Q&A with Jonathan Tucker: Poetry as an Agent for Change

Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, "JBT" is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. When not working with students he can be found around D.C. performing and hosting open mics at Busboys and Poets, The Fridge, and other community art spaces. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.

"We can all benefit from dedicating ourselves to a craft like poetry," he said. "Giving life to these words and stories—it's a healthy practice for life and for communities to listen when these poets get up and speak."

Tucker and his peers are organizing the first-ever Louder Than A Bomb High School Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C., to be held in June 2012. The event will be based on the largest teen poetry slam festival in the world, as featured in the award-winning documentary film of the same name (read our Q&A with Chicago filmmaker Greg Jacobs to learn more.)

Tucker, who works for youth poetry nonprofit Split This Rock, is partnering with Benevolent Media to host a special fundraiser party on February 24 to support festival planning. (RSVP on Facebook or buy your tickets on Eventbrite.) I sat down with him to learn more about his passion for poetry and what he wants the community to know about making positive change through reading, writing and performing.

What makes poetry an agent for community organizing?

The community organizing comes in through the reaction to the process of reading, writing, listening and performing. In that reaction, you start to enter poetry circles—it becomes a network for support. You don’t go on being the same person after hearing a poem that shakes you, that moves you. You want to understand the poet on a completely different level. The poetry helps us understand one another.  You find these people that all become concerned about one another, and they want to see each other's growth and development. For community organizing, it becomes an amazing community to build.

I've used poetry for raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. I was working for a year with Children's National Medical Center's peer educator program, Teens Against the Spread of AIDS (TASA.) They would do these "Rock the Block" events several times a year, when they would go out and pass out literature and condoms and safe sex packets. We’d stop in the middle of the street to perform and speak. We incorporated some theater into it. I was also doing poetry workshops with the youth. Some of the pieces were re-purposed and used for peer education, with juniors and seniors in high school. We had two big shows throughout the year, including a fashion show with poetry in between.

I've also used poetry to raise awareness about dating and violence, working with Student Advocates for Education about Rape (SAFER). It was a monologue where we would go and do workshops with different groups, sports teams and student groups, and we’d have several poems and dialogues addressing the issues. We were able to engage some people that otherwise might not have been engaged.

The whole reason I got into poetry, too, was because of anti-war stuff. I did poetry in middle school and high school, gave it up, and got back into it in college. At the same time, we were invading Iraq. I was involved in anti-war activities in the lead-up to it. My first really good slam poems were about that.

How do you measure whether a poem makes a difference?

Some of it, you’ll never see. You don’t know who you affect in an audience with a poem, in the same way you don't know who you affect in a classroom or a program you run. Sometimes people come back years later and say, "you know what, what you said to me that day really changed my life." Mostly, we see it in the actual actions taken by individuals that write something revealing about themselves. For example, they'll be talking about illness or sickness, and then we see them taking action to get healthy.

Why is it important to bring Louder Than a Bomb to the DC/MD/VA area?

It was going to happen whether or not we called it "Louder Than a Bomb," but it's nice to partner with someone doing something successful, instead of reinventing the wheel.

In D.C., almost every night of the week, there are so many poets and writers doing this stuff. There’s a vibrant culture here spreading, but we don’t see it given any institutional support, especially with young people. These are the people that we need to be hearing from; this is who needs to be up in front, getting on stage. They bring out these statements that are about peace and justice and healing and transforming in communities—they're the exact kids that everybody needs to listen to. We give them a microphone, but more than that,  we give them time, we help them work on their words and what they’re dealing with at home and in their community.

As poets, we like to play with words and language, and there are tangible skills that help kids achieve success in reading and writing. But more than that, it's about  listening to someone else’s story in a peaceful way. That's where the community building comes in. The competition is just a game we play, but it doesn’t hold power over us. It doesn't mean anything; it’s just random judges. It’s numbers to poems; it makes no sense. But it’s a fun little game.

How can people get involved in supporting Split This Rock and Louder Than a Bomb in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?

We need website support. We need volunteer photographers and videographers. We need poetry coaches, who can come in after school and work with a team of young poets and guide them and keep them organized. We need street team promoters. We need someone to help with graphic design. We need people with access to free or donated sign-making and T-shirt making. We need young poets. We need institutional support through donations, or even just putting on happy hours at your local pub. To get involved, write to slam@splitthisrock.org.