As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Fred L. Joiner in response to a video of him reading his poem “be specific” aloud. Fred L. Joiner wrote letters back to two of these students; their letters and his replies are included below, along with additional responses from students.
Fred L. Joiner reads "be specific" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Mr. Joiner,
I hope my letter finds you well during these difficult and unprecedented times. Your poem, “Be Specific” was beautiful to read. Firstly, I want to explain how much I enjoyed the video of you reading the poem. Your performance was lyrical and smooth and it complemented the subject matter quite nicely. I especially appreciate it when the poem performs their own poem. To me, the delivery can indicate your ambitions and intentions behind your words. Based on my interpretation, “Be Specific” describes the unique and personal connection every individual has with music. Your delivery and words conjured up my own experiences surrounding music.
I listened to “Yama” by Lee Morgan to assist my understanding of the poem. The song, like “Be Specific” is gentle, smooth, and rich. Like your poem, it mimics a bridge in cadence and the ending has a slow and full close, mirroring the beginning. I think your poem evokes a similar feeling when thinking about music; it travels full circle, just like a song. I love how the speaker tries to “Be Specific” through “giv[ing] words to how a song can crawl up inside you,” but fails to do so. I think this line exemplifies the indescribable feelings we have when listening to music. In other words, it is difficult to fully articulate how we interpret lyrics, melodies, rhythms, and memories that emerge when listening to a song.
Recently, I have been listening to more music due to my extra free time. My playlists on Spotify reflect different vibes such as a rainy Sunday morning, hype workouts, or vibey car rides. These songs validate and support my current emotions, making it a relaxing experience. During quarantine, I am grateful for that. Secondly, I think the most powerful quality of music is its ability to evoke memories. Often I find myself associating events and people with words to a song or a specific melody. This intimacy is almost exclusive to music. I think this is why I was so drawn to your poem. Your words depict the individualism associated with song.
Lastly, I also wanted to thank you for being involved in The Center for Poetic Thought. I was not previously aware that a museum focused on poetry existed. I think it is so amazing that you created a medium for showcasing the history of poetry and other art. I am curious to know about the obstacles involved with creating this organization, and what your vision for the future of entails.
Thank you for writing your beautiful poem “Be Specific,” and all that you do for poetry in your community.
Kansas City, MO
Thank you so much for spending time listening to my poem and checking out some of my community work. It really means a lot to me that you took time out your busy 11th Grade schedule to contemplate my work. I hope this message finds you in and your loved ones in good spirits and good health.
It makes me extremely pleased to read your observation of the relationship between poetry and song. In the antiquities poetry, song and music were a unified art form, they work used equally by bard and performers of all types. Today, this way of presenting poetry still thrives in some parts of the world, like where I used to live in Bamako, Mali West Africa, but in the US and Europe we most readily see it in Hip-Hop music.
I am glad to hear that the poem conjured your own thoughts and experiences about music. Music has always factored heavy in my life because my father is a musician, so my house and car rides were always filled with music. I think my love of music is what ultimately led me to writing poetry. The challenge I gave to myself, after hearing poets like Sekou Sunidata, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez and others who not performed with music, but were also able to create a sense of musicality “on the page.” I was inspired by their work to figure out a way to bring a musical sensibility to the page in my own writing.
I see that you are from St. Louis. St. Louis is one of the most importan cities in the US when it comes to Jazz and Jazz history because Charlie Parker is from there. He singlehandedly changed they way that we listen to and understand jazz music today. I hope to visit that city one day.
Although I love to spend time by myself listening to music, reading poems and checking out art, I think I get most pleasure experiencing those thing in community with other people. I get a lot energy talking to other creative people about what these poems, songs and works of art mean to them and what ideas they find interesting in them. This is one of the reasons I co-founded The Center for Poetic Thought, to have a space where all of these activities could happen in one place and to build community around the art that happens there.
If there is one thing I miss most because of this pandemic it is that experience of being in the physical person building community with fellow creative people experiencing a poetry reading, concert, or checking out a new art exhibition. I think sharing space with people is one of the most important things for building understanding and empathy.
Thanks again for reaching out to me and for taking the time to engage with my poem. I hope that you will continue your interest in poetry, music and the arts, I think they are so important and building ourselves up and for experiencing even places we have not traveled to yet.
Keep Reaching. Keep Creating.
Fred L. Joiner
Dear Fred L. Joiner,
Hello, I am Aymane, a freshman at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering. Your poem “Be Specific” stuck out to me because it was precise, and meaningful.
The theme of the poem connected with me because I am Algerian and music is an important aspect of my culture, especially traditional music. Listening to and playing traditional music with my family helps me stay connected with my culture. Even though the song “Yama” deals with love for a person, my music is important as it allows me to feel love for my country and culture. The speaker says in the poem that music can help bring back old memories and feelings and make them new again, which is my favorite part of the poem. For me listening to Algerian music reminds me of my hometown and my family that I have not seen in years. The only connection that remains is the memories and the way music can bring those back. Your poem also made me think of “Where Words Fail, Music Speaks” by Lucy Rudman. Both poems seem to have the message: Focus not only on the music, but how the music makes you feel. Often people that listen to music are caught up in the lyrics and the beat, and do not let the music move them and affect them. When I listen to music, I just like to slow down, close my eyes, and let my soul get connected to the music.
When listening to you read the poem I noticed that you put a lot of emphasis on the last words of each clause. I felt that this emphasis was purposeful and its reason was for us to pay more attention to the message behind all those words. When I heard you reciting your poem, it was different than reading on my own because I was able to understand the significance of the speaker’s feelings.
One question I had for you is: Do you believe that music can help people in times of despair? During this COVID-19 crisis, people in countries like Italy and Spain have been playing music from their balconies and with neighbors to keep spirits high and hopes as well. From this poem I can tell music is important to you as it is to me and many people around the world so I would think you believe music will help us during these dark times. I wanted to say that it was a pleasure reading your poem as it completely changed the way that I think about music. It allows me to reflect on the significance of music in my life and the emotions and feelings conveyed in the lyrics. The central message of the poem will forever affect the way I listen to music and it is thanks to you.
New York, NY
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my poem and to write me such a thoughtful response. As a writer it is always an honor to have someone take time to engage with my work and contemplate its meaning to see how my little “machine” works.
It is very interesting to hear that you are from Algeria, I have not spent much time on that part of the continent but I have lived and traveled West Africa and Southern Africa a bit. My wife and I lived in Bamako, Mali for 4 years. I am a little familiar with some music in Northern Africa, mostly Gnawa music from Morocco. My father is a musician and has traveled all over Northern Africa and he loved Algeria.
I am really glad to hear that you picked up in the emphasis of certain words. When I am reading my poems aloud, I am always trying to create a kind of music with the words. You may be familiar with the word prosody. In addition to the prosody, because I love visual art I am always thinking about creating something that stimulates the eye on the page as well.
I totally agree with your suggestion that we as listeners often get to caught up in the lyrics or the beat, but neglect the melody and harmony. Because my father is a musician of primarily instrumental music (Jazz, soul, etc) I gained a healthy respect for the power of music. As I got older, selecting and listening to music that spoke to me became more important. I often sought music as comfort during times I was lonely or feeling down.
Jazz musician, John Coltrane, suggested many times that he thought the sonic vibrations that we take in as music had the power to heal, he often expressed his own desire to find a way to heal sickness and disease with his music. As a listener of his music I can say that his music has brought me comfort at the very least and has healed me in ways that I may not yet fully understand. That said I think that music and art (along with good food, family or good fellowship, laughter and a good cry) are the only things that will bring us through these times.
I am deeply touched that something I have written has had an effect on the way you see world. Best of luck in all that you do.
In Gratitude and Looking Forward,
Fred L. Joiner
 Poet, Williams Carlos Williams once referred to poems as machines
Dear Mr. Fred L. Joiner,
My name is Carter and I am a junior in high school at Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland.
The reason I selected your poem to watch in the first place was the title “be specific”. I was intrigued by its vagueness and lack of initial insight into what the poem was about. However, after watching you recite it and reading it through a few times myself, I found that I identified heavily with the purpose of the story being told. Specifically, the role of music in everyday life and how a few random chords can open up a world of emotions that you never knew existed.
I play the oboe, an instrument that most people have never heard of or remember because of its unique name. Those who listen to it, though, remember it for its even more unique sound. The reason I have played the oboe for almost 8 years now is less to stand out for being different, but more as an expression that just because it is different doesn’t make it any less significant or meaningful than something else. While reading your poem, this train of thought hit me like a sack of bricks. I realized that while reading a poem about how music can “shine a light” on feelings that you might not even realize you have, I had just that happen. Was this your intention for writing this poem? To make those who may not realize the significance of music in their lives awaken from that state.
I also listened to the song Yama that you were referencing and was surprised when it was a trumpet solo and not someone singing based on your wording. However, everything you wrote stood true. You can feel heartbreak and sadness in the trumpet’s tone, wishing for another chance to make things right. It reminded me of times when I have had regret in my life. I noticed how you made “happy” and “comfort” their own lines to highlight the significance of emotion in music. On top of that, the personification used in the last stanza stood out to me given how when we talk about the idea of music, it makes it seem like a real person. How do you view music in relation to not only the feelings it brings to its listeners but also the feeling one receives from playing it?
Anyway, I just want to thank you for writing such an insightful poem and one that had some significance for me. It brought me an idea of purpose for something that I am passionate about, a thought that I will never forget.
Dear Fred L. Joiner,
I have read your poem “be specific” and I have a few questions regarding this poem. From what I understand, the inspiration for this poem came from a song you heard named “Yama”. Did this song speak to you in a specific way, or talk about something you could relate to? This is a jazz song that has a very bluesy feel to it, I had never heard it before until after I read your poem and I love it. Is this genre of music your favorite type of music? If I was listening to the correct song, I noticed that it is all instrumental. I am curious as to how you figured out that Lee Morgan wrote this song about loving someone and letting them get away without any lyrics.
Your poem made me think about how hard it is to try and explain the way a certain song or type of music makes you feel. The name “blues” for this genre of music can be deceiving, because I agree with you, it can be happy and comforting. I find it quite fascinating the way a single song or certain lyric can bring you back to a specific moment in time. I loved the way that you write
about how “a song can crawl up inside you and shine a light” it was put so beautifully and describes the way a song can really make old memories come to life again. The last stanza of the poem really resonated with me because I find it difficult to put the way a song makes me feel into words. I know the dictionary definition of music is “Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion” but it’s so much more than that. The word music can have so many different meanings to different people and your poem made me think about that.
San Diego, CA