In September 2006, I felt honored to join the ranks of writers that have been challenged in an attempt to be banned.
At a panel with a fellow writer and hometown girl Kalisha Buckhanon in Brooklyn’s Brownstone Books, we found ourselves talking to a teacher from the area who had mentioned that many students at her school were reading Kalisha’s novel Upstate
. She also told us that some adults in the district attempted to ban the novel.
This conversation led to other banned and censored books.
One of them could have been The Spoken Word Revolution
, a collection featuring 50 poets, including myself.
The collection had been considered as a potential “banned book” on the West Coast in Sequim, WA only four months before this conversation.
On the other side of the country in May 2006, Tim Richards spotted The Spoken Word Revolution
among his son’s homework.
His son had been the only student to check the book out of the school’s library.
Fortunately, the Sequim School District’s Materials Committee reviewed the book and they decided to keep the book on its shelves.
The book, circulating in the local North Olympic Peninsula public library as well, was challenged again in July 2006 by Richards, but other local citizens chose to speak up in favor of keeping the book available.
Richards deemed the writing in Spoken Word Revolution
as a use of “vulgar language” with “obscene imagery” in a Peninsula Daily News
article. Richards argued that “the lives of these artists are known for their violence, antisocial behavior and demeaning treatment of women.”
Apparently, he was unaware of how many women are represented in the book and how many of them are involved in helping people across the country and from other parts of the world.
He continued with his suggestion that there should be “a broader examination of obscenity standards in our library.”
As a writer who has seen the transformative power of making words accessible to people in the academic arena, I found this laughable. This unkempt blanket of a generalization that assumes familiarity with the work of writers in the book can easily be discerned as an attempt to protect his children from the political terrain that he opposes.
This choice of people to speak up and demand information and multiple venues of expression is an imperative, whether it be spoken word or otherwise.
One reason is no one can nor should limit the parameters of education and creativity.
Everyone has a choice of what they might want to listen to, read or watch, especially if they can afford it.
Poetry is still one of the most affordable art forms in the world.
If you have pen, paper and an eager mind, then it’s open.
If an aspiring poet broadens his or her scope by reading, listening to music, observing the world and building their vocabulary, even better.
Poetry can be a lifetime apprenticeship without studio time, television spots or a publicity team, and it still impacts people’s lives.
Many poets in The Spoken Word Revolution
receive letters from young writers, people who have been homeless, formerly incarcerated people, people who grew up in similar situations and those who relate to the unfolding of the human condition revealed in such poems.
Like many poets before them, some of them publish and some of them work in schools, colleges, universities, homeless shelters, churches, prisons, museums, libraries, factories and in many more places that poets might not even be assumed to appear.
So, it must be asked whether or not parents like Richards have been exposed to such people or are understanding of lifestyles unlike their own.
One may even ask this parent how they might react to a lifestyle that their own children may adopt.
Although most banned books in the United States are by prose writers, notable poems and poets like Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
have been banned.
Other poets who have been challenged and banned for work in other genres have held Maya Angelou, Luis Rodriguez, Alice Walker and Gertrude Stein within their ranks.
Most of this work, however, has not been their poetry.
So, on this rare occasion, a poetry book in America was being attacked.
Poets must continue to speak and defend other poets.
Censorship is an attempt to wield power and silence the voices of others.
In fact, the Privacy Act and the Patriot Act embody legislation that has censored music and monitored “potentially dangerous” reading habits.
Book burning and even the murder and torture of poets all over the world has been an attempt to erase particular voices and differing points of view.
Frederico Garcia Lorca, Anna Akmatova and often-exiled Pablo Neruda were such examples of international political casualties.
Such policy leads many creative people who create their livelihood to wonder if they can weather the barrage of challenged speech.
Some live in fear their messages will be unheard, obliterated into obscurity by an oversimplified sense of politics that says poems need to be for people who will invite you to colleges or put you on television until you say something that challenges powerful people.
These dilemmas are concerns that should not only perplex poets.
What if you lost the ability to say whatever you wanted tomorrow?
Trying to picture such a scenario seems unfathomable to some, but censorship always sets a precedent for a situation like this.
Controversy for artists of all kinds seems to be the spark that expands into flames of a growing fan base, especially since some artists believe “all press is good press.” There is always the threat that language recognizes the outcasts, reveals secrets and affirms whatever is discarded by mainstream culture that tend to homogenize everyone like strip malls.
The counter-threat of omitting and silencing such voices is destroying what makes creative spirits unique and destroying perspectives that could inevitably alter our views of history, literature and how each person influences the world in their own way.
Sometimes people create influence with a poem.
When we look at the irrevocable damage of verbal abuse, racial epithets, hate crimes and homophobia, can we talk about censoring “vulgar language” and “religious viewpoints?”
Can we really say what’s inappropriate for a certain age group when writers can describe real relationships and commercials can sell sexual fantasies on prime time television?
Who will be the poets and the emcees to reverse these spells?
Who will try to speak a blueprint that affirms the lives of many that are not privileged?
Many poets who make their words available in books, in performance, through sound and video are looking for new ways to conjure and that may be what some parents and those who purport to speak with authority are trying to censor.
For these reasons, a saying noted by Zora Neale Hurston still holds true—Speak, so you can speak again
.For more information about Tara Betts or to sample her poetry, click here.
Please be sure to check out the follow-up to Spoken Word Revolution, aptly entitled, Spoken Word Revolution Redux. Click here to learn more.