Speaking poetry as embodied empathy and as social justice.

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many of us have been left feeling helpless and hopeless– small and ineffectual against an overwhelming and oppressive system. Living in Seoul and seeing the events in my country unfold across Facebook and Twitter, I have felt especially isolated. To be clear, in no way am I seeking to equate my feelings with the violent and fearful experiences of my Black brothers and sisters or with the grief and rage of the families of these fallen young people; my frustration and anger are in solidarity with them.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, I came across the poem (above) titled “Father” by Matthew Kelty. I knew that I wanted to work on this poem and do a reading of it. Poems are meant to be spoken and heard, not only read silently to ourselves. Like esteemed verse reader Betty Mulcahy believed, enjoying poetry by looking at words is not unlike trying to appreciate music by looking at a score. As a voice and text coach, I teach people to experience words in their entire bodies, to allow full and free breaths in, and to be physically open to the powerful images such words create. Kristin Linklater writes,

“When words are mainly experienced in the head and the mouth they convey cerebral meaning … By indulging sensory, sensual, emotional and physical responses to vowels and consonants – the component parts of words – we begin to resurrect the life of language.”

What does teaching others how to speak poetry have to do with social justice? Having engaged with many people in a myriad of contexts about identity, race, oppression, White privilege, and hegemony, I have come to realize that intellectual debate (a somewhat Western idea in the first place) has its limitations when it comes to making social progress as a community. This is because oppression is, by nature, irrational. Debate, statistics, and logistics all have their valuable place when it comes to dialoguing about things like racism. I am an academic; I love these things. I love catching people in logical fallacies, I love finding a fact that flies in the face of some broad stroke, and I love seeing the impact I’ve had on others through calm and diplomatic reasoning. I just don’t think this is enough. Because I am not just an academic; I am an artist and a performer. Richard Shusterman writes that “rational arguments for multi-cultural tolerance always seem to fail … because the hatred is acquired not by rational means but by the captivating aesthetic power of images” – images from our TV, laptop, phones, movie screens. If this is true, then perhaps we can create movement from the other direction.

I believe the gap that keeps oppressed people silent and privileged people from listening is about empathy. I do not mean this as a platitude. I am talking about real, embodied, feel-it-in-your-bones-and-under-your-skin-and-through-your-breath empathy. David Granger has written a fantastic article about teaching and oppression called Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference (2010), arguing that “…culture, with its complex of symbol systems, ideals, values, beliefs, and customs, has its roots in the lived body” (my emphasis). Therefore, just talking rationally about oppression is not sufficient for progress. We perpetuate unjust systems because of something deeper in us, our breath and chest tightening when we get defensive, our tension in our shoulders deepening when we see a Black male on the street, our jaw clenching when privilege is mentioned.

When we teach people to embody the images that spring up from powerful speeches, poetry or other types of text, we are seeking to breathe the way that speaker breathed, see what they saw, and feel what they felt. This is beyond rationalizing and intellectualizing. It is empathy and understanding in a physical sense, a gut sense, and a heart sense.

Kelty’s poem is well-written and powerful. He clearly uses the length of lines and punctuation to indicate to us how he imagined Trayvon Martin’s father’s breath patterns to be. He gives us long vowels to express his grief and sharp plosive sounds to convey scathing anger and energy. I have never known what it feels like to lose my own child or to have a Black body in a dominant White culture. But speaking this poem and honoring its soundscape and rhythms opens my body towards a greater capacity for connecting to Trayvon’s father’s pain. His stark images, his rage and grief, and his building breathlessness all create a physical experience in my body as I speak Kelty’s words. Therefore, I am able to feel a greater connectivity to others who have suffered from similar injustices and to my own pain for being a woman of color who has experienced oppression as well.

I am grateful and inspired by movements such as #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and I am honored they gave me their blessing to tag this piece.  There is a reason this movement started and that millions are physically gathering together in the US to show solidarity. It is because being with other bodies and allowing our voices to be a live, resonant chorus moves us in powerful ways.Black lives matter. Greatly. Until more of us get beyond only intellectualizing that and truly feel a sense of shared humanity in our bones and our breath, I fear we will continue to struggle.

“What the pill provides is an opportunity…”

This NPR story caught my attention for obvious reasons – I’m a voice teacher and of course I’m interested in the idea of learning perfect pitch as an adult. I’m also a bit paranoid after the person I happen to live with keeps talking about how robots will be taking all of our jobs. I see things like this and I’m worried that even voice teaching will be left to the Cylons in our near future.

But as usual, this sort of thing is deliciously complicated. The drug discussed is Valproic Acid, which is used as a mood stabilizing drug. This study, led by Takao Hensch, was investigating its effects on the plasticity of the human brain. It seems as if the subjects were able to learn perfect, or absolute pitch, which opens up a lot of possibility for all types of skill acquisition, particularly language learning. Perfect pitch is generally a skill thought to only be learned quite early in life.

The part that was most intriguing though was Hensch’s caveat in terms of our learned and performed identity:

I should caution that critical periods have evolved for a reason. And it is a process that one probably would not want to tamper with carelessly … If we’ve shaped our identities through development, through a critical period, and have matched our brain to the environment in which we were raised —acquiring language, culture, identity — then if we were to erase that by reopening the critical period, we run quite a risk as well.

It is fascinating to reflect on the idea of how and why we have shaped our identities through our development and environment and how the brain loses plasticity, a view of ourselves become much more fixed. I’ve noticed recently how many people like to cling to absolute narratives about themselves using words like “always,” “can’t” and “never” (ie: “I was never into singing” or “I always avoid confrontation”) and I wonder where and how do things become fixed in our sense of who we are. Culturally, this has interesting implications for those of us who grew up as part of diaspora or those who simply moved around a lot as children. What would happen to our identity and sense of who we are if we changed the plasticity of our brain in a different cultural context during adulthood?

“…It’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard.”

In a recent Guardian article, Edward Klemp, Artistic Director of RADA and actress Imogene Stubbs bemoan excessive mumbling and unintelligibility in theatre and films like the recent “The Great Gatsby.”

These two thespians, along with the article author, cited numerous reasons for this: directors and producers who believe that “mumbling is more truthful,” actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, decreasing opportunities for repertory work, and typecasting:

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

Stubbs goes on to criticize actors who are afraid of sounding “like an old-fashioned actor.” I fundamentally agree with all of these industry factors and I certainly want all of my students or clients to be heard and understood by their audiences. It was the final reason given that prompted a number of reflective questions for me.

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

I am interested in why “teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship to language.” Of course, an “education system” is made up of complex relationships between teachers, students, law, and curriculum, so I am not trying to properly delve into this in a few words in a blog post. Is it possible, though, that this is partly because that as the UK student demographics grow increasingly more multilingual and multicultural, educational “language” is continuing to stay, for the most part, from canons of White males? And is it possible that many students these days may have little motivation for or inspiration from such indigenous cultural experiences written/created by a group that has systematically disempowered them? Some of British drama students I’ve spoken to have alluded to the idea that they don’t feel entitled to play certain characters from specific period plays and/or that if they do, they must be spoken in a ‘standard’ accent. Could another reason for mumbling be that actors are not being sufficiently trained in or feel empowered within their own accent, and are therefore struggling with the articulation of the text in performance?

“You need a voice,” she says. “You need a voice.”

This NPR Morning Edition episode highlights recent develops in synthesized voice technology for people left voiceless by disorders like Perisylvian syndrome.

Usually, those in need of a synthetic voice device will choose from a limited variety of voices. The segment focuses specifically on Samantha Grimaldo, who is not satisfied with the sound of her synthetic voice.

It’s not just that the voice is artificial and disjointed. It sounds, Samantha says, “older.” Samantha is only 17, and the sound of the voice — deep, methodical, mature — doesn’t exactly align with her sense of herself. Like any teenager, she feels self-conscious about it.

Rupal Patel, a researcher at Northwestern is developing more personalized synthetic voices for people like Samantha, based on open vowel sound recordings that capture melody.

“In people with speech disorders, the source is pretty preserved,” Patel says. “I thought, ‘That’s where the melody is — that’s where someone’s identity is, in terms of their vocal identity.’

It’s fascinating how a person’s vocal quality is such an integral part of who they are. Samantha’s frustration over her current synthetic voice is palpable. It is simply not her. Most Western voice teachers are aware of a connection between voice and identity but it is nice to see such a researched (and yet still very anecdotal) example of this.

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, how are youuuuuuu?

I’ve heard a few voice teachers, particularly accent coaches, bemoan technology such as texting and chatting and how it’s clearly the dearth of good speech. We often present a foundational binary to our students, that vowels are emotion and consonants add sense to speech. And those whippersnappers these days, are sending texts like, ” r u gtg 2 the prT?,”  which is sucking all the feeling and emotion out of written speech and negatively affecting spoken trends.

In her article, “Why Drag It Out?,” Jen Doll explores the linguistic phenomenon of the written text elongation through the adding of extra vowels (and sometimes consonants). She writes,

But why is anyone adding extra letters in the first place? Blame our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message. Perhaps, suggests Michael Erard, a linguist and the author of Babel No More, we’re simply trying to incorporate aspects of verbal speech into our digital communications. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways,” he told me. “There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”

My emphasis. A desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely sounds pretty great to me. It sounds like something I am working towards in all my voice students/clients. I think there some legitimacy to the narrative that texting/chatting is has a potentially negative impact on our speech (especially if these young thangs are trying to work with something as challenging as heightened text). However, it’s important to also see that people are using also technology to explore intonation and other verbal nuance. They are finding ways to put that shit back in.

The reference to extra vowels in texting is a great way to practice vowel explorations with students. Some of them might even benefit from examples or seeing them typed out. Henry Giroux encourages teachers to include popular culture (like texting) within a student’s learning experience. He warns,

“By ignoring the cultural and social forms that are both authorized by youth and simultaneously serve to empower to disempower them, educators run the risk of complicity in silencing and negating their students. This is unwittingly accomplished by educators’ refusing to recognize the important of these sites and social practices outside of schools that actively shape student experiences and through which students often define and construct their sense of identity, politics, and culture. The issue at stake is not one of relevance but of empowerment.” (2005, 159)

I’m aware of the implications of my point here. It might sound a bit dramatic to equate the poo-pooing of texting to the disempowerment of students. But if texting and chatting is something I do all the time and is embedded within my view and experience of popular culture, I might be more motivated to learn voice work if the teacher is finding positive examples within said popular culture example. Doll’s article is a nice reminder that there are such positive and dimensional things about our interactions with speech and technology and that our spoken cultural norms continue to evolve as a result. Yesssssssssss!