Engaging Poet Visits Campus

By Emily Blackner
Elm Staff Writer

“Engaging, as opposed to really boring,” is how poet Kevin Coval describes his poetry. Coval participated in many events on and around campus to bring his brand of performance poetry to the people.

Coval has two published volumes of poetry with a third, “Elvis Lives,” on the way. In that work, Coval invents a character by taking events from his life and the lives of famous people and compiling them to show the character’s rise and fall. He frequently participates in poetry festivals like HBO’s “Def Jam” and the Washington, D.C. Busboys and Poets event. Coval also helped to found a poetry festival of his own, “Louder Than a Bomb,” for teens in Chicago.

The festival just celebrated its 11th anniversary. At “Louder Than a Bomb,” the competition aspect is secondary to the students “listening to people who are not them” to gain exposure to other peoples’ stories and “to reengage students with their education.”

His experience working with Chicago youth began when he was called in to a class to teach poetry. “I thought it went horribly,” he said, but the teacher suggested he take an internship at the school. Since then, Coval has taught several creative writing workshops. Some of his poems are inspired by these experiences.

A documentary film was made about the festival. Coval introduced the April 18 screening of “Louder Than a Bomb,” which he describes as something that “transcends poetry” and “speaks to the hope of the human spirit.” The film was also shown April 15 and 17.

Coval performed some of his work in Tawes Theater on April 18.

“I hope to make poetry exciting again,” Coval said. “I care about what I’m saying and believe in what I’m saying. You have a whole generation of poets who are really good at reading their own work. I’m lucky to be a poet in this time where I have the opportunity to reach a much larger audience.”
“I think poetry is meant to connect to your own life even if it is something from another person’s life,” he continued. “It should remind you of home—but also challenge you. It should push you to consider the world from another angle. I hope it will make people more attentive to their own life, the little things that make it beautiful and the larger things that dictate how art and culture work. I want to highlight that.”

The audience certainly connected to his poetry, as evidenced by its laughter and willingness to participate by echoing back phrases when one of his poems invited it.

Coval talked about writing such poetry. “I’ve learned a lot from painters so I write in moods,” he said. “There’s various things that I’ll get stuck on and explore, and hopefully those moods will turn into a book. The mood dictates what I’m writing about.” He also noted that common subjects in his work were “hip-hop and Chicago, Israel-Palestine, my family, and my own history.”

Hip-hop in particular is a major influence for Coval. “Hip-hop is responsible for everything I’ve done with language,” he shared. “I’ve learned from hip-hop that you don’t have to hide your influences. I don’t believe in the myth of originality—I believe in keeping it fresh.”

His favorite part about the writing process is “being surprised.”

Coval said it is exciting “when you start something and you might have an idea of where you want to go, and the poem dictates that you go in another direction. A turn of phrase might suggest something that you’ve never thought of before.”

Coval views writing as a “disciplined craft.”

“I wake up at the same time every day, or try to, and then write and rewrite. I have a small circle that I share poems with and they critique,” he said.

For aspiring poets and writers, Coval offered this advice: “Read and write, read and write, read and write. And don’t stop doing that, no matter what anyone tells you, just continue.”

“I don’t really think about genre,” he stated during his performance. “I don’t worry about thinking ‘now to put on my creative nonfiction hat.’ It’s all writing, and I’m a writer. The various forms it takes, it takes.”

Coval also suggested, “write the world around you and the world you want to see. Use your own life as a source of inspiration, to tell the story that no one tells—the story of your life, your parents’ lives, your hometown.”

“Poetry led to many honest and difficult conversations with myself,” Coval said. “Poems can heal and hurt. They can cover the entire spectrum of human emotions.”

April 22, 2011
Volume LXXXI Issue 23

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