Sunday, March 11, 2012

Michael Lee's "Pass On" and Why Spoken-Word Continues to Matter

I really like this piece.  If you like it too, check out Michael's other poems in the related videos.  He's got some really strong material and is only getting better.

Now don't get me wrong.  I don't think this is a perfect poem.  I don't think the writing or delivery is flawless.  But I do think it's pretty damn good, and that it taps into something profound and beautiful.  If you don't, that's fine. But I'm tired of having every spoken-word video on the internet turn into a referendum on spoken-word as an art form.  So I'm using this poem as an opportunity to push back.

Without fail, when a spoken-word poem gets posted on a major blog or website, the same comments always pop up:
  • "Too much poet voice."
  • "Too melodramatic; overly sincere; too loud."
  • "A 'real' poet doesn't need the theatrics to be good."
  • "It's too flashy; it's just style over substance."
  • "It's well-done, but it's not poetry."
Now, are there specific instances when those critiques apply?  Sure. There are plenty. But my argument is that those critiques are constantly applied to EVERY spoken-word performance, no matter how good or bad it may be. So I just have a few bullet points for the haters, as it were, to keep in mind:

1. The Page/Stage Divide is an Artificial One

Lots of great spoken-word artists are published poets, award-winners and professors.  Lots of page poets are very good at performing their work.  As different as spoken-word and written poetry may be in many regards, there's still an enormous overlap.

2. That Being Said, Spoken-Word is Performance Art
Spoken-word is not just "poetry out loud."  It's a performance art that utilizes body language, tone, vocal dynamics, facial expression, movement and many other elements on top of the substance and style of the poem itself.  It is poetry; I challenge you to provide a definition of poetry wherein spoken-word wouldn't be considered poetry.  The key thing is, however, that it's a different kind of poetry.  It has its own rules, its own standards, its own culture.  With page poetry, you can close-read, re-read lines or phrasings and really pick stuff apart; with spoken-word, the listener only has one chance to "get" what is being said.  Some would say that this forces the poet to dumb down the writing, that spoken-word sacrifices subtlety and wit for heavy-handed sermonizing.  Maybe it does, sometimes.  But that's an oversimplification.  The best spoken-word fuses style, substance and delivery into engaging, challenging, transformative performance art.  It may not look or sound like a traditional, capital-P "POEM," but that doesn't mean that it's less worthwhile.  It's just different.

3. The Audience for Spoken-Word is the People
This is a generalization, as every artist can have their own target audience in mind.  But it's a pretty accurate generalization.  Spoken-word artists tend to write for the people-- whether that be the patrons of a bar during a poetry slam, high school students in an after-school program, college kids at an open mic night or activists at a rally.  The audience is usually not "people who read and critique traditional page poetry."  So if you're one of those people and you don't like the aesthetic choices that a given spoken-word poet is making, keep that in mind.  Context and audience matter when it comes to spoken-word; the work doesn't exist in a vacuum.  And sure, sometimes that leads to pandering or platitudes.  Sometimes it can be more melodramatic than dramatic.  Sometimes it's too loud.  But it can also lead to work that clearly and powerfully communicates a message to a group of people.  You'd have to be pretty cynical to see that as a bad thing, much less "the death of art," as one critic put it.

4. "Poet Voice" Usually Just Means Speaking Clearly and Forcefully.
You ever notice that news anchors and reporters talk really weird? That's because it's really important that people understand what they're saying.  So they overemphasize their enunciation and speak with a common rhythm and tone.  Spoken-word poets do that too (as do stage actors, radio announcers, rappers and many other vocal artists).  I'm not saying that "poet voice" isn't a problem; we should all be pushing ourselves to deliver our work more originally and any mold or formula is going to get old sooner or later.  But I do think that the people who tend to worry the most about "poet voice" are the critics and other poets, and not the average audience member.  The audience just wants to hear the poem performed clearly and powerfully.  At the end of the day, I care a lot more about what a poet is saying, how the work is written and how the poem stimulates me intellectually or emotionally than whether or not he/she has a delivery that "kind of sounds like someone else."  Boo hoo.

5. Spoken-Word is a Democratic Art Form
Most people consume spoken-word either at a poetry slam, open mic or on the internet.  Those three things have something very important in common-- they're open to anyone.  There's no vetting process.  That means that the experienced, boundary-pushing artists exist right alongside the beginners, the copycats and the hacks.  Now this might make a given poetry slam painful, since half the stuff you hear might be awful-- but it's also a strength.  Spoken-word is a culture in which every voice has a place, where "art" is not some dead thing hanging on a wall, but a way for all of us to communicate with each other, to express ourselves and take part in a long and powerful tradition.  I'm as critical of spoken-word as any "hater" out there, but I also understand the larger cultural context-- as a community, we're not all trying to forge a new, exclusive canon; we're trying to create spaces for people to create and share their work, good or bad.  And sure, there need to be more workshops, more critical thinking and more slam criticism out there; but it needs to be informed criticism, from people who understand this larger context.

6. Spoken-Word is Both the Past and the Future of Poetry
It's weird to see people getting all huffy about spoken-word, like it's this new fad that has the audacity to think that it can exist on the same plane as traditional page poetry.  Poetry started out as spoken-word.  It's a part of every culture on Earth.  The whole ivory-tower-written-word-book-publishing thing is a relatively recent development.  And I hate to break it to you, but the future of poetry lies with spoken-word too.  As spoken-word after-school clubs and teen poetry slams get more and more popular, the next generation of MFAs and published poets are going to be kids from that culture.  The landscape is shifting, and that's a good thing.  Spoken-word is making poetry relevant again.

7. If You're Convinced That You Hate Spoken-Word, Watch These:
For the people who just hate spoken-word, or for the people who are just discovering it and want to see more, here are five of my favorite performances.  If you can pick them apart like every spoken-word video on the internet gets picked apart, maybe the form just isn't for you.  And that's okay.  But a personal aesthetic distaste is not the same thing as "that art form is objectively worthless;" let's try to keep that in mind.

Patricia Smith: Skinhead
If there were a poetry slam Mt. Rushmore, Patricia Smith would definitely be one of the faces, and this piece is a great example of why she's been so successful, both as a slam poet and page poet.  The poem is beautifully written and powerful performed, sure, but it also says something.  It's also unique and challenging.  And that laugh at the end...

Robbie Q. Telfer: Clowns
One of the primary functions of poetry is to help us see a given subject in a new light, to illuminate something that we never really thought about before.  This piece captures something really special, and while the poem works on the page, that deadpan delivery elevates it to new heights.

Khary "6 is 9" Jackson: Carolina
Just because a poem's delivery is "big," it doesn't mean that it's not a well-written poem.  This is a perfect example of that.  Huge, emotional delivery, but with substance behind it.  One of the best love poems in the slam community.

Mike Mlekoday: Jesusland
Again, just because a poet uses "poet voice," or injects some theatricality into the performance, it doesn't mean the writing isn't good.  This is another piece that works very well on the page, but becomes electric when performed live.

Alvin Lau: Full Moon
I don't know what Alvin would say about this, but I believe that spoken-word poetry isn't just poetry.  It's also theater.  It's also stand-up.  It's also hip hop.  It's also oratory.  It's a mix of a bunch of different vocal and written forms, and this poem is a great example of that.

Sierra DeMulder: Unrequited Love Poem
And not all spoken-word is "big."  Performance styles vary a great deal; subject matter too.  While I generally post "political" poems, there's a ton of spoken-word out there that isn't explicitly political or social justice-oriented.  The range of subject matter, style and deliveries is as diverse as any other form, if not moreso.

And a bunch more here.

Feel free to post any additions, counter-arguments or whatever in the comments.  Let's discuss.

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