not visible. 
Part of the dominant culture, I must be. 
That’s right, 
Us, singular.

Really?
Daily I re-glue my ‘white’ mask, sometimes with, mostly without consciousness.
Daily I fine-tune my school-learnt London-estuary accent, sometimes full-blown, sometimes eradicated,  sometimes with, mostly without consciousness. 
Daily I tussle with my own reactions – from my emotional, blurting, messy, open ‘Welsh’ side? From my buttoned-up, thoughtful, slow ‘English’ side?
Or was it my emotional, blurting, messy, open ‘English’ side? My buttoned-up, thoughtful, slow ‘Welsh’ side? I can’t remember. 
Aren’t I already hyphenated – Anglo-Saxon? Bits of me from Germany bursting out?
Choosing when to fit, to stand out.
All those me(s), pluralling through the day… Invisibly, it seems, from the skin I’m in.
I’m allowed to be plural, safe in my ‘white’ fastness.
The prerogative of the dominant culture.
But all those you(s) are in you too. 

Bruise blood.
Such joy, such hope, such release.

“Does my anger frighten you?” she threw out to us**,
Yes, but you have reason that resounds back through time.
No, because you have such reason.
Yes, because you may, in your fury, see only my white mask. And consider me enemy.
No, because I agree with you. I am as programmed as any.
Yes, but have you seen mine?
Can I show you mine?

Memory of the Belfast republican, cousin of my friend from Cork.
He knows nothing about me, but I am ‘white English’.
That’s enough for him. No eye contact, lip curled, any chance to snipe.
A sniper.
With reason. 

BUT

‘Troops Out!’ I scream inside. Troops out of our heads. How many marches, how many times? How many crimes? Solidarity? 
His barely concealed aggression like a baton charge. I am erased. 
My once-in-ten-years’ experience. 
Yet, this happens daily to others judged before they utter a word or move a limb.
Their skin going before them.

“Does my anger frighten you?”

Memory of travelling in Voyvodina, region of Serbia with many historically settled Croats, 
In warring, disintegrating, aching ex-Yugoslavia.

I stumble a word out to the friendly train carriage “Lipo!” – it’s beautiful.
The friendly train carriage seizes up, hackles rising. 
Glances shared, and some suddenly fixed to the floor.
In English through gritted teeth, one man states, gauntlet-like 

‘”Lipo” is Croatian, here we say “Lepo”. 

Judders, jolts, my body is electric. The static crackles. 
We shouldn’t even breathe, we are thinking:
‘The common skin they’re in, yet all those being killed for this.’
“You’ve got to open the bruise up to let the bruise blood flow out, to show them.”


Of no release, here. Only simmering. 

Yet, tonight, for me, the world cracks open again.
The world of many hues hews down the poorly mortared walls that delude, 
Scythes through the forests of wilful misunderstanding that
Serve us all so badly.

The word, the warmed, strong-willed, worked, woven word coming from lungs not two-decades’ old, From young bodies which have been forced to feel, to bear too much, but, 
So wise, tenderly nurtured now,
They embody care:
A strident wooing that grips every cell,
Inculcating ‘me-in-you’, ‘you-in-me’,
The world as if it was the Garden that is still, always, daily, back-breakingly, movingly, urgently, 
Entrusted to each
To all
To us

Us, Plural.


Jane Trowell

*MadVillian, ‘America’s most blunted’
** Kat Francois, Roundhouse London’s slam group Poet Coach.


Ref to ‘What have you done with the Garden that was entrusted to you?’ Poem by Antonio Machado