Interview: Get-Lit's Diane Lane on the Power of Poetry
By Erin Rook
on Thu, Mar 5, 2015 at 10:44 AM
Last week, we chatted with Get Lit-Words Ignite founder Diane Lane, who is in Bend this weekend for the MUSE Women's Conference. Her program uses poetry to encourage teen literacy and empowerment. (Scroll down to the video to see those results in action.) Lane had more to say then we could fit in print, so here's the full interview, in which she talks about the power of poetry, how she got hooked, and what some of her Get Lit alums are up to now.
Source Weekly: Why is teen literacy especially important for girls/young women? Diane Lane: Spoken word poetry gives girls the opportunity to express the parts of themselves they don't usually reveal. The writing of a poem is not finished until you feel sated and spent. You only get to that place by telling the deepest truth you can tell. That truth can be funny, it can be clever, it can be nuanced and hidden, or even scholarly, but it is not superficial or pat or untrue. Interesting art requires some kind of honesty. Girls live in a world where they are encouraged to "cover up" their acnes, scars, opinions, weight—and reveal, even flaunt, what has been deemed pleasing. It's liberating for girls to realize that they matter for a whole other set of criteria. And that their first obligation is to tell the truth to themselves. Once they are aligned with that feeling, they have the choice of whether of not they want to share it. Publishing, performing, these are all ways of getting it out. And then often they discover how their truth can move and liberate others.
Teen literacy is important for girls because knowledge—about anything—brings confidence. Incidentally, I know people who don't love books but they are "literate" in surfing, cooking, sewing. Just deeply know something...anything...and then sharing what you know—that’s my definition of a happy, deeply joyful life. SW: What is the relationship between literacy and empowerment, and what role do you see Get Lit playing in that? DL: When you know something, anything, you are empowered—filled with power. I know about books. I love them. I always have. I love poets. I love authors. I have spent most of my life reading. Anything. Everything. If I had to walk to the deli to buy some milk, I went there with my head buried in a book. So again—it's really not about being "literate" as in "reading a lot." It's about knowing whatever you are passionate about deeply. Because our school careers are so tied to reading, it helps in our society to read well. But there are many successful people who don't read well. One gift of Get Lit is that it doesn't require that people who are not inclined to read books to read and read and read. It just asks that you go deeply into whatever you do read. And I mean deep. You have to listen to poetry; you have to claim the poem that speaks to you—actually raise your hand and reach for it; you have to memorize it; and then you have to perform it. Learn about the person who wrote it. And then you have to respond to it by writing a poem of your own. This increases someone’s confidence. Greatly. Enters them into a world that was heretofore restricted. Gives them a secret society. Makes them hungry for more. "A specialist in a particular brand of study." A scholar.
SW: Tell me about the Poet Puff Girls. Did they come out of the Get Lit program? DL: The "Poet Puff Girls" are comprised of Rhiannon, Belissa, and Zariya. Originally, they were three freshman girl that attended LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School of the Arts) and were studying the Get Lit Curriculum in school with their teacher, Susie Tanner. They graduated from the Get Lit program and then competed against the other LACHSA students to represent their school at Get Lit's annual CLASSIC SLAM—the largest teen poetry festival in Southern California, and the only slam to combine classic recitation with spoken word response in the nation. They, along with three other teens, won LACHSA's slam and competed in the Classic Slam. The LACHSA team came in second of 22 teams. This year there are 40 schools competing. Rhiannon was the top scoring poet of the night. When it was over, she started coming to Get Lit classes after school and on weekends and eventually the other two Poet Puff Girls (Zariya and Belissa) came too. They auditioned to be on Get Lit's Brave New Voices team representing Los Angeles and were three of the six poets who won. They went to Philadelphia to compete in BNV, the international teen poetry festival, and came in third place after Washington, D.C., and South Africa. But it wasn't over. John Legend heard about their poem, "Somewhere In America" and booked them to perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl. Queen Latifah saw them there and booked them on her show. Their video went viral with over 5 million views and is the most watched video from The Queen Latifah Show ever. Now Rhiannon, Belissa, and Zariya—along with our other Get Lit Players, including Marquesha, are flown around the country to perform and their poems are requested by counties all over the world including Japan, India, Australia, and more.
[Check out video of the Poet Puff Girls below.]
SW: How many schools have adopted your program and how can more get involved? DL: The Get Lit Curriculum is currently being implemented in over 50 schools—including some middle and elementary schools. Schools can request the Curriculum by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SW: Tell me about the support and recognition the program has received from President Barack Obama. DL: Recently, the Get Lit Curriculum was selected by President Obama's TurnAround Arts Committee to be placed in California's lowest performing elementary schools.
SW: What impact—measured or anecdotal—do you see the program having on graduation rates? DL: It makes them soar, because it gives kids a joyful reason to come to school that builds skills and knowledge. We always say, "Get Lit builds scholars not statistics."
The impact of Get Lit's Curriculum in school has been well documented by Arts Evaluator Professor James Catterall. It has also been told by the success of our students. Most recently, one of our Get Lit Players, Walter Finnie, told his story of dropping out of high school and selling drugs before finding Get Lit and turning his life around. The Get Lit Curriculum introduced Walter to Langston Hughes. Walter learned that Langston attended Lincoln University, so Walter applied to Lincoln. He was accepted and today is a freshman on the honor roll. His poem "Stand Clear" about his journey won first place in a national contest about the drop out problem called "Raise UP.” Walter was flown to The Kennedy Center where he performed his poem and won a scholarship. 95 percent of our Get Lit Players go to college and over 70 percent with scholarships.
SW: Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. Do you think Get Lit would work in rural environments, as well as urban ones? DL: Absolutely! It is currently being implemented near Bakersfield, which has the absolute lowest literacy rate in the nation. The magic all starts with "claiming" a poem. Poems are like medicine. You choose the right one that speaks to you and then through memorization, it does its work transforming and elevating you, and then your life.
For people who struggle with reading, poems are short. They are not intimidating like a book. And just because you struggle to read, doesn't mean that you are not brilliant. That you are not insightful. That you are not struggling heroically with huge issues every single day. Poems are short, but they are deep. They give the mind and the heart and the soul something to chew on. So they appeal to people who are beyond children's stories emotionally, even if their reading skill level has them at a lower level. There are many reasons that people can't read. Lack of intelligence is usually not one of them. Many brilliant people are dyslexic for example. They were meant to do other things than sit on a bed and read for 20 years like I did!
SW: What will you be bringing to the MUSE Conference? DL: Well first of all, I am bringing Marquesha. Or actually, she is bringing me! Marquesha is the embodiment of the talent, possibility, and generosity that is Get Lit.
SW: What are your favorite poems to perform? DL: I love to perform Walt Whitman. Jimmy Santiago Baca. Everything. But right now I am too busy running Get Lit. Two different sides of the brain!
SW: What was your education around literature and poetry like? How did you come to fall in love with the written/spoken word? DL: I was afraid of my own shadow as a kid. Although I do remember the first poem I ever performed—my first show. I played the grass. "I am the grass so green and sweet. I am soft. I am cool. I am kind to your feet. I take many days to grown and to grow. You will find me on hillsides and wherever you go." I was terrified! But afterwards I wanted to do it again. It was thrilling! I didn't perform in another play until I was over 20 years old.
I hated poetry in high school. It was always about—coincidentally—flora. Fauna. By dead old men with white beards. Taught to me by teachers who acted like they loved it and like I should love it too. But I didn't understand what they were talking about. I didn't give a hoot about flora. I was from New Jersey. So I cared about the height of my hair. And who I was socially. And where I was going in the world. There weren't any poems about things like that. I loved to read. I read Danielle Steele and Norma Klein and books about beautiful girls finding love. Later, because my parents were salespeople I was exposed to Zig Zigler and Dale Carnegie and read them by the ton in college. I didn't know anything about classic literature until I was 19 years old and went to model in Japan. There I went on a weekend job to Hokeido with models from Russia, France, and Australia. While we waited to shoot they discussed the books they were reading. Stendhal, and James Clavell, and Dostoyevsky. It was unsettling. I had always read more than anyone else that I knew. And here were these models, some of whom hadn't graduated high school, reading classical literature—for fun! It blew my mind! Literally! Allison, from Australia, asked if I would like her to share with me the list that her brother in law—a college professor—had made for her. I worked off that list for the next 10 years of my life, later adding poetry and plays.
As much classical literature as I was reading—and I fell in love with Tolstoy and Twain and all of it—I still hated poetry. Until I was in my early 20s and a Broadway actress named Viveca Lindfors (72 years old) cast me in a play and then joined my theater group, recruiting us all for her guerilla poetry troupe. She performed Walt Whitman's "Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?" And it was if time stopped. I understood it. It was how I'd always felt. The same thoughts. I'd almost forgotten: "I'm old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise...Stuff'd with the stuff that is course and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine." And it was as if, for the first time in my life, my inner world was addressed. Brought into the room. And I was not alone. I had this new best friend, Walt Whitman. I delved in deep. Frequenting every old bookstore in New York. Buying used books from Russian booksellers in the street. Finding poems that I could understand and wanted to memorize. Then later I'd perform them live in the streets of New York with our group. I discovered DH Lawrence, ee cummings, Anna Deveare Smith. Viveca said that we each had to have an hour repertoire. It was a thrilling time in my life. I was becoming a scholar. Knowledgeable. I felt so sad for the years I sat bored out of my mind in high school believing that this kind of "advanced" learning wasn't for me. For who, then? I learned that Twain sold his books door to door so common people would read them. Dostoyevsky said that he learned to write in prison and that the prisoners were his brothers. And that Walt Whitman said, "Camerado, I give you my hand. I give you my love more precious than money." And that Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Pope for teaching the peasants to read. And that these writers were not the property of the kids in the honors classes. No. These warriors would embrace my profound averageness. They would love anyone who loved them. And then later, I met Jimmy Santiago Baca when I read his story about learning to read and write in jail. And how he fell in love with Wordsworth and the great poets. And I read and I read and I read until, as Walt Whitman says, you get to the point where a little voice inside your head says, "You contain enough. Why don't you let it out then?" Which I did as a one person show about books. I invited Jimmy to come. And the rest is history.
SW: Is there anything else you’d like to add? DL: I'm very glad to be going to Oregon and the Muse Conference! It is my first time!