Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

(originally published at MN Mic; re-posting here with some revisions)

In my experience, many of the criticisms directed at slam and performance poetry are founded in an ignorance of what the form really is. People today are criticizing what slam poetry was five years ago, or they went to one really bad open mic and hated it, or they watched a particularly uninspired episode of Def Poetry Jam and decided that all spoken-word is platitude-ridden, clichéd sound and fury.

And to be fair, there's plenty to not like about spoken-word.  But as much as I criticize spoken-word, I still believe in it.  In an effort to assuage the fears of some potential audience members (and/or performers), I’d like to address a few myths:

We all know the stereotype. Some twenty-something with a goatee and beret gets on stage and reads some really awful, trite, cliché-ridden poetry about how “the government is corrupt” with a lot of passion and intensity; his rhythms are predictable and his voice goes up and down for no apparent reason. The audience goes wild.

I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t happen now and then, but so many would dismiss the entire art form due to the presence of a few hacks, or perhaps just some kids who are starting their journeys as writers. This is a willful ignorance.

It is true that many (not as many as you might think, but quite a few) performance poets have adopted a standard vocal style, and certain themes (alienation, identity, depression, radical politics, sexuality, etc.) come up at slams and open mics more than others. But show me a genre of music or form of expression where this isn’t the case. Singer-songwriters all sing about relationships in 4/4 time with a guitar. Rappers rap about how good they are in sixteen bar verses with eight bar hooks. Every form has its own standard, and every form is dominated by hacks and artists who are simply following a formula. If anything, spoken-word has a much HIGHER ratio of originality and talent to mediocrity than, say, indie rock or novel-writing (or page poetry, for that matter) or whatever other art you’d like to compare it to.

That’s not to say that every spoken-word artist is a completely original, convention-defying genius. But if you go to a slam today, you’re more likely to see and hear something inspiring, hilarious or powerful than something that embodies the stereotypes associated with the form. Spoken-word, at least the version of it that we’re talking about (since technically, it’s been around forever), is still a very young art.

On some levels, this might actually be true. But the key question is “according to whom?” Is the broader poetry community judging spoken-word by the same standards they judge some creative writing professor’s villanelles? The form is fundamentally different. It’s a performance art; yes, some subtlety might be sacrificed at times because the listener doesn’t have the luxury of re-reading lines and analyzing every word choice, but this is a conscious decision. It’s extremely important to remember: spoken-word is written to be performed; it’s not the same as reciting poetry written for the page and we should not judge the two by the exact same standards.

The best spoken-word takes elements of page poetry, theater, oratory, stand-up comedy, preaching and other vocal forms and mashes them up into something new and incredibly engaging. No, the focus isn’t always on the “pure” lyric, and while some might say that this fact dilutes the art, I’d argue the exact opposite. I think that poets’ balancing form, content and delivery is making poetry more relevant, exciting and meaningful. Language does, after all, exist as the written word and as the spoken/heard word; spoken-word poetry gets to explore places that page poetry cannot go. I’m not saying that one is better or worse than the other; they’re just different, and this should be celebrated.

Also, remember that spoken-word is about the democritization of poetry. Anyone can get up at an event and perform something. And sure, this means that you might here something not-so-great because the person performing literally just wrote their first poem yesterday. But the good here greatly outweighs the bad. A slam or open mic might not always be 100% revelatory, but it's a space for people to express themselves; it's about process as much as it's about product.

I’ve heard this from both academics who hate hip hop and want to associate spoken-word with what they consider violent, sexist doggerel, and from hip hop artists who think that spoken-word poets are just rappers who can’t stay on beat. Both are way off.

As someone who is both a rapper and a spoken-word poet, I can say that the two share some elements but are fundamentally different. At slams and open mics these days, you rarely hear rhyming poetry; you’ll hear free verse, theater-style monologues, persona pieces and much more, and rhymes are there but are generally in the minority. Poets who try to rap generally aren’t very good, and rappers who try to compete in slams rarely do well. If anything, I’d like to see more cross-over and cooperation between the two communities. I think they could learn a lot from each other.

Again, there is some truth in this statement, but it ignores the wider context. Slams (which are, for those who don’t know, competitions in which performing poets are given scores from a panel of judges) are imperfect things, but they’re also a means to a very important end. The idea behind slam has nothing to do with poets’ stroking their egos; it’s a way to build the community—to get poets writing, to get people to come watch them perform and to make spoken-word events more exciting and audience-oriented. Slams are responsible for getting people, especially young people, excited about poetry again, and the value of this cannot be overstated.

Yes, sometimes the best poets don’t win. Sometimes a really loud, flashy piece will beat an exceptionally thoughtful, well-written piece. But slam is about democracy. As a poet, you have to be able to connect to your audience, even if that audience is in a dive-bar somewhere, only half-listening. The best slam poets are able to strike that balance between content, form and delivery, to write something beautiful and meaningful and perform it in a way that grabs people and gets a point across perfectly. It’s a great challenge, and in my opinion, very healthy for poetry.

First of all, let’s not forget that spoken-word is as old as language itself. In some form or another, it’s always been with us and will always be with us. I’ve been talking about a specific manifestation of it (the post-Beat, late-20th century slam and spoken-word cultures), but it’s a form with enough flexibility and power to never truly disappear.

And as someone who has been to five National Poetry Slams, performed countless times all over the country and run a million writing and performance workshops for youth, I can say with certainty that even this specific manifestation of spoken-word isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to get more popular.

Nationally, the spoken-word community is big, diverse, supportive, talented and ready for the next big stage. High schools all over the country have spoken-word clubs. Universities are starting to teach spoken-word as a legitimate literary form. Slams and open mics are popping up not only in the usual places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but in small towns across America and beyond.

People who disparage spoken-word or slam should attend the Quest for the Voice youth slams that happen every year through the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. They should see the Brave New Voices national youth slam or the Louder than a Bomb festival, and feel the positivity and overwhelming sense of community in those spaces. They should talk to the countless adult poets who aren’t obsessed with scoring points in slams and simply appreciate having a platform on which they can share pieces of themselves. They should talk to the students I’ve worked with who have performance poetry to thank for being able to overcome social anxiety and low self-esteem, or the students who have used performance poetry as their gateway to discovering page poetry, or social justice activism, or whatever their true passion might be.

I don’t want to come off as overly defensive though. Of course, some people just don’t like listening to someone else performing poetry. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t go to death metal concerts. But I recognize that I avoid death metal because it doesn’t appeal to my personal sonic tastes, not because I think it’s full of blood-drinking Satanists. We should like or dislike things for the right reasons, and I have no problem with people criticizing spoken-word; I just wish they’d be more informed when they do it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What Makes Effective Spoken-Word or Slam Poetry?

One of my favorite activities to do in a workshop or class is just brainstorming around what makes effective spoken-word or slam poetry. We all have different standards, and since spoken-word is so new for so many people, sometimes those standards vary wildly. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for debate, and I think that that debate is a very healthy, necessary thing in our community. Here are the standards that I use, forged in those discussions and hardened by my experiences in the slam scene, in the arts education scene and elsewhere.

1. Context matters. Just because you scored a 30 in a slam doesn’t mean that your poem will succeed at a rally, in a high school classroom or even at a different slam. Spoken-word doesn’t have to be able to work in a vacuum—it’s okay to write with a specific performance venue in mind. Know your audience. A good poet uses this knowledge to hit as hard as he or she can in a particular scenario.

2. Substance > style. For me, spoken-word is more than pretty art—it’s an opportunity to say something to an audience. Too many poets waste that opportunity. I’m not saying that every poem has to be a grand political manifesto, but the best spoken-word is powerful and ultimately transformative because of what it says, not how it says it. Of course, form brings content to life, and good writing will give a poem’s message longer legs, but at the end of the day, pretty words with no meaningful foundation ring hollow.  And yes, I know that this is a particularly controversial point in poetry circles, but it's what I believe.

3. Challenge the audience. The best art doesn’t tell people what they want to hear—it pushes them out of their comfort zones. It doesn’t repeat the slogans and platitudes that the audience already believes in; it helps them to see things in a new way. At the same time, remember point #1. A poem that is cliché for one audience might be revelatory for another.

4. Do not manipulate your audience; do not exploit your subject. A poem can be sad, a poem can be angry and a poem can deal with heavy subjects. But if there isn’t some kind of deeper point to all of that raw energy, you run the risk of simply toying with people’s emotions in order to get them to cheer for you. So if a poem is going to be about dead babies or domestic violence or genocide or whatever, it damn well better have a message that goes beyond “wow war is sad” or “murder isn’t good.” I like calls to action. I like poems that toy with the relationship between personal and political.

5. Being original and memorable is more important than being “good.” What new perspective do you have? From what new angle can you attack a given target? If you’re going to cover well-trod territory, how are you going to make your work stand out? Remember, any idiot can write good poetry. Creative Writing programs around the world churn out would-be masters every semester. Your challenge is not to “write well;” it is to slap your audience in the face with something meaningful, powerful and memorable. Again, good writing can help you do that, but it should never be your only goal.

7. Be specific. A poet is like an archaeologist. You don’t walk for miles with a metal detector, picking up bottlecaps; you find a little three-foot by three-foot space and dig as deep as you can. Less-effective poets often want to write a single poem that addresses everything that’s wrong with the world—“war is bad, racism is bad, poetry is good, we should save the environment,” etc.—and the result is a watered-down laundry list of social ills that doesn’t really say anything. Instead, turn abstract concepts into concrete images. Don’t write about “war,” write about a specific person in a specific war dealing with a specific problem. Don’t write about “love,” tell a detailed story about a specific moment in your life when you felt loved.

8. Study the art of poetry. I know a lot of these points have forced “good writing” into the background, but it’s important to note that while I believe you can write a brilliant slam poem that isn’t a brilliant capital-P Poem, good writing is generally a very important tool for bringing a message to life and making a spoken-word piece more palatable and interesting. So don’t just get up on stage and rant and rave. Understand dynamics, structure, metaphor, imagery, assonance & consonance, rhythm, concrete vs. abstract language and all of the little things that go into making what is traditionally considered good poetry. Even if you want to break rules, you should be able to do so intentionally.

9. Perform to the audience, not at the audience. This is a subtle point, but one that’s been very important for my growth as an artist. A good spoken-word poet doesn’t beat the audience over their heads with words and ideas; instead, he or she attempts to create a real connection between speaker and listener. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this is done, but good poets use everything—not just words and voice; it’s in the approach to the mic, the posture, body language, eye contact, use of negative space and more. It’s about manipulating the energy that exists in a room to draw the listener into the piece.

10. Poetry—especially spoken-word—is about communication. At the end of the day, you’re not up on stage to celebrate how brilliant you are; you’re up there to open up lanes of communication, to say something that might get someone else to think or feel something, to build community—artistically, intellectually and physically. We are all extremely privileged to be a part of this movement, and as artists, we are regularly given platforms that most people don’t have access to. Make it count. Be extraordinary. Do not ever settle for a first draft. Be tireless in your pursuit of the truth that can only be spoken through poetry.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summertime Hip Hop Family Business at the Asian-American State Fair

1. Here's a new song featuring me, See More Perspective and Heidi Barton Stink.  It's a remix to See More's song "Summertime Hip Hop BBQ Jam for the World."  I'm the second verse.  And it's a free download. 

Summertime Hip Hop BBQ Jam for the World REMIX by SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE

2. Here's a new video of my poem, "The Family Business."  This summer, I've figured out that almost all of my poems are three and a half minutes long (or longer), and I've been squeezing them into three minutes in order to compete in slams for the past five years.  While there's cooler footage of this piece on the internet, this one is actually at the proper pacing:

3.  I'll be playing at the MN State Fair, at the AFL-CIO pavillion, on Tuesday, 8/30 at 4pm.  If you're going to go to the State Fair, why not just go that day at that time and check it out?  It should be fun.

4. Here's an interview with me in the Asian-American Press.  An excerpt: "Cowboy Bebop, the labor movement, comic books, legos, root beer, social justice activism and the Green Bay Packers."

5.  From giving the keynote at the TLT conference in Duluth to opening up for the incredible B.Dolan here in MPLS to tearing down the UW-Madison Terrace with Kristoff Krane and the NEM crew, to playing various shows with Prolyphic, Prayers for Atheists, Toki Wright, Junkyard Empire and others, to having yet another installment of our Hip Hop Against Homophobia series, to helping run a weekly social-justice-and-the-arts series at the Canvas, to kicking off the MN Activist Project, to facilitating workshops at the APIA spoken-word conference, the Loft's teen writers' summit and Rivertown Commons, to writing and recording a ton of new material that's better than anything else I've done (stay tuned for that), and more,  this has been a wild summer.  And Fall is only going to get wilder.  Thanks for listening.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

proposed additions to the poetry slam MC spiel

This post may only be relevant to a few people, but I figured it'd be good to make it public.  After a long discussion, a few of us in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene proposed a few changes to the standard host/MC spiel that happens at every slam.  Usually, the spiel just talks about the rules and philosophy of slam-- how scoring works, how the audience is encouraged to participate, how much time each poet has, where slam comes from, etc.  Some of us, however, want to add a two things:

1. A note about maintaining a physically safe space in the audience.  Cynthia French forwarded me a link to another event organizer's (Rich Villar) thoughts on this, and I think it's something we can apply too.  Wording can change, but something like this:

"We are committed to maintaining physically safe spaces for all people attending these public programs. All participants are expected to maintain appropriate public decorum and respect all other individuals—and their persons—within the spaces we occupy.  While we recognize and support every individual's capacity for change, anyone choosing not to follow this code by practicing threats, intimidation, unwanted advances, or unwanted physical contact on another individual will be asked to leave."

2. A more explicit call for audience empowerment with regards to policing what happens on stage.  We already ask the audience to verbally respond to what they like or don't like, through snaps, cheering, hissing, etc.  This would just be about emphasizing that a little more, and making sure it's clear that this applies not only to the poetry being performed, but to the hosts' behavior and any other public behavior happening.  Again, the wording can change, but here's what I'm thinking:

"Performers are not censored here, and are free to talk about any subject matter in whatever way they want to talk about it.  At the same time, the audience is not censored either.  So even though only five of you have a scoring paddle, you're all judges.  If you hear something beautiful or thought-provoking, feel free to respond, with snaps, with verbalizations, whatever... as long as it's sincere, respectful and doesn't drown out the poem.  And if you hear something that offends you, whether it's a poet using racist, sexist or homophobic language, or the host talking to someone in the audience in an inappropriate way, or even another audience member screaming offensive things at the judges, it's up to you to let them know how you feel."

Both of these additions are really about holding slam to higher standards.  We are not just an arts scene.  We are not just a social circle.  We are supposed to be on the leading edge of the intersections of art, community and social justice.  That doesn't mean that we should all be writing political poems; it means that the very structure of slam is infused with these principles-- anyone can be an artist, anyone can appreciate art and anyone can criticize art.  These spaces that we create should reflect those democratic principles.  A slam should absolutely challenge the audience, and sometimes make them uncomfortable; but it should never make anyone feel unsafe.  I don't see that as a "fine line."

And while this discussion has been slam-focused, I think it's worthwhile for the hosts and organizers of other events like open mics and community readings to think about this stuff too.  We do a version of this spiel at the Canvas, the teen arts center that I help coordinate, and it seems to work pretty well.

But there's a lot to still figure out.  Particularly with that first point, how will it be enforced?  Who will field any possible complaints-- the slammasters?  The hosts?  The audience?  If someone is going to be "asked to leave," who is responsible for asking?  I'd assume the slammasters, but maybe I'm missing something.  Maybe there's another line in there to be added about protocol.  Feel free to post any thoughts or ideas in the comments section here.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Guante & Big Cats! plus B.Dolan on 8/13 at the Fineline

Me and Big Cats! haven't played a full set together in quite a while, and I'm hoping we can debut some of our brand new material.  I'm also excited to see B.Dolan live again; I just wrote a little blurb on his terribly underrated 2010 album "Fallen House, Sunken City," but if you still haven't heard the album (or the artist, one of the freshest and most passionate in progressive hip hop), here's what I said, plus a very cool video:

If you think Dolan is just a Sage Francis clone, you need to check this one out with an open mind, because there's a world of difference between the two.  Both are big guys with beards, and both combine political messages with personal drama and a smartass attitude, but Dolan is much more of a pure spitter, and his voice is fuller and more powerful.  This album has the ambition of a weirdo-indie-rap concept album, but that ambition is backed up by a rock-solid delivery and production (courtesy of Alias) that bangs as hard as anything coming out of the boom-bap traditionalist camp these days.  Definitely one of the most slept-on albums of last year.

So I hope you can come to the show. I don't have a whole lot on the calendar locally for a while, so if you're going to come out, this is the one to go to.