Finding Your Voices: How Jericho Brown, Diana Ross, and Janis Joplin Can Inspire Student Writing

by Tiphanie Yanique

The following is an excerpt from Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry, a new book from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Edited by Matthew Burgess, Spellbound offers a range of exciting ideas to inspire students of all ages to explore their potential as writers and creators.

Why Voice?

When I was a young writer, like in grade school and high school, there was lots of messaging that told me I needed first and foremost to find my own voice as a writer. This felt like a profound social and psychological hurdle—how could I ever know for sure if my voice was original to all of literature; if it was even authentic to ever-changing me? As I began to read more and write more, I felt that finding one voice was not going to be sufficient for the kind of writing I wanted. I’ve come to think that the real task is about finding the voice that is right for the character, poem, story, or what have you—which might mean being able to find not one, but many voices.

Even the dialogue in a piece of nonfiction demands an ability to find nuance in voice for various kinds of people. But how can a writer do this? For me, it’s been fun. I don’t believe writing should be a tortured experience. I get nosey. I listen a lot. I eavesdrop on conservations. I look at people, how they talk, because a lot of communication is about body. I also get to know the background of a speaker—or I do the research so I can effectively imagine a speaker’s backstory. Because how we talk comes from, well, where we’ve come from.

This exercise is one I’ve used across student levels-from elementary to college.

Setting Students Up

Depending on the time we have and the age of the kids, I start by asking them a bunch of questions. I ask about their favorite type of music. I ask what they know about the music. Where does the music comes from geographically? Historically? What other musical traditions is it in line with? What kind of style is associated with it? Hip-hop is a good one for this, because most kids know the style, and often the teacher in her twenties to forties knows some of the history. It also has so many influences—one student will know that reggae is an influence and another will know about gospel. They can surprise each other, which is always nice.

I then ask the students if they have heard of Diana Ross and Janis Joplin. Somebody usually knows something. Depending on the time, I expand off of whatever they know. And then I make the connection, which I have never had a group of students make: Did you know that they came to fame during the same time period? It’s obvious, but the difference in the work of the two women makes the obvious blurry.

Mentor Texts

Depending on which singer the students seem more into, I will start with Jericho Brown’s poem where he channels Diana Ross or Janis Joplin. Brown’s Diana Ross poem is “Track 4: Reflections.” The Janis Joplin poem is “Track 5: Summertime.”

Track 4: Reflections as performed by Diana Ross

       I wanted to reflect the sun.

I wore what glitters, smiled,
Left my eyes open, and,

       On the ceiling of my mouth,

Balanced a note as long as God allowed,
My head tilted backwards, my arms stretched

       Out and up, I kept praying,

If the red sun rising makes a sound,
Let my voice be that sound.

       I could hear the sun sing in 1968.

I learned the word assassin
And watched cities burn.

       Got another #1 and somebody

Set Detroit on fire. That was power—
White folks looking at me

        Directly and going blind

So they wouldn’t have to see
What in the world was burning black.

Track 5: Summertime as performed by Janis Joplin

God’s got his eye on me, but I ain’t a sparrow.
I’m more like a lawn mower…no, a chainsaw
Anything that might mangle each manicured lawn
In Port Arthur, a place I wouldn’t return to
If the mayor offered me every ounce of oil
My daddy cans at the refinery. My voice, I mean,
Ain’t sweet. Nothing nice about it. It won’t fly
Even with Jesus watching. I don’t believe in Jesus.
The Baxter boys climbed a tree just to throw
Persimmons at me. The good and perfect gifts
From above hit like lightning, leave bruises.
So I lied —I believe, but I don’t think God
Likes me. The girls in the locker room slapped
Dirty pads across my face. They called me
Bitch, but I never bit back. I ain’t a dog.
I tear my throat. I try so hard to sound jagged.
I get high and say one thing so many times
Like Willie who worked across the street—
I saw some kids whip him with a belt while he
Repeated, Please. School out, summertime
And the living lashed. Mama said I should be
Thankful, that the town’s worse to coloreds
Than they are to me, that I’d grow out of my acne.
God must love Willie Baker—all that leather and still
A please that sounds like music. See.
I wouldn’t know a sparrow from a mockingbird
The bank plays. I just belt out, Please. This Tune
Ain’t half the blues. I should be thankful.
I get high and moan like a lawn mower
So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.
I’m such an ugly girl. I try to sing like a man
Boys call, boy. I turn my face to God. I pray. I wish
I could pour oil on everything green in Port Arthur.

We read one or both poems and talk about what we notice. We also talk about Jericho Brown himself—a male born after the 1960s. How can he access this woman’s voice? Sometimes the students want to talk about if he has right to do this. We go there, if they want, but we are fundamentally looking at craft. How does the poem work?

When reading the poems, you might ask students: What does it mean in “Reflections” that Ross could “hear the sun sing in 1968”? What was happening in 1968? What do the incidents in every other stanza do? Do they give you a little visual and auditory break? Are they distractions? Why does Ross (or Brown as Ross) put “assassin” in italics?

In “Summertime,” what is the effect of the poem having no stanza breaks or incidents at all? This poem is peppered with tough words like “chainsaw,” “ugly,” and “hack.” Why does Brown choose language like that? What is going on with God in this poem? We can look at both poems and compare—they both talk about God, they both have italics—but how are these elements used to different impact and effect?

After a period of discussion and analysis, we look at a clip of the diva singing the song that is referenced to the poem. There are endless clips on YouTube of Janis Joplin singing “Summertime” and Diana Ross and the Supremes singing “Reflections.” I advise, however, that you look up the clips beforehand so you can pick the one that most exemplifies the poem to your estimation. I pick a Ross clip where she and the Supremes are wearing glittering dresses and performing in front of mirrors. I pick the Janis clip where her hair is all in her face and her back is turned for part of the performance.

The students and I talk about how the singer sounds, how she presents herself on stage. We talk about where they actually are—the Supremes are often in a studio, whereas Janis is often live outdoors.

After having watched each clip, we look at each poem again. Where do you see evidence of Diana Ross’ physicality in the poem? It’s there in “glitter, smiled…” but also in “Balanced a note as long as God allowed…” It’s everywhere in the poem. The fact of her being in a studio is reflected in the line, “White folks looking at me.”

When we turn to “Summertime,” we can ask the same questions. How do those word choices (“hack,” “chainsaw,” “ugly,” etc.) reflect hoe Janis Joplin presents herself on stage? Does she “sing like a man” as the poem suggests? Can you see her hiding her face in the performance reflected there in the line about her acne? What more does the word “please” mean now that you have seen Janis perform? What does it mean to be a white girl vs. a colored boy at the time, and how is that reflected in the poem’s lines about Willie Baker?

I have found that students of all ages, even the middle school and elementary school students, have language and experience from which to talk about the racial and gender politics in both poems and clip.

Writing

I ask the students to think about a person they admire, look up to; or conversely, a person they really dislike and do not look up to. I have them write about what that person looks like, where that person lives, what type of world the student imagines they grew up in. Then I ask the students to get that person talking. Just start them talking and talking. Given what you know about them and their circumstances, what would they most have to say? How would they say it? Would they pause a lot? Should you consider dashes? Would the person apologize all the time? Would they use exclamation points?

All of this helps get out of their own heads (well, I like to use exclamation points, but maybe my grandmother doesn’t) and helps them with empathy (that person is the way they are because of some life experiences or circumstances, not by accident). Students regularly tell me that they incorporate this method into all of their writing from then on. Me, too, I tell them.

How Long a Lesson Is This?

I have done this lesson in one forty-minute sitting, over a three-hour class, and over three days. I have also used this as revision lesson, to help students rethink dialogue in fiction or nonfiction. If I only have one short time with students, I will focus one just one clip and one poem—either Janis or Diana. If I have one long block of time, I can do both readings, both clips, and the writing prompt. If I have multiple days, I do the reading in one, and the viewings and writing in another. In all classes, I give students time to share and get feedback from me and/or each other. The sharing could be another full day of class, or just the last ten minutes of one shorter class.

When doing the exercise with younger children, it might be effective to have them draw the person whose voice they will be channeling. This will give them something to meditate on while they write. Some kids may also just find the drawing liberating, which can loosen them up for the poetry writing. Here is my seven-year-old son’s response. The voice he chose to write from was one type of person he really admires: a ninja. After writing the first draft, he said his poem was missing some of the visual aspects of the ninja’s voice. So, he added ninja stars. I think the last symbol is either praying hands or nunchucks.

            Ninja Hairbraiding

            I am a ninja                 *                      *
I wear a black
Pants and a black
Shirt and have lots of weapons. *
I can talk, but don’t.
Now I am sad. I am crying.
My head hurts.
I am taking deep breaths.
Haaawooo. ^

            —Mosiah McGarrah(age 7)

About the Author:

Tiphanie Yanique has taught writing and literature at the pre-school, elementary, high school, and college levels and beyond. She is currently professor at Wesleyan University, where she directs the Creative Writing Program. Tiphanie is the author of the poetry collection Wife, which won the 2016 Bocas Prize in Caribbean poetry and the United Kingdom’s 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for a First Collection; and the novel Land of Love and Drowning, which won the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, and was listed by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2014. Her collection of stories, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, won her a listing as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5Under35. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands.

Photo Credit: New York Times


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