Friday, June 08, 2007

The Spoken Word Revolution Redux - ed Mark Eleveld

In true Poetry Slam style, this CD and book set starts out by putting Poet Laureate head to head with Slam Champion. Ted Kooser (former USA Poet Laureate) vs Anis Mojgani (twice National Poetry Slam Individual Champion); Andrew Motion (current UK Poet Laureate) vs Sonya Renee (former National Poetry Slam Individual Champion). I'm not a fan of Motion's poetry, but even if I were, his polite reading of Anne Frank Huis (one of his best poems) would still be totally blown out of the water by Renee's electrifying, music backed performance of Thick. The comparison is of course, unfair, Motion writes for the page, Renee is a performer. However any literary poet who is presenting their poetry in front of an audience could learn lessons from performance poets. Lessons about how to bring poetry alive and to engage an audience.

Questions, asked by Ted Kooser in his introduction to the book, about whether performance poetry will endure as literature, are in my mind irrelevant. Each performance is unique and will live on in the mind of the audience who may well memorise the words (as proven by the audience participation in the recording of David Lerner's Mein Kampf!). Dare I ask the question: is literary poetry in fact the sign of a failure in poetics? That it needs to be written down because no one can remember it otherwise? The first poets performed their work, they didn't write it down. Performance poetry today continues this tradition, Kevin Coval in his article Towards a hip hop poetica describes hip hop poets as 'modern griots, indigenous keepers and tellers of his/her/stories.' Hip Hop poetry revels in rhyme and rhythm, as demonstrated here by Invincible, in this excerpt from Detroit Winter:

The city streets are bitter sweet
I pound pavement
While I'm kicking litter at my feet
Under the snow, the ground's blanket
These heavy hitter beats.

Dana Gioia in his article The New Oral Poetry notes that "(t)he nearly universal critical bias against rhyme and meter as recently as ten years ago, especially in University writing programmes, indicates how distant the poets in a print culture have become from the orality of verse''.

Many literary poets also seem to be afraid of emotion and humour and often appear to be engaging with a select gathering of fellow literary poets, rather than reaching out to a wider audience. Performance poets however are not afraid of emotion, whether raw anger in Mayda del Valle's poem about Puerto Rican Spanish speakers Tongue Tactics or more controlled as in Patricia Smith's rambling poem of love for her father When the Burning Begins:

....... I'm telling you it's the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head.

Nor are performance poets afraid to connect with the audience's points of reference, as in this line from Lebron James, by Nate Marshall one of the many young poets featured in this book:

I'll be the first spoken word brotha with a shoe
deal.

Performance poetry also is unafraid to engage with politics, which can seem confrontational, but it is hard not to at least see where Nikki Giovanni is coming from in his angry poem All Eyez on U:

if those who lived by the sword died by the sword there would be no
white men on earth.

There are some performance poets who I find too confrontational as much as there are some literary poets who bore me; at the same time there are literary poets who stun me with their distillations of powerful emotion and there are performance poets who move me with their subtlety. Both sides can learn from each other. This book is a perfect starting point for literary minded poets (or anyone else) to start learning from performance poets.

Spoken Word Revolution Redux can be ordered from Source Books.

1 comment:

PaulS said...

All art is performance art. If one looks at the origins of poetry, spoken word is really a return to roots. Poetry evolved sound and rhythm as an aid to memory so that a common mythology of the human could be preserved. All of your poetry here reveals a distinctive and careful voice. There is an subtlety and elegance of expression combined with a precise eye for detail. Very nice.