THE POWER OF POETRY – Ronnie K. Stephens
There is no origin story, here. No single point on the broadside of this universe. For me, poetry has been a series of planets dotting up the sky when I’m not looking, and suddenly I’m thirty-two with a galaxy spread out around me. I don’t know how it came to be. I don’t know what it will become. I know only this moment.
I remember a strange man with dozens of facial piercings, thick green dreads for bangs and a mohawk. He was on a stage at the front of my musical theory class, shouting about getting clean and keys and mangoes on his lips. He said something about extra credit, a poetry slam, Shane Koyczan. A month later, more extra credit, this time a man named Derrick Brown and the promise of lasers at the show.
Three years later I find myself organizing and hosting shows with Doug, the absolute best hugger in all of Arkansas. He’d cleverly subverted my fear of crowds, coaxing me first to help set up the chairs. A few weeks later, his throat hurt and he called on me to host. A few months after that, there weren’t enough competitors for the slam. He asked me to step up. I never looked back.
I came to know the man with the mohawk well. His name was Russ and he always smelled incredible. It was the first time I remember craving the scent of another human being. He and Doug, along with other colorful wonderbombs in the local poetry scene, gave me a home where I had none. Through them, I realized I was in an abusive relationship. I’d developed body dysmorphia, which made its way through every corner of my life until most minutes were a lesson in social anxiety.
Fast forward five years. It’s 2010 and I’m teaching at a high school in Tulsa. The entire school qualifies for free lunch. Even the teachers live below the poverty line. I learn quickly that it is also the high school which draws LGBTQ students from around the city. We have the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest number of immigrant students, and the lowest academic performance in the district. We also have the most brilliant, humbling sense of community.
Despite the hallway fights and classroom drama, our student body rallies almost instantly when one of our own faces tragedy. In my first two years, I see them rally for a student shot in a drive-by, a student killed while cleaning his gun, a student whose home burned down, and countless others. Needless to say, I am learning more about humanity than my students are about comma splices.
It is against this backdrop that I find myself coaching our school’s poetry slam team. I have the experience, but not the competitive spirit. I have never been a competitor. I enjoy the creation of art and the community that comes from it. The students pick up on this quickly, and a family is born. We paint one of my walls bright green and invite students to write their favorite lines of poetry in permanent marker. We develop a system to check in on one another.
Every one of us, myself include, struggles with self-harm and depression. We make a promise together. Today we will not self-harm. Today we will not die. It is a promise some do not always keep, but one which has allowed us not to struggle alone. Some students have come and gone, but there is a family at the core which still talks almost daily. We lean in when we wish to pull back. We hug when we want to run. At the center, always, is the poetry.
Over the past eighteen months, we have confronted everything from divorce to rape. Last February, we recognized collectively the need for intervention. Our response? A public commitment to produce art. Myself and one student committed to 31 poems in March and 30 in April. We both hit our goals. Two others write 31 poems. Others draw and paint their way through the challenge.
We come out the other side closer but, more importantly, more stable. We are reminded of family. We are reminded that we will never be forced to face our traumas alone. For me, this is the power of poetry. Six teenagers and a thirty-something white guy, all of us struggling some days just to stay alive. I have called it family. I have called it team. But those words fall so short of what we have become. We are entire histories. We are, each of us, whole planets. We feel too big and wander too far. Poetry, like gravity, keeps us centered, a solar system of still here.
Ronnie K. Stephens is a full-time English teacher and the father of identical twins. His poems often explore vulnerability in its many facets. His first collection, Universe in the Key of Matryoshka, was published by Timber Mouse Publishing in 2014. Individual poems have previously appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Paper Nautilus, Weave, and Union Station, among others.