Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Poet (Tracie Morris) vs. the Rappers (of East St. Louis)

Tracie Morris performing poetry
When I first arrived in the area in 2003, I began volunteering at a high school in East St. Louis. I really should say volunteering and visiting. There was a wonderful English teacher at the school, and sometimes I simply sat in on her classes to listen and learn.

Each term, during my own presentations for the students, I would discuss African American poetry. I was also invited to discuss poetry at other schools in the city and in the region. Since the students were young and often more acquainted with the performance of black verse - as spoken word, as rap, as r & b, as gospel - than printed volumes of poetry or anthologies, I would often bring books and print-outs of poems as well as audio recordings.

Among every single audience of the many presentations I gave, there were always groups of young men who were aspiring rappers. Cool. These guys were quite confident in their skills and often brushed off the recordings of poets reading their works because those poets were only "aight."

I loved that response, because it was a good setup for the impending arrival of my lesson on poet Tracie Morris and her poem "Project Princess."

"Wow fellas," I'd open, pretending as if I was being spontaneous. "I just got a really good idea." First, I wanted to know who among the group was an above-average rapper. Several hands would go up. Next, I wanted to know, who wasn't afraid to gamble. The same hands went up, along with a few more.

[Note: In what follows, a typically responsible college literature professor might suggest that he was involved in some gambling activities with minors. For the sake of legal concerns and the widely held opinion among some folks that the professor's mama raised him to "know better," let's imagine that what he writes is fictional, ok? Thanks.]

"Ok, cool," I'd say. "Here's the deal: We're going to read the printed version of this poem 'Project Princess' by poet Tracie Morris. Then, we'll listen to a recording of her reading it. If you can out-perform her, I give you $10. If you can't, you give me $5."

I'd pull out a $10 and put it on a table in front of the class. "Who's in?"

At this point, all the now wide-eyed students were looking back and forth between their teacher to me at the front. They were waiting for the teacher to intervene to say I was joking.

"Oh, my bad. That's probably wrong," I'd say removing the $10. I'd then replace it with another bill and go, "Let's make it $20."

"Oooooooooooo," was the regular collective response from the instigators.

"Can we?" guys would ask the teacher, who would often respond by shrugging her shoulders to indicate she was not involved.

"So, by show of hands, who's not scared? Oops. I mean, who's in," I'd say. About 5 or 6 hands would go up.

We would take the time to move slowly through the printed version of Morris's poem. We'd talk about her alliteration, the allusions, the rhythm of the piece.

After we discussed the piece, I'd conclude: "It's a really good poem that affirms young sisters and reveals the creativity of this poet. Let's listen."

I'd reach to push play on the audio device and then stop myself. "Who said they were in?" Inevitably, even more hands would go up saying that they wanted to take me up on the wager.

Looking back, I imagine that in the minds of the young aspiring rappers in those various classes, the idea of out-reading or out-performing a woman poet should have been easy. From all the indications they had received perhaps, there was no contest when it came to a poet vs. a rapper.

Poor boys. Leaping in where wise folks know to proceed with caution.

I'd push play, and we would all proceed to listen to the reading. No the performance. No, the other worldly sonic projection known as Tracie Morris presenting "Project Princess." On the recording I have from the Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers CD, Morris apparently decides to momentarily evacuate her status as a human being and transform herself into a machine, a turn-table perhaps, to present the poem.

She reads at an accelerated pace at times. She slows to these quick pauses. She repeats words and interrupts herself in the spirit of turn-table scratching. She accents sounds here; she twists and turns words there. It's a dynamic display of sonic energy.

When the poem ends, we typically receive another collective response from the crowd.


"Well," I say. "Who wants to go first."

In the event that I should someday plan on running for public office, I think I'll spare you the details concerning the monetary transactions that follow the contest. But I can say that in most cases, the challengers concede without even attempting to read the poem aloud. And after more than 20 presentations, Tracie Morris remains undefeated.

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