The window of a church in the neighborhood where I grew up.
One of the poems I’ve memorized for the Known By Heart project is Langston Hughes’ Harlem, better known by its first line, What happens to a dream deferred? It’s a vivid, powerful poem; its strong images and cadences make it memorable. Easy to memorize and well worth sharing.
But Saturday night I had the opportunity to see Are You Now or Have You Ever Been….Carlyle Brown’s stunning and eloquent play about Langston Hughes appearing before Senator McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities. Gavin Lawrence
offers an amazing performance as Langston Hughes. Brown’s script makes great use of poetry and history, wrapping them in a compelling dramatic package. And the topic is chillingly relevant to the present day.
The performances are equally outstanding. I couldn’t begin to bring the heft and nuance to Hughes’ lines that Gavin Lawrence does. So please go see this play.
And if you want to hear what stayed on my own list, please come see me and Andrea Jenkins and John Minczeski in the Known By Heart event this Wednesday, May 9, at the Hamline Midway library. (Sponsored by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and made possible by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board)
As I mentioned in my last post, I started this project with a few ideas about how to make poems memorable and easier to memorize. But in my work with theater coach Zaraawar Mistry* of Dreamland Arts I keep learning new things about poetry and memory
As a cognitive phenomenon, neuroscientists tell us that memory is a process of revision, that each time we access a memory, we change it. Memory of events is highly fallible, malleable and untrustworthy. One of my favorite examples of this is a friend, in her sixties, telling me that she and her siblings had recently each drawn a plan of their childhood home. They drew different sketches—not just details of where the door was, but rooms in different places.
So, memory as revision, that should come as no surprise. But it’s been a surprise and delight to realize how the work of putting a poem into memory can be an excellent revision tool for a writer. Something about this memory work reveals, with great clarity, a great deal about a poem. Those words that seemed so perfect on the page suddenly lose their shine. But it’s not just that extraneous words and phrases don’t seem worth the work of remembering them. Sometimes the memory work offers clarity about the whole poem—the flow and movement of the thing become clear. At leat that’s how it seems to me. I hope you’ll be able to come judge for yourself on May 9.
*PS: Go see Mistry’s one-man show, The Other Mr. Gandhi, if you possibly can. It’s amazing, it’s at Dreamland Arts, and he’s added some performances in April. that’s all I’ll say about it.