Monday, April 12, 2010

thoughts on writing, slam and spoken-word

There's been a great surge in chatter around slam poetry lately, people talking about the future of the art, the community and more. With Finals coming up in a few weeks and then the National Poetry Slam in St. Paul this year in August, here are a few of my thoughts, in a lovely bullet-point format:

1. My primary goals as an artist are to create work that is impactful and transformative, and to get that work seen/heard by as many people as possible. It is not to "write great poetry," or "make a living" or "get people to like me," though all of those things may be part of the process at some point. To me, art is not about some mystical expression of my soul; it's about communication, pure and simple. A work of art that changes how I see the world or makes me re-evaluate a previously-held belief is always more valuable, to me, than a work of art that is just entertaining, or just something I can relate to, or just something with a lot of dramatic or poetic power. Obviously, this isn't an oppositional binary, but it's something to keep in mind.

2. Poetry for poetry's sake, like "my ribcage is a toothy locomotive," is boring to me. I'm not saying that it's devoid of value, just that I have no interest in it. Similarly, super straight-forward "I believe this and this is why!" style poetry is also boring to me. Tell stories. Write persona poems. Engage the audience. I'm from the "art is communication and can/should serve a purpose in the real world" school of thought, for better or worse, but I also believe that good writing helps propel that message. I guess it's about balance, which seems really obvious, but is ignored time and time again.

3. But what does "engage the audience" really mean? After all, audiences love bullshit spoken-word. Here's what I mean: a lot of slam/spoken-word stuff is like being hit by a blunt object. Look how loud I am. Look how brilliant and complex my imagery is. Look how I flipped this. Blunt objects. I prefer being stabbed in the heart. Engaging an audience goes beyond impressing them, or entertaining them; it's creating a real connection between poet, audience and poem-- something they remember after the show is over. The best-written poems, the highest scoring poems, the poems that get the biggest responses in the moment-- they're not necessarily the most memorable or transformative poems.

4. Spoken-word doesn't have to be good poetry to be good performance art. I think we get hung up on that debate too much. What I do is a combination of poetry, prose, theater, hip hop and oratory. If you judge it solely as poetry, then no, it might not be that great. But you shouldn't be judging it solely as poetry, because it's not JUST poetry (or more accurately, it's a specific KIND of poetry, with its own rules and goals). I would argue, however, that spoken-word falls under the umbrella of poetry, and people who would deny this are being intellectually dishonest.

5. Slam has been good for spoken-word. For all the talk of competitiveness and formulaic poetry (both valid points), slam has forced spoken-word artists and poets to create work that can be engaging in a noisy dive bar, that can speak to someone who hates poetry; it can take poetry into places it's never been. I agree with Mike Mlekoday that slam is (to some extent) a useful tool for gauging the effectiveness of a given artist's work. If you're a brilliant writer, but you can't connect to an audience, you should be punished, at least in this setting. Of course, slam success is an imperfect measure-- audiences are random, the luck of the draw is an issue, a million other factors go into how your work is perceived and ingested; and yes, a crafty artist can "trick" an audience into a high score with melodrama or pure volume or whatever. But at the end of the day, the game is about getting people to listen to you, and then saying something once they are. This, to me, is healthy for poetry.

6. The national slam scene needs, more than anything, to do more outreach. We have a vibrant, dynamic community, but it's not as big as it should be. It's actually kind of insular and nepotistic, at least in my opinion. This is one reason I've become a lot more comfortable with some poets doing the same poems over and over (if they're good)-- a slam should be about giving the audience the best show possible, not about proving to the other poets what a prolific writer you are. Every big national event should be community-oriented; its primary goal should be to nurture more writers, performers and audience members in every host city, not to be a big party for a few scene regulars. Also, let's get on TV.

7. On success: to me, success is at least partly about access. Winning the National Poetry Slam last year has given me access to audiences and gigs I wouldn't have had otherwise. It's another reason a reviewer will write about my album as opposed to some other rapper's album. It's a conversation starter. Beyond that, the abstract idea of winning a national slam, or competing on Finals stage, or whatever, doesn't mean that much to me. I know we worked really hard and wrote good poetry, and I'm proud of that, not winning. But the other half of success is what you do with that access once you have it. I know a lot of poets and rappers who have more fans than me, play bigger shows and have a lot of what most people consider "success." But they're not saying anything. They're not building anything. They're just entertaining people or providing background noise while people get drunk. And that's their prerogative, but, well, see point #1.

8. The thing I love about slam poetry is that it doesn't ignore context, like a lot of page poetry does. At least in my academic experience, a page poem is supposed to succeed in a vacuum, whereas slam is pretty explicit about different environments calling for different kinds of poems. I think this is really healthy too. I know poets who would never make an NPS team, but their work is perfect for connecting to rowdy eighth graders, or poets who are revered in the slam community but would have nothing to say to a prison group or after-school program or whatever. I like having a pocketful of poems, not unlike Pokemon, that are good for any given scenario.

9. There are about three main performance poet archetypes, and I think we need more people willing to smash those molds. You can do incredible work inside those boxes, but boxes in general become constraining over time. That's one reason I like Khary-- I don't always love his writing, or his performances, but he doesn't sound like ANYONE else on the scene. Extra points there for both originality and ambition. If you're a great writer and a great performer, but you sound exactly like someone else (in terms of rhythms, cadences, approach, whatever), you're hurting yourself.

10. Now I'm going to kind of contradict that last point. Cliche doesn't always have to be a bad thing. Yes, every progressive male poet has a masculinity poem. A million people perform what have been derisively called "identity poems." Many of us consider ourselves "teaching artists." Zombie poems. Anti-war poems. And yes, rape poems. Of course, you have to do all of these things WELL if you're going to do them, and try to attack them from new angles or whatever, but I'm tired of the mindset that "oh that's just a black man poem" or "that's just a violence against women" poem. Some issues deserve to be talked about over and over again. Again, you have to do it well, be original and not exploitative and all that, but part of what being a poet means is that you create conversations around issues, and keep existing conversations moving. Also, this relates back to point #8: a piece that is beating a dead horse at a poetry slam might be completely revelatory to a high school class or rally or whatever.

Anyways, I'm in the process of putting all these random points (and more) in a more formal, condensed context. Just wanted to share my thoughts for now.


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