(The above being the subject line of a porn spam missive from one Ignorance J. Puckish.)
I’ve been thinking about Sekou Sundiata, my old poetry teacher at Lang.
When I went to school, all I was interested in was becoming a performer and a songwriter. There’s no school that offers a genuine curriculum in what I wanted to eventually do for a living, so I had to cobble together my own, moving to New York to play open mic nights, taking poetry and theater classes at Lang. I jerry-rigged my own sort of conservatory.
Sometimes I fantasize that if I hadn’t been so single-minded and obsessed with becoming a songwriter, I might have not had abysmal grades, and might have ended up at Brown or Vassar, and actually gotten myself a liberal arts education. Of course, I realize that there’s no gift an adolescent can have greater than a feeling of purpose, a place one is burning to get to, so I’m grateful for my luck.
And had I not ended up at Lang, I wouldn’t have studied with Sekou Sundiata, a guy who impacted my life immeasurably. He taught a poetry class called “The Shape and Nature of Things to Come.” I’ve applied what I learned from him to every part of my creative life. I was taking the D train home early this morning, and I thought up a list of the things he taught that have most resonated in my life.
You work for the poem, the poem doesn’t work for you. So you have to listen for what it wants to be. “You’re trying to build a house,” he said in a class once, “and sometimes the poem says, ‘I’m not a house, I’m a bird.'”
Learn to cut your poems unmercifully. Don’t protect them; don’t treat every line as if it were precious. It was positvely disorienting when you’d read a poem in class and he’d start saying cut this line, cut that line. And then, of course, instantly the entire class would jump in and start cutting your lines, too. Some were able to let go and give themselves over to this process; others fought tooth and nail for this or that superfluous word (and that was a fascinating lesson, too). Eventually, skins thickened, and we were better poets for it.
“Sometimes the poem is just a life-support system for one killer line,” Sekou said. “Cut that line out and find it a better home.”
Your poem has to be more interesting than what it purports to be about. The most meaningful learning experiences in the class came from the bad poems that got brought in, not the good ones. One time a guy brought in a spectacularly mediocre poem about Islam, and Sekou laid into him with the cut this line, cut that line. The guy, in defending his work, outlined a really fascinating story about muezzins and prophets, and Sekou said: “That’s great. Why don’t I hear that in the poem?”
Have killer titles. Poets tend to be timid about titles, often leaving their poems untitled. Sekou didn’t suffer this milquetoast position gladly. Titles are like a line of your poem writ large, often the most important, most visible part of the poem itself.
Have a style. Be conscious of your voice, and conscious of how you develop it. “Miles Davis said, ‘I like musicians who play a style,'” Sekou would quote, over and over again in class.
Over time, I’ve come to question this as a value. Certainly the stuff I wrote for Soul Coughing was redolent with conscious style, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less concerned with it, in fact becoming wary of myself whenever I write something where I’m very conscious of my own style. Maybe it was a great place to start from, though, and all the creative success I’ve had over the years came from the seed of this conscious development of an early style.
Be the truest version of yourself you can be. This was the biggest lesson for me. I really wanted to be black, as a 19 year old. Like most 19 year old white suburbanites want to be. Sekou gently steered me away from that; I began to look for what was most intrinsically myself in myself–check out the heightened, barking whiteness of the voice on the early Soul Coughing recordings. “They call it soul because it comes from the deepest part of yourself,” Sekou said, repeatedly. “Soul is undeniable.”