How to Love the Human Voice

Word of mouth column art
Lizbeth Hernandez

First, do whatever you can to eavesdrop on conversations. Curl your feet up on the pebbled carpet of your stairs at home and listen to the tinkling chatter of adults at dinner. Lie on the carpet and watch your brother’s legs shake up and down as he listens to books on tape. Lean the back of your head against your parents’ bedroom door and hear the whispered urgency of goodness-knows-what. Tell yourself this is normal but feel guilty listening in, like a cicada quietly unsticking herself from an ugly shell.When you encounter poetry in school, don’t pay any attention. Who cares about daffodils and how they feel? Rhyming “trees” with “breeze” and “hills” with “daffodils” should not, in your opinion, be enough to constitute a poem. You prefer not to talk because everyone else has so many things to say and more interesting ways to say them. Your brother’s drums are louder than your voice. Jim Dale blasting from his boom-box. You already know you are a nerd.Discover the internet in middle school. This first encounter leads you to the shore of the vast island of distraction. You find a gem called “For those who can still ride an airplane for the first time” by Anis Mojgani:

Slow down, Quentin, slow down.
You don’t have to touch and go.
You can see it all if your finger whispers on one word. 
Slow down, and hold what you see just a little bit longer.

You find something buttery and wonderful in the phonetic links between adjacent words. You feel like swinging from one verb phrase to the next on a trapeze of alliterations. You know you are like Quentin, the boy on the bus he is talking to, but you can’t figure out why.You figure it out. It’s because you could never do what Amal Kassir does when she spits poetry on YouTube. When she performs her poem “Syria” she is all fire and passion. When you watch this video in your room, you’re shivering:

We are speaking as one
The tyrant inside of me is ravenous
Forty-one year old rotting hands bedazzled
With rings of oil drums
And gems of blood

When you come to college, decide that there is more to poetry than wimpy yellow flowers. There is sonorous bliss and there is bravery. You start writing for the sound of the words, and at first it comes out like products of Wernicke’s aphasia, but you say it out loud anyway because you are beginning to love your vocal folds and their flexibility in producing so many phonemes. Your words are not right, though, because there is no sense to their order. You’ve made beautiful motherese, but little else.Then you hear Sarah Kay perform “If I should have a daughter...” and what your poetry is lacking becomes clear:


If I should have a daughter, instead of “Mom,” she’s going to call me “Point B.” Because that way she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me. And I’m going to paint the solar systems on the backs of her hands, so she has to learn the entire universe before she can say, “Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”

Poems tell stories. They are not so different from humans. We exist to create narratives of ourselves and to connect to others through these stories. You start to feel like you have something to say, so you listen more.You sit and listen to the  garbled announcements  of  the names of stations on the subway. You hear your grandmother’s Irish accent beneath her Boston one, and all of her history that goes with her voice. You look around you for once—perhaps during the quiet moments in section when no one has done the reading and you’re all wondering why you’re studying James Ferguson anyway—and you start to take wisdom from the world. There is injustice around you, and there is struggle. You hear young people write and talk about it in poems. Like “For All,” a poem that covers black American history from the beginnings of slavery to cases like Trayvon Martin, written and performed by Rob Gibsun at 2013 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

All burnt. All smoke.
All weed. All trees. All rope.
All neck. All jerk—All bleed. All rose
petals. No funerals. All mourn. 
All praying a lot. All praise to Allah—
All “Ah!” Aw Lawd! Our Lord—

You see his body contort with the desire to be heard and understood. You love the human voice for all of its melodious variation and strength. There are so many things to say and interesting ways to say them. This is worth producing. This is worth listening to.


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