senior Billy Butler caught the poetry bug less than a year ago.
But what he’s done since then has dazzled his teachers, family, friends – and officials at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., who invited him to perform there this week as part of the What’s Going On Now project, a celebration of Marvin Gaye’s May 1972 performance of his landmarkWhat’s Going On album.
The low-key Butler managed to keep his achievement under the radar until Tam High poetry teacher Barbara Kurita-Ditz sent around a note to the schools teachers and administrators.
“Billy’s not exactly the kind of kid to go around tooting his own horn,” Kurita-Ditz says. “I wanted people to know that I’m very proud of him. It take a lot of self possession and courage to put yourself out there like he has and it’s paid off.”
Butler heard of the What’s Going On Now project through Youth Speaks, the stalwart San Francisco-based organization that he connected with last year as poetry became a driving force in his life. Artists were asked to create a performance video around one song from What's Going On, a concept album told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.
Butler chose "Mercy Mercy Me" (The Ecology). He wrote "Californian Summers," a poem about the beautiful environment within which he was raised. The poem (full lyrics below) opens with this verse: This / is for Californian summers / For orange poppies that dot trails to trot up / For a setting letting you shed skins from any place you have been and to / letting you live anything you've thought up.”
“It’s about being appreciative of the environment I grew up in and seeing the natural world around me,” Butler says. “I wrote it with an emphasis towards keeping it like that for future generations.”
The project’s organizers notified Butler last month that he’d be flown out to perform multiple times at the iconic Kennedy Center this week. He flew out Tuesday with his mom, former Mill Valley Art Commissioner and .
Butler is performing Thursday and Friday on the main stage and in a poets’ showcase event on the center’s Millennium Stage.
Soon after Butler returns to Mill Valley, he’ll gear up for the Tamalpais Union High School District’s annual poetry slam competition on May 10. He made his poetry competition debut at the district’s slam in 2011.
“I call him Mr. Poetry,” Kurita-Ditz says. “He’s so dedicated to it and he’s been a leader and motivator in getting students from very different sub-cultures on campus involved in the poetry club he created.
The 411: The What’s Going On Now project's performances at the Kennedy Center will stream live here. The Tamalpais Union High School District’s annual poetry slam competition is May 10, 7 p.m., at Drake High. $5.
Lyrics from Billy Butler's "Californian Summers":
is for Californian summers
For orange poppies that dot trails to trot up
For a setting letting you shed skins from any place you have been and to letting you live anything you've thought up
Love letters float better on warm breezes
Caressed by verdant green leaves of trees
I've been sleeping here for seventeen years
and I still have boulders to turn over
I'm still slipping on sloping mountain shoulders
and already missing my home before I'm any older
This is for collecting blackberries bursting with Technicolor clarity
For jagged mountaintops framed by silver clouds framed with an easel.
And every once in a while, with eagles rising and flying towards somewhere on the horizon.
This is for the places outside where I spent the better part of my childhood days.
I've seen redwood trees sway like wheat in the wind, wanted to follow creeks for weeks just to see where they begin, then hike back down just to start all over again
There have been days when I've only wanted to watch clouds change just as fast as my imagination could keep up,
wanted to walk winding evening paths in secret
and with my friends, tell my parents that the beach was where you could meet us
Wanted to dive into bays, wash worries away and dry in the rays of radiant expectations,
to live in the sweet haze of summer days.
I want summer lovin', summer fun and summer somersaulting
I want to fly kites, ride bikes, and take hikes
I want to take pics, pickup sticks, and make up
for every beautiful day I missed playing videogames inside
I won't lie
But there were middle-school days when I would rather explore the World of Warcraft than the world around us
So now that I appreciate the ecology
I feel I owe it an apology
for rivers that catch fire like lighter fluid
sometimes it feels like common sense is a langauge, and only a few are fluent
I apologize for people who pollute ponds with poison
throw away natural beauties like a spoiled kid with news toys and
for all the people who see this happening, and are afraid to use their voices
it's like what Marvin said
animals and birds who live nearby are dying
so we can't stand by idlely
and sit on our hands wondering why
there are no birds flying near our kite strings
because in 40 years it might seem frightening
why we left the environment out to die
and I know that sometimes we're too lazy to sort out the recycling!
but damn it
that's where it starts
environmentalism doesn't come in some flash of lightning
it comes from the heart
so when the fish are full of mercury
which is why marvin said, "mercy me"
it doesn't seem so hard to pick up the plastic parts from the trash to the recylcing
our actions, no matter how small, have a larger impact
In fact, it shouldn't seem so abstract to care about places beyond where Amtrak can take you
You'd clean up an oil spill yourself if it was in the yard out back
and not everyone needs four new Ford four-door Explorers parked on the block
let's not turn our national parks into national parking lots
Because the entire world is our wonderful, spherical, blue-green backyard miracle
and we should take care of it
listen to your heart
It isn't that hard.