A well-crafted phrase gives me the same reaction as taking that first bite into a really good cheesecake. I want to forget everything else just for that one moment and simply enjoy it for all of its luscious, delectable splendor.
As writers, many of us strive for that perfect word or that perfect line; however, poetry is an art-form focused on each and every bite. Those who can weave language, rhythm, and meaning are the ones who make me salivate and make me want to beg for their recipes.
I’m thrilled that Nathan M. Richardson, a man of many talents as a poet, a performer, and a teacher, took the time to chat with me about his writing and editing process. A reviewer of his book, Likeness of Being, once said, “This is more than a book of poetry, this is a book that resonates with the soul on a deep level.” I’d argue the same about Nathan himself.
Nathan M. Richardson is an accomplished performance poet and published author. His published collections are “Likeness of Being” and “Twenty-one Imaginary T-shirts.” He has also contributed to the following anthologies: The Poets Domain, The Cupola, The Channel Marker & Skipping Stones. Nathan teaches a variety of workshops for emerging writers and is the Head Coach of the Hampton Roads Youth Poets a division of the youth empowerment organization—Teens with a Purpose.
Demonstrating his ability to switch hats from poetry and storytelling to history and theater, Nathan is preparing for his 3rd year of The Frederick Douglass Speaking Tour, in which he delivers a remarkable portrayal of the former slave, writer, orator, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A short list of Nathan’s other affiliations include the Poetry Society of Virginia, Young Audiences of Virginia, and the Suffolk Arts League.
Q & A with Poet and Performer Nathan Richardson
Kris: As a poet, you know that every single word has to carry its weight. Do you have any tricks or techniques for finding exactly the right word for a line?
Nathan: I don’t know any tricks. Reading and experience build vocabulary. If my personal vocabulary fails me then, of course, I reach for the thesaurus. But I must say that poetry is more about language than it is about English. My poems are a mixture of the language and rhythms I hear around me. I sometimes cringe when I see a word so obscure the poet used a hammer and chisel to get the word to fit in the line.
Kris: Your work has an internal rhythm that is entrancing when read on the page or when spoken aloud. How do you revise your work to maintain that beat?
Nathan: My final edits always come during the memorization process. If I’m having trouble with a line rolling off my tongue without tripping, that’s a sure sign the words and my internal rhythm don’t match. Not too many people have heard me recite poetry to music. When I get the opportunity, I sometimes ask the DJ to pick a song or have a musician (guitarist, drummer, pianist) to improvise a melody at random and recite the poem without rehearsing. If I’ve paid attention to the iambic pentameter while writing the poem, it’s a seamless collaboration. I’m basically creating a RAP. Rhythm And Poetry!
Kris: That’s good advice for any writer, the idea of speaking the words aloud. The ear so often catches what the eyes miss. But knowing you have to go back to edit yourself is a learned process sometimes. How do you discuss the importance of editing with your writing students?
Nathan: For the spoken word poets I coach, it’s a matter of requiring them to listen to recordings and video of themselves. It’s easier to hear your flaws out loud than it is to see them on paper. I insist the page poets use another set of eyes (a first reader) to help them see that they did not write down what they were intending to say.
Kris: What about your own early editing process, before the final revisions that come during your memorization? Do you spill your poems all out onto the page and then edit yourself later, or do you edit as you write?
Nathan: Many times it does happen that way; the poem spills out on the page. That’s partly because most of my poems are not just one event, but a series of related observations that I might have been collecting over a long period of time. Once that bucket fills up, it tilts over and spills out.
Kris: Do you have any weaknesses of your own that you stay aware of in your own revising process?
Nathan: For some reason my finger never wants to hit the “r” when I’m typing the word “your.” Oh yes and the letter “o” when I’m typing the word “Hello.” If you’ve ever received an email from me that opened with the greeting – “Hell Kris!”, I hope you didn’t think I was cursing at you.
Kris: Do you have any pet peeves with writing, perhaps a mistake you see far too often that bothers you?
Nathan: Words like “like” and “because” and the phrase “you see” really make a poet sound desperate to ask a reader/listener to “see” what he’s describing.
Kris: Has working within the orations and texts of Frederick Douglass taught you anything about the use of words?
Nathan: It’s given me a great respect for even the average writers of the 19th century. It seems we have, for the sake of brevity, stopped using a lot of very powerful words in the English language. Speeches were much longer then, and it was not unusual for audiences to stand in the rain the hear great speakers. The average Douglass speeches were at least an hour long. By comparison, the edited versions that I offer my audiences are around 6 minutes in length. It’s almost like turning the 5 page Emancipation Proclamation into a Haiku. But it’s not that hard, Douglass’ writing is very poetic. I actually use a combination of editing and the Found Poem process to produce my stage versions of such speeches as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” “Self Made Men,” “The Haiti Speech,” and “Woman Suffrage.” I never add or rearrange any words. The memorization process is the same that any spoken word poet might apply to memorizing a poem.
Kris: Many people don’t realize that storytelling is an art. It is a craft that can be learned and improved just as much as any written work. In your opinion, how can one turn a solid story into one that will have listeners on the edge of their seats?
Nathan: This goes all the way back to Homer and the Iliad. Stories improve during the process of telling and retelling. There are plenty examples of classic stories and songs that went through generations of edits (many times by people other than the original author) before settling on the versions we know today. This re-telling is the oral version of the written edit.
And Nathan’s right. This editing process we so often embark upon has a long history that we often forget about. Homer edited his work, as did Shakespeare, as did Frederick Douglass, as we all should. The cajoling of our words and ideas is not always simple, but when we get it right, every once in a while, we can bring an audience to their feet. Nathan M. Richardson knows this well.
Thank you so much, Nathan, and happy editing, everyone!
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