Short But Sweet: “Turning the Tables”

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

I was out last week and assigned my advanced English classes a packet of poems with questions for analysis.  All the poems were of fairly recent vintage and deliberately came from a wide variety of sources that weren’t the usual suspects.  One of them was called “Turning the Tables” and was written by Joel Dias-Porter aka DJ Renegade:

Turning the Tables
(for Eardrum)

First hold the needle
like a lover’s hand
Lower it slowly
let it tongue
the record’s ear
Then cultivate
the sweet beats
blooming in the valley
of the groove
Laugh at folks
that make requests
What chef would let
the diners determine
Which entrees
make up the menu?
Young boys
think it’s about
flashy flicks
of the wrist
But it’s about filling the floor
with the manic
language of dance
About knowing the beat
of every record
like a mama knows
her child’s cries
Nobody cares
how fast you scratch
Cuz it ain’t about
soothing any itch
It’s about how many hairstyles
are still standing
At the end of the night.*

This poem is flat-out amazing and it can be found in an equally amazing collection of poetry called The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, which I picked up because I recognized the name of one of the editors, Nate Marshall, from Louder Than a Bomb, the 2010 documentary about spoken word poetry.  The questions that accompanied the poem were as follows:

  1. What is the setting of this poem?
  2. Why would he compare himself to a chef?
  3. This is a free verse poem, which means it’s consciously without rhyme and meter.  However, he still seems to give it a sense of rhythm and flow.  How does he do that and how would you describe it?
  4. What do you like about this poem?

At best, I’d say these questions range from very basic to slightly analytical, and I’m not sure that I entirely do the poem justice.  Like I said, this was one of several poems in a packet for sub work that usually has to be straightforward, although we did talk briefly about the poem the next class.  Anyway, I was grading the packets the other day and the responses to question #1 stood out:

  • A gala
  • A fancy restaurant
  • An ’80s diner
  • In the past, like the 1950s.

Very few of my students actually answered that this was in a club, or seemed to realize that the main character (as it is) of the poem is a deejay (yunno, even though “DJ” is part of the poet’s pseudonym).  In fact, one student identified records as being from the “late 1800s/1900s.”

I let all of that slide because I honestly wound up laughing as I was reading those answers.  I never realized how far removed from the idea of a deejay spinning records in a club is from my students’ lives.  Sure, I teach in a district that is quite rural in places and the predominant flavor of music among the student body is country, but based on the amount of hip hop and rap I hear blaring from car stereos in the student parking lot and the amount in which they are connected to the world and popular culture via the cell phones to which they are umbilically attached, I assumed they had at least some idea of the poem’s setting.

Of course, when you assume … and I apparently did–although, an “’80s Diner?”  Is that like The Max from Saved By the Bell?  I mean, I grew up in the ’80s and ate at plenty of diners.  They were pretty much like diners we have today except with a slightly more pastel color scheme.

Anyway, instead of spending the rest of this post ragging on the kids these days for their lack of cultural knowledge, I’ll highlight two things I learned from this.  First, there is a reason why we will dive into poetry and really try to get deep within it, even though most poems are not very long.  There’s so much imagery in this poem that a few questions on a worksheet (when you have a sub) don’t do it nearly enough justice.  The poem also has its own feel, one that is nearly tangible.  Plus, it clues you, the reader, into a culture or scene that’s outside your realm and gives you a taste of that, which is so hard to do in so few words.

Second, it continues to prove the point I’ve made more than once, which is that there is nothing wrong with assigning reading.  I see post after post about letting kids do what they want when it comes to reading, as if dropping a book in their lap and telling them we’re going to discuss it is like putting a chain around their neck (no, really, I’ve seen the metaphor in use on Twitter) and while you should always be able to read what you want to read, if you never branch out of one genre or step away from one particular author, your view is going to be so narrow, you’ll never actually experience much of anything.  Part of my job as an English teacher is to broaden literary horizons, which is why I go for genres and authors they may not be familiar with.  I want them to grow as readers, and if I can’t give them the opportunity to see what’s out there beyond the YA or manga shelves at the library, then I’m not doing it right.

*A quick note:  I tried to recreate the formatting of the poem as found in the collection, but apparently WordPress doesn’t like it when you do that.  My apologies to the writer; any misrepresentation is unintentional.

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2 comments

  1. I just stumbled across this. Thanks for your kind words about my poem, I appreciate it very much. Don’t worry about the formatting, the poem comes through fine. I too have had readers not realize the setting of the poem, which TBH must be inferred from the details. His is a skill that readers have in varying degrees. At any rate thanks and keep up the good work, your students are lucky to have such a perceptive teacher.

    Like

  2. I just happened to stumble across this. Thanks for your very kind words about my poem, I appreciate it very much. Don’t worry about the formatting, the poem comes through fine. I too have had readers not realize the setting of the poem, which TBH must be inferred from the details. His is a skill that readers have in varying degrees. At any rate thanks and keep up the good work, your students are lucky to have such a perceptive teacher.

    Like

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