I’m in the throes of revising my historical novel, focusing presently on “the perfect word” and slipping in those short, artful sentences that also pull forward a nest of thematic threads. (Hmmm—nest AND threads…that sure wasn’t a good example of what I’m trying to do in the novel!) The point is, I’m working on the Word Level of revision, and so naturally I was attracted to this piece by Philip Belcher, one of the fabulous Converse College MFA poetry students.
Philip is a smart guy, an excellent poet, asks great questions after the craft lectures, and is always the one to sit with at lunch when you’re having a crappy day because he’s also incredibly kind. He wrote this piece originally in his “real life” job as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina. I liked it so much that I asked if I could also post it here. He's so nice, that he said yes!
By Philip Belcher
One of my favorite segments of The Colbert Report is “The Word.” In this part of his program, Stephen Colbert unleashes a barrage of satire based on a particular word or phrase. Colbert’s verbal dexterity is always impressive and usually both biting and laugh-out-loud funny. The most interesting segments are those in which Colbert reveals how particular words are misused, often purposefully.
During the first two weeks of June, I spent a lot of time around people who love thinking deeply about language. As a student in Converse College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, I attended one of the semi-annual 10-day residencies. During the residencies, language is paramount. In the poetry workshops—my home during these literary boot camps—faculty and students pay attention to every word in the poem under consideration. Every word must have a reason for being on the page. If it doesn’t, it’s got to go. Workshop participants consider the music of the written words and both their denotative and connotative meanings. If you use the word “legion,” you’d better know that it not only means many but has a military connotation and that it contains, for some, a biblical allusion.
I don’t spend every day in a poetry workshop and am often careless with language. I’m not alone, of course, and I wonder what might change if we all paid more attention to what we say and how we say it. I care about this because I continue to believe that the spoken and written word have power to change minds and culture—for good and for ill. The English translation of the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Who, after a single hearing, can ever forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Who among us is not reminded of the terror of the Third Reich when we hear the word Führer, even though the word in German means “guide” or “leader”? Words are powerful, and we should use them with care.
By nature, I am impatient. That may not be the best quality for the president of a foundation working to improve the health of a community. Health improvement often takes decades. Still, in the foundation’s efforts to bring physical activity back into the daily life of our community and to improve the quality of early childhood development, the incremental pace of change in Spartanburg County frustrates me to no end. Our civic dance too often is two steps forward, three steps back. We take great pride in the fact that we’re dancing at all and forget that other communities have already learned to waltz. Some even tango. And I cannot help but think that Spartanburg’s choreography is connected to, if not determined by, the language we use: how we talk about ourselves, how we talk about others, and what we learn about our fellow citizens’ fears and aspirations by the words they choose to use.
As I continue thinking about community change and its connection to language, here’s my commitment. I promise to think more before I speak or write. I promise to stop labeling those who disagree with me. I promise to push for specificity when I hear, or use, generalities. I promise to avoid jargon and the language of boosterism, asking instead for honesty and clarity. I promise to listen.
I promise. You have my word. ~~Philip Belcher
About: Philip Belcher has published poems in a variety of poetry journals, including most recently Free Lunch, Iodine Poetry Journal, and Shenandoah. In 2005, he won the Porter Fleming Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. He was also selected as the 2006 South Carolina Poetry Fellow Alternate by the South Carolina Arts Commission. In 2007, Philip’s chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press. In 2008, Philip attended the Sewanee Writers Conference. He is a student in the low residency MFA program in creative writing (poetry) at Converse College and will be working with Sarah Kennedy during fall semester 2010.
Since March 2000, Philip has served as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Formerly the Associate Director of the Health Care Division of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., Philip is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law. Prior to joining The Duke Endowment in 1998, he was a partner in the law firm of Parker, Poe, Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte, N.C.