Essay: Remember when by Kendra Allen
When we read contributor Kendra Allen’s latest book, When You Learn the Alphabet (winner of the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction), we knew we had to have her share some of her wonderful writing about the special space between poetry and prose, what that movement between the two is like, why it’s important, why she writes both. Thus, this: a lyrical, generous, evocative essay on the way she discovered her voice. We’re excited to share too that Kendra will also be leading the 6 Month Online Essay Collection Mentorship Program early next year—Go Kendra!
Remember when Black Ice said “Music shoots straight to the soul—it’s so potent—so it’s much more addictive than crack is” and I stopped going to church
And made line breaks my bible. My introduction a mix of music and Def Poetry Jam—the first poetry collection I’ve ever read and studied and understood. The first time was around twelve.
I wouldn’t pick up another one until college.
If we’re talking genre, the show would be defined as slam poetry, or spoken word poetry—but it’s that and so much more, everything is. If I had to define it, it was a new style of creation and storytelling that hadn’t been tarnished yet. My young self elastic, being introduced to poets like Sonia Sanchez, Black Ice, Thea Monyee, J.Ivy, and even DMX. Witnessing their navigation through story in a way that didn’t require a succinct beginning, ending, or middle where something less than fun probably happens to one of the characters. On that stage, everyone was a character. Before this show, I only paid attention to storytelling on the page. I read all the time. I knew what to expect from a book and I usually anticipated the happenings of a book before I got halfway through it. Those stories were always written in the same fashion—big chunks of extended stay text that go on for unnecessary amounts of time. Poetry was different. On Def Poetry, they told complete, emotional tellings in staccato, choppy ways. They’d pause here
/ speed up there
slow all things
down in clearly deliberate ways— kinda like the chopped & screwed music I grew up listening to. I found myself wondering how those shifts would look on a page. Did their performance style mirror it. The thing about chopped & screwed music is it makes me feel
each moment things change(d.) I can pinpoint the exact shift through meter and line
breaking through the way the beat would change, which helped me determine why the palpitation would be so heavy in my chest. I felt the same thing whenever I watched, and thankfully these poems lasted three to five minutes on stage. Yes, the show did everything a book technically does; expect it immersed itself in risk
in a natural rhythm
in a musicality that nurtured
my writerly instinct— especially when it came to presentation.
Def Poetry Jam brought artists of all kinds of its stage, which means there was creative multitasking being done on a regular. A poet who played an instrument, a comedian who rhymed all his jokes, a rapper who put on a simultaneous fashion show, the singer who made you smile while protesting—the fearlessness was endless.
As a child, I knew I always wanted to exist in the “artist” world somehow—to look like an artist, mostly. Initially. Artists seemed tortured and talented and innately tempting, so I wanted to fix my aesthetic into all kinds of things that didn’t make sense to the naked eye instead of focusing on one craft at a time. I’ve wanted to be a singer (even though I can’t sing,) a dancer, a guitar player, a photographer, and now I’m a “writer” some days. But some part of me has always wanted to blend all of these interests. Become barefoot even though I hate my feet while learning to the play the acoustic guitar even though all songs acoustically sound similar while wearing a head wrap even though I never learned to tie it right while taking photos of my backyard while burning incense for no reason while writing bomb ass lyrics. I wanted to do it all at the same time while looking the part. I pictured that power living in me for a long time, but I couldn’t figure out how to mix various art forms into one piece and have it work without it being a thing you need to explain in order for it to make sense.
In the process of writing what became When You Learn the Alphabet, I wasn’t thinking I’m gonna write within multiple genres, let alone at the same time. I was thinking I’m writing essays. I wasn’t thinking I want this essay to read in verse and when people would read it and say they would like to see more of my poetry, I didn’t comprehend why because the essays— that could be poems— they’re speaking of all came about through the clicking of the space bar, tab, and return key in reaction to unproductivity. When I’d get stuck: space.
When I’d get bored
with myself: return
When I was ready to
talk about something else: tab
I would use them to start over—not to experiment with form, not really thinking that what I was doing was a thing. I mean, besides Claudia Rankine, I didn’t know enough about writers who did the unexplainable on the page at a style level in a book format. So when I was done spacing and returning—I’d access the damage and try to create the shapes to create what I mean/how I’m feeling/what had happened was… I was figuring out the thing that made me pause here or there and how I can amplify that silence because it has the most meaning. I just realized I’m a really slow reader. I take each sentence, each punctuation in, because I’m looking for the meaning but even more than that, the pause. Sometimes you need to slow the reader down and playing with form, or should I say, fooling around with those keys, allows me do so. I was finding myself being obsessed with rhythm and creating a musicality to my work because listening to music is one of the only things I want to keep doing once I start—and if I could mirror the work that was being done on a performance level, maybe readers would want to keep reading my work too. If a story is not told to me rhythmically, I won’t pay attention to it for long. If it isn’t making sense for pages of words to be stuck together without a break, I’m not gonna stick around for long. The only thing I knew while writing was shit needed to stick now and later.
Let’s go back to the early 2000s: when creativity became a prerequisite for talent to me. My best friend—ironically also named Kendra—asks me across the bathroom stall where I learned the words when I recite every lyric of a Ludacris song acapella while we both pee. We’re in the fifth grade. She asks, not because it’s impossible, but because she knows me, and she knows my Mama only listens exclusively to gospel and R&B. I don’t tell her I picked up on it with her in the back seat of her step dad’s car. Of course I already know all of Ludacris’ hits, but this is my first time listening to one of his albums front to back. I go home and illegally download the entire thing—wait for my moment to impress her, to let her know I’m just as cool as she is even if we already share the same name. My stage just happens to be a toilet and surprisingly, this ain’t one of my first performances.
One of my favorite things about being a young writer is the freedom to teeter between skill and creativity, kinda like when Ludacris entered the rap game. He changed it completely, creating catchy hooks and animated visuals to assist his dynamic rhyme scheme and lyricism. He was just green enough to do his own thing yet skilled enough to still fit within the title of his genre. We’ll, maybe. Thinking back, him (and Nelly coming in at a close second) may have been the first hybrid artist I’ve ever loved. Luda was an actor, a rapper, a poet, and a moving art installation in one, and no one made him choose, and he was fun to watch and listen to while still holding depth. Now I’m not comparing myself to Ludacris, but the way he raps—similar to the way those poets demanded attention on that Def Poetry Jam stage— is the way I see the page.
I knew when I started taking writing seriously, that I didn’t want people being bored with my work, but even more than that, I didn’t wanna be bored with my work because nothing is more boring that looking at a book that isn’t moving, and that’s all the way down to the aesthetic. I think it’s something we don’t talk about enough, how we present our stories. Is this trying? How many times did it use whatever fake deep word you insert as filler? How long does this take to get interesting? What does this look like and is it assisting in the way it’s being read? How are you making this experience not feel like work? I think sometimes we forget that words are a form of entertainment. In a Ludacris song, his first line obliterates all of those sensibilities, and he packages it so enthusiastically that even if it’s different, as a consumer—it’s undeniable.
This mindset follows me whenever I write—to break up the monotony. For instance, if I have a sentence in mind and it doesn’t read the way I want it to in the midst of the other sentences, I don’t force it. I just try to come up with a different way to say it.
I could say:
I don’t want to belong to you anymore.
—and it seems like it’s about romance and writing about romance is always boring to me to an extent.
So I’d rather say:
I don’t want to belong
To you anymore
—and bam! I’m all of a sudden ready to die but I don’t really feel like talking about my mental health
So I compromise with:
I don’t want to be
—and it can be about both things you thought it could be about at the same damn time. It’s all about the rhythm in which you read it. I learned this from rappers by just listening, without even knowing the meaning of a double entendre or not knowing what enjambment means, but I knew the sounds that made me feel as if I was in a trance. For me, rhythm is the most important part of writing. How many times have you sat in a circle and listened to writers talk about flow? It’s so common that you may dismiss it but good flow means almost everything. It means readers won’t give up in the middle of your story. It means your storytelling skills are full. It means your sentences are sticking. It means your work is memorable. Writing for me is exactly that: finding a way to become rhythmically in sync to story. A learned behavior that I didn’t realize I was internalizing from places like Def Poetry Jam and music across genre whether that be Ludacris, Brandy, or Paramore. I’m a firm believer in nothing means everything, so nothing in my work can mean one thing—each sentence wants to carry the burden.
But I still hesitate to refer to myself as a poet, even if I just finished my very own poetry collection. Actually, I don’t do it at all. Mostly because I know actual poets—and because I do, I know that I don’t know enough
about the intricacies poetry possess, even if I’ve been a fan of it so long. I respect it so much that it doesn’t feel right to insert myself when I have no idea how to write a sonnet
can’t spell a sestina
can’t point out an elegy
or even define a villanelle
I’m learning though.
Whenever poetry pops out of me in the midst of prose writing, it doesn’t initially have the privilege of knowing what it’s doing—that comes after a few drafts. Initially when I’m all over the page, I’m just a receptacle living in response to how poetry has influenced some of the happiest and saddest moments of my life—that I can’t help but want to melt myself into its aesthetic some kinda way. To transform myself into that “artist-“ adjacent lover.
To picture my words coming out of some performer’s mouth.
To picture Mos Def saying From Dallas, TX… give it up for Kendra Allen…
and there’d be no claps, no standing, just silence
so we can find the pulse.
Kendra will be leading the 6 Month Online Essay Collection Mentorship Program with Writing Workshops Dallas beginning February 3, 2020. The mentorship is an immersive course designed to shepherd hardworking writers to THE END of their manuscript and identify next steps for the project. 10 spots are available and the application deadline is January 20, 2020. For more information on the course, visit here.
Kendra Allen is the author of essay collection When You Learn The Alphabet (University of Iowa Press,) winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, she's an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on her thesis and leading students astray. You can find some of her work in brevity, december, and The Rumpus among others. She tweets @KendraCanYou