Guest Post, Amanda Fields: Youth Slam: Reflections on Research and the Endeavor of Writing

The room is a hot squeeze: words bounce and echo with the clank of mugs, the hiss of steam, the scrape of chairs. On the walls, there is artwork for sale, nailed against galvanized metal sheets or perched on wooden shelves. Behind the counter, a chalkboard menu. This is the kind of coffeehouse that serves organic foods and homemade pies, that hangs up rotating artwork and anti-racism signs. Nestled between a grimy convenience store and a tattoo parlor in central Tucson, its most frequent customers by day seem to be students and professors from the university, or people who make soap to sell at farmers’ markets, or tattooed elites. Once a month, it stays open for this poetry slam, which is regularly packed with high school students from all over southern Arizona, their families, teachers, passersby.

I got here early, and I’m sitting in a corner. I’ve got paper, but I am not, like so many of the young people around me, scribbling inspired lines of poetry or working thumb pads overtime on my phone. Instead of spinning out poems, I am drawing details – the mood, what poets say to each other, what they slam about, how they respond to their scores. I’m writing a dissertation about these poets. It’s a study of youth discourse, art, and activism, and I argue for the poets’ use of rhetorical strategies as suggestive of a specific kind of youth coalition. It’s hard for me to write such words, to work my mouth and ear around academic terms, but this is what I try to do now.

The first time I came to this poetry slam, I didn’t listen. I looked for craft. Pristine lines. I had the MFA ear, so precious. I did not want to hear explicit teen angst. I was with my friend, a writer who is working on a mystery novel. She is a PhD student with three children who supports her family on her own, and she runs at least a dozen miles every morning so she needs to eat constantly – she totes cartons of blueberries and bags of spinach, bagels and nuts.

We are both researchers on a grant that is funding work with local youth organizations, and this poetry slam is one of them. Our interdisciplinary research collective meets in a building on campus that is far from my English department home. This is how far: I was shocked when someone suggested that I could ask for undergraduate help in transcribing and coding my research data, and then I got access to a bright, clean room with a refrigerator where I could place my lunch without admonishment from tenured faculty. In this research collective, we talk about the problems and activism of marginalized Tucson youth who have suffered from increasingly restrictive policies in Arizona, such as the ethnic studies bill, the parents’ bill of rights, and the anti-immigration law. We sit in clean white rooms with bright lights and melodramatic air conditioning and expensive technology. We sit, and we try to figure out how this room squares with all the other spaces of Tucson.

This doesn’t tell you what I am trying to tell you, which is that my friend hears what is beautiful about this space long before I do. That first time, she, also, has brought paper, but, while I listen for gems, she hears the pulse. She nods and furiously writes, transcribing as many lines as she can. We squabble over awarding points because we have been asked to judge. Before the slam, we were handed a binder with scorecards numbering 1-10. At poetry slams, judges are chosen randomly from the audience, and no one is assumed to be an all-knowing critic. Or, everyone is an all-knowing critic because poetry is supposed to be public. After each poem, my friend clutches her heart and wants to give everyone 10’s. I wrinkle my nose frequently and insist upon a lower score, but no lower than 8.5 or we’ll get a big boo from the room. Sometimes she tosses up a 10 before I can object.

The problem with me is that I cannot yet bring myself to be generous, to love what is happening here. Writing has become a cool endeavor. For years, it has been difficult for me to look at my writing, at others’ writing, and be moved. This is not meant to be a quotidian lament about MFA programs, or the “workshop story,” or whatever else is, of late, a concern in creative writing. It is meant to suggest a simple question: how can writing move you (me), again?

Long ago, a New York Times columnist came to my MFA program, read one of my essays, and informed me I could not write a sentence. His pencil crawled over every line. I had felt that my essay was poetic. It had no meaning, no direction, sure, but it was a vivid narrative with comets and cornfields and a school field trip to the planetarium. Look how I’m undermining it. And the way I bowed to that creeping pencil. The way I agreed. The way I said it didn’t bother me while other students were weeping (he had done the same to all of us chosen to work with him). The way I thought my first publication worked because my favorite professor told me it was Chekhovian, and how that was the reason I figured I would submit it somewhere. The way I fool with myself. The way I can shrug at writing I’ve spent days, or years, producing. The way I learned to pause, to sip the sentence, close my eyes, approve of its warmth. And then the way the sipping could dismiss.

A poetry slam is not for sipping. You have to chug. It took a few slams for me to begin to learn how to listen, to be open to what moves these youth poets. There’s as much posturing in professional slam as in “literary” work, but this local slam is a different space. There are so many lines here, less the kind of lines that split than the lines that flow, a river of lines, a cacophony of lines, a supernova. Lines about racial tropes, familial bonds, the ideologies of citizenry, the notion of other. Lines tracing what it means to listen, to be heard, seen, felt. Lines of what it means to be young, genderqueer, gay, brown, white, poor, suburban, defined, confused, certain. Lines that cross, squiggle out past straight, open up the possibility of multifaceted identities, temporal identifications, complex humans. They write these lines before the slam, during the pre-slam workshop, or as the slam unfolds, anticipating their turn, almost-but-not-quite getting cold feet. They come here to write, to listen. They text each other after poems they like, or poems that baffle them; they give each other post-performance hugs. It’s not like the poetry readings of literary treasure. It’s not about “mmmm” or “mmm-hmmm,” the sharp intake of breath at a precious line, the expected silence or pregnant pause that signals we all are wandering in our separate, wooded brains. These lines often call me to reconsider what it means to write and act. They write as if there were no time for anything else, as if their lives were not scrolls just beginning to unfurl.

Guest Post, Amanda Fields: What Do I Write? Reflections at Two Months of Motherhood

Amanda FieldsIt’s 6AM. My daughter has nursed long enough to be lulled into a nap. She’s struggling to push out some gas, her shoulders tense and legs jimmying, her face scrunched as she grunts. She awoke hungry at 5. She’s no cruising nurser – she’s so serious about the food and the social opportunity at the breast that she stays until last call. And now, if she sleeps for fifteen minutes, I’ll be amazed.

It’s been almost two months since I was admitted to the hospital because I was overdue, because I am of “advanced maternal age,” because my amniotic fluid was low and my placenta, the experts surmised, was growing calcified and fatigued. Two months since I was induced for two days, my cervix constantly checked to the beat of the fetal heart monitor that echoed in my dreams long after delivery, midwives’ fingers attempting to pull my fisted cervix forward. Despite the prodding hands and pills and IV drips, the cervix remained stubbornly posterior, clamped.

It’s probably weird to draw a poetic analogy between my cervix and my current inability to write. But now that every minute is taken up with feeding and holding and showing the world to this child and the nagging question of when I can do the other work I want to do, my writerly self (whatever that is) seems locked up tight somewhere else.

Two months in, emerging from a haze of novice parenting to the work I choose to do, I’m starting to consider the inevitable merging of parenting and writing. Like all of us who face a new kind of writer inside as our lives change, I must get acquainted with this newly-born part of me that influences how I perceive and generate my work. I’ve written about mothers before, but now I wonder who that woman was who could write about motherhood before her own pregnancy, before her own baby. The novel I’m working on boasts two main characters plagued by the ghost of a teenaged son who killed himself in their backyard. A short story I published last summer in Nashville Review is about a woman whose toddler died. Who was that woman writing about the deaths of children? Not me, I suspect. Not me anymore.

The short story with the dead child was originally an essay about my time in Ireland just after graduating from college. Then it became a story, though the narrator was still me, observing and reflecting upon some things that happened abroad when I was twenty-one. Eventually, I applied some basic fiction lessons: give your main characters more interesting reasons to be wherever they are, and don’t make them observers with little at stake. Enter a young mother, visiting Ireland with her husband. Their marriage is falling apart because their young child has died. While we traverse Ireland, there are flashbacks of the mother feeling ambivalent about this child. I wonder if she is a convincing mother. She was a plot device, and her memories of her weird child were my memories of the way I imagined my parents perceived me sometimes. The story is published and finished, but I wonder how I would write that story now. I almost wish I could have another go at it, though perhaps the mother and child would evaporate from the story.

And what about this novel with the grieving parents? For almost eight years, I’ve been picking away at it, but I don’t know how to return to it. Writing a novel doesn’t match the blood, sweat, and tears of laboring with a baby, but it has been an awful lot of work, and I have to ask myself if I’m willing to lose all those pages and hours and immersion in that world just because I am not sure if I want to delve into the plight of those mourning parents. If I open this dormant document, how will I re-imagine them? Will I be able to stand even imagining their feelings? Will I be able to get around my superstitious certainty that writing or thinking about horrible things can both cause them to happen and ward them off? How can I write about a dead child when that is now the worst horror I can imagine?

The opportunity I have before me is to reassess the problems and choices I used to see in my fiction, to generate new problems and choices based on a perspective that is not necessarily clearer but different. It seems that being a mother and a writer will be about mining the generative parts of myself in several directions, like splitting the sun. After all, at least for the moment, I am the center of my child’s universe. Every morning I eagerly wait for my baby to rise and do simultaneously pedestrian and miraculous things. And, as these questions about my writing have emerged, I wait for the writer-me to return. I think I am the only one waiting, the center of my writing’s existence.