When I say poem, it sounds like pome. I can easily mimic Frances McDormand when she says, “What’s in your BYAG, MA’AM?” (Fargo). My sharp “a’s” (grating to some) are sheep bya, byaing and not bah, bahing.
That’s because I grew up in a suburban Jewish community on the white side of 8 Mile in Detroit. I’ve learned to tune the tone and rhythm in my pomes to how we talk around the table (we interrupt a lot!) or sing in the synagogues. When I succeed, I am composing lines in my own voice because I hear the language of my culture, race and place.
When I talk, no one ever guesses I’m from Kansas. It’s not going to happen. I string my sentences together without punctuation to spit out what I need to say before someone gets an opportunity to interrupt me.
That’s because I grew up as a black girl in white suburbia surrounded by people who don’t look or talk like me, and assume I’m like them. I learned that no one will ever hear my voice if I’m not shouting, so I make sure the moment I open my mouth is the moment the beat drops. When I find my voice in my poetry, I am singing words on fire, carrying the rage of my ancestors, and using a steady rhythm to hear the history and resilience of my people.
Here’s an exercise to get you started on hearing your own voice.
- Create a list of ten words that capture how you talk.
- Write a poem that is a single sentence using these ten words, and begin the sentence with a prepositional phase: “When I…” or “If I…”
- Read the poem out loud to see if you can hear the spoken words from your childhood.
To discover your perfect poetic pitch, join us in our two-session class, Perfect Pitch: Finding Your Poetic Voice, on Saturday & Sunday, July 13 & 14!
Nadia Imafidon is an unapologetic Nigerian-American spoken word poet who stays hustling. She volunteers at the King County Juvenile Detention Center where she writes poetry with kiddos, and co-hosts The Table Podcast, where she and Isaac Sanders have table conversations about the black, queer, and femme experience living in the PNW. She believes in the power of language and storytelling to build community, and inspire healing and change.
Emily Warn is a writer and teacher who served as founding editor of poetryfoundation.org. Her latest book, Shadow Architect, explores the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Her four other collections are The Leaf Path, The Novice Insomniac, The Book of Esther, and Highway Suite.