When I do my “What’s in Your Suitcase?” school presentation in high schools, I talk about unpacking your personal suitcase so negative events and energy from your past don’t follow you around and screw up your everyday life. I talk about how most of us are lugging along bags that we’ve never even looked at.
I then talk about repacking the suitcase and what frame of mind one must be in to repack a suitcase that one has unpacked. One of my favorite parts about the repacking spiel is: Knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
I get a good few laughs when I talk about this. I tell the audience about how I’ve met students in classrooms whose life plan is to be in the NBA…but they don’t play on the school’s basketball team. I tell them to think back to American Idol contestants who couldn’t sing one note but based their life’s dreams on making it onto the show. I say, “You have to know what you’re actually good at. You don’t want to seem delusional, do you?”
I tell them to look at me. I say, “I cannot be a ballet dancer. I am a big-boned woman, five foot ten with size eleven feet. I probably couldn’t have been an Olympic gymnast either. I don’t think they make leotards in my size.” I tell them that I was a good basketball player, but not even close to WNBA…though WNBA didn’t exist when I was in high school. Maybe had the WNBA existed for me as a child, I would have felt a deeper reason to play better basketball. Would I have worked harder knowing that an opportunity could come out of that particular talent? Maybe. I’ll never know. Look for opportunity, I tell students. Real opportunity.
In schools, I meet a lot of to-be rappers. Most of them will not rap for me. I tell the audience that’s okay, not everyone can show their strengths on the spot like that.
But then I tell them about the time I met a student who said he was going to be a famous rapper and actually rapped.
I said, “Get out. You can rap?”
He said, “You care about rap?”
I said, “First concert I went to by myself was Public Enemy. 1987.”
He said, “Conscious rap. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
I said, “Show me.”
He looked around, nervous. It was a small class. He was on the spot and there was no way he was going to rap for me.
I said, “So you want to be a famous rapper?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “But you can’t rap for me?”
He said, “Nah.”
I wasn’t going to push him. I know the feeling of being uncomfortable and feeling like my dreams are stupid. Boy do I know that feeling.
A girl in the class said, “How about a battle?”
He shook his head.
She said, “Come on. You’re good. I’ll do it if you do it.”
Inside of a minute, there was a rap battle. She started. He responded. They went two or three rounds and were amazing. I got a video of it on my phone.
Why was this student able to rap for me? In the end, it was encouragement. It took one person from his class to say, “Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.” Encouragement is a big deal. Not just for kids or teenagers. Encouragement is something everyone needs all through life. Encouragement is just a damn nice thing to do for another person.
I’m a published poet. I started publishing in poetry. I’ve known a lot of great poets. I know super-famous poets. I know poets you’ve never heard of but their poetry is just as fantastic. As a writer, I’ve known good poems and bad poems, just like any writer. We can’t be perfect all the time. I’ve known better poets than me and I’ve known better poets than you. And that’s okay as long as poetry is being written.
At some point in the last few years, I met a person who used air quotes on me in regard to my poetry. She said that my “poetry” was _________. You fill in the blank. I can’t remember what she said because I was too perplexed by the air quotes.
“Poetry” is very different to Poetry.
Air quotes are not very encouraging.
I didn’t write a poem for a year or so. I’m not sure why. Maybe for the same reason as those future rappers I meet who just can’t throw down a rap for me while I’m in the class—too embarrassed, been teased by their classmates, been made to feel like they were “rappers” and not just working on rap the way every “real” rapper works on rap in a day.
I was lacking encouragement.
Or worse, fighting discouragement.
I think it’s good to remember that no matter how long we’ve been in a thing, no matter how hard we’ve worked, no matter how many things we sell or know or how many things we write, there is a person who can out-write us. Our job is to encourage that writer. Our job is to remember that as a community of writers, we are all in this together. We are laying down the times we live inside of words that will, all going well, outlive us.
Last night I found the first poem I wrote since I was air-quoted. I’m going to paste it at the end of this blog. It’s not 100% done. I don’t care. The teenagers who rap battled for me did so with raps off the tops of their heads—not revised, not practiced. That’s guts. Not “guts,” but guts.
Maybe you, reading this, don’t like rap.
But was this post about rap?
I have spent my life empowering and encouraging people to find their guts. This takes a balance of tough love and soft love. It takes being able to see that everything anyone creates is real, even if I don’t like it. I am not the sun. I do not get to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Luckily I was grown with my feet planted in dirt. I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.
I can’t wait to see my next high school rap battle. I can’t wait to see one of my high school student writers sell a novel. I hope it’s better than anything I ever wrote. I hope they keep their feet in the dirt, too. I hope more than anything that they never get so near the sun that they choose to burn a fellow writer rather than encourage them.
Fellow writers, hear me: Come on. Do it. You’re good at it.
Ground Naked (Unfinished)
by A.S. King
The beast took my friend.
Ate him up
from the center of his brain.
The beast took my friend
because the beast
Lurks everywhere, this
ugly thing with teeth
dull teeth so they hurt
gnaw slowly. The beast
grinds and expels and
grinds and expels.
My friend was ground.
My friend was expelled.
The world pretends.
The world pretends
we’re imagining things.
It’s happier with naked
celebrity photos or war.
My friend was naked in war.
My friend was ground naked by war.
My friend was expelled naked
by war but the police report
gives no account of
the real killer.
My gorgeous beast.
Gets no attention.
Every time they say
he took his
the beast grows hungrier.