As poets, we traffic in sharing what we remember. And, sometimes, memory is less an unforgiving chokehold than it is an iridescent dandelion: beautifully elusive in its coloring, an unsnarable whimsy in its flight. When poets flock, we often do so because of our common desire to forget who we were and become new in a collection of lovely odd ducks that cannot help but see everything and try to make sense of it. It is here, in the re-do high school community of spoken word—being a regular at the venue—that our memory frequently fails us and those around us.
With the exception of the founders of Da Poetry Lounge, we were all new to this specific scene at some point. Hoping to be heard, but more so, aching to be accepted into the amazing family of artists. And, over time, many of us do become part of the inner circle, not so much leaders—which would be ideal—but as patrons of the bar where everybody knows our name. We feel a little bit of home with every hug on Tuesdays. There is truly nothing like it. But neither the familiarity nor safety of that comes immediately; these gifts are earned through the currency of showing up every week with the rain-or-shine dedication of mail carriers. We forget, though, when Tuesdays were not a receiving line, a vase full of compliments, a seat at the table. We forget that we were new, and longing, and afraid that without the right sponsorship from a veteran, we might stay new, and longing.
We forget that we—all of us—once did not know how to write, and were afraid that everyone would know.
So, the anthropology of a new poet entering the DPL ecosystem is always fascinating, even when it is heartbreaking. The irony of the cafeteria pecking order of the Lounge is that the artists, who were also new once, become the quarterbacks and cheerleaders most never were in their actual high school, while the new poets sit at the othered table, waiting to be invited out of drama and band geek limbo into the fold. In the interim, the DPL elite become hoarders of the bounty, enjoy their specialness, fraternity handshakes, newly-expert opinions, and digital hiding places where gossip and trash talk replace beer and weed and make-out sessions. We conveniently forget our history, and doom others to repeat it.
(A subtle variation that only looks like inclusion is the adoption of a new poet, not to teach them how to poeticize their vulnerability, but to recruit them as a mascot to help the veteran poet forget their own. You’re the mini me of my reinvention. Let’s be petty together. The new poet has therefore not been included, but co-opted.)
One of the other things we forget is that the nature of institutions is to stay the same; they don’t want to change. We liberal poets don’t want to see ourselves as institutions—the enemy—but, when our arms are locked too tightly to admit new members into our conversation, our dinner huddle, our patience with fledgling writing, then we are just conservatives in bohemian clothing.
We have lost good poets and good people to the tyranny of our amnesia. Some don’t return to DPL when they’ve been relegated to outsider by insiders who don’t remember when they were outsiders. At our core, we are better than that. We are fond of saying what a sacred place the Lounge is, but, too often, our holiness evaporates offstage.
It is cruel to be shunned by a haven created by refugees.
But, we’re poets. We can transcend and make art of our arc. Rather than look at the new poet as fresh meat to the slaughter, or as an opportunity to accessorize our Mean Girl/Boy attitude with a protégé under our wing, let us instead see the new poet as a chance to remember when we did not have a stage name or a feature or a chapbook or a receiving line where fans called us dope. Let’s remember when we were hoped we were talented, but afraid we’d be found a fraud.
As poets, the best of us are children who have learned how to adult well, not the opposite. We should be kinder. Inclusive. Generous. We should want to embrace new poets, not as a marker for how much we’ve grown, but as a reminder that poets—the best of us—are put on this earth to help others grow, too.