Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Defining Line: Plato, Performance, Poems, and Points (Ten of 'em)

This is the first in a series of articles that was slated to be written for the louderARTS Project on the various intersections and divergences in the world of poetry. If they exist, that is. (that's what the comment section is for! HINT HINT)

Because Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (author of Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam) loves it when I get all loud and "debate-y" on my blog, I decided to post this here while louder works out the various HTML kinks and launches their online journal. You may see this reposted over there before too long.

Enjoy, and please comment!

(I'll warn you now: If you notice any similarities between these articles and Barbara Jane Reyes' amazing blog, please know that she's the gold standard as far as these kinds of blogs go. She may have rubbed off a tad.)

A Defining Line:
Plato, Performance, Poems, and Points (Ten of 'em)

Rich Villar

I believe, above all else, in context. So, I return to the beginning of things.

If you're a poet, and you have raked someone, most likely another poet, over the coals for his or her stance on stagecraft or poetics, please know that your quarrel predates much of western civilization.

And you should be so lucky. Plato and Aristotle did not engage on the merits of line break so much as they debated the very utility of poetry itself: what's the use of it? Aristotle loved the drama so much that he gave us poets the terms and rules we debate by. Plato, much the wise old teacher, wanted us poets dead, if not incapacitated.

Put another way. When I told my father I was going to be a poet instead of a lawyer, I expected some very reasonable inquiries about my income potential. Followed (the comedy gods and I hoped), by an overbearing fatherly lecture, punctuated by the raised fists and truncated d's of his guttural Cuban Spanglish. Instead, he turned my head inside out by simply pointing out the obvious: "You know; poets die young."

Given the alternative for poets (O death, where is thy sting?), it seems frivolous to argue about things like slam and academia, page and stage, those dichotomies that give much ammunition to the students of poetry, both in MFA programs and random bar stools. But I'm also a student of politics. And even Plato, that viejo manganzon, did devote some ink to the idea that poets had some responsibility to truth and history. So the intrigue for me, and thus the context of this column, lies in seeing where politics and poetics intersect. And Sweet Jesus, how they intersect.


I find myself learning new things about poetry every day. Consequently, I have new opinions on the topic almost every year. If someone had cornered me a year ago and asked me if I was a page poet or a stage poet, I would have angrily denied any of their damned artificial divisions and sulked for half an hour. I still sulk whenever I can, since that's what poets do, but I'm not so sure that division is such a bad thing or if division's even the right word. What I can say for sure, after reading William Carlos Williams' varied variable feet in grad school, is that there is definitely an art to the poetry on the page. It is possible to do a disservice to the emotional truth of a poem if you read it in a way the poet did not intend. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glistened with rainwater beside the white chickens. Right?

There are differences between poems and poets. And yes, some of those differences extend to the worlds of performance and poetry. Some poems read better than others do. Some poems sound better aloud than they look on the page. I'm no longer convinced that these divisions are artificial.

Still, I have a problem when differences between poets and poems are used to separate, define, redefine and categorize without the input of the poet. I further have a problem when these random categories pass unexamined for what they are: convenient, sometimes ignorant, mostly having little to do with intellectual thought and more to do with capitalism. Yet I refuse to lay all the blame at the feet of the institutions. Poets—all artists, really—need to do more to defend their own work, to define it as they see fit. History won't define poetry by itself. History is rewritten daily. More poets, particularly poets of color, need to get into the history-writing business. That's also why I'm writing this column. While the focus here will primarily be on differences and dichotomies, intersections and illusions, my ultimate hope is that we poets, at the very least, will come to see our work as part of a timeline, a history, one with many branches and even more interpretations. The unexamined life, Plato said through his muse Socrates, is not worth living.


I want to devote the rest of my space here to some things I believe about poetry. I reserve the right to be convinced, and I reserve the right to be perfectly stubborn in my dogma. I just think it's important to define things. Otherwise, why debate?

What follows is a list of beliefs, definitions for my purposes, and idioms to chew on, which I'll be using to guide my columns in the future. Feel free to agree, disagree or what have you. I'll be expanding on these concepts in the weeks to come.

1) Spoken Word is a category of recorded sound, traditionally defined by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, refined and changed over the years to reflect the realities of certain artistic shifts and their resultant record sales. It does not constitute a genre of poetry. There are no such things as "spoken word poetry," or "spoken word poets." There is only poetry. There are only poets.

2) Slam is a movement that started in Chicago, spread to other cities, and helped to revitalize the art of reading poetry aloud. I say, "helped" because there were many movements around before slam that revitalized, or relied upon, the oral nature of poems. (Ask anyone who ever heard Pablo Neruda read aloud.) All kinds of poems have been read at slams. Other than the time limit, which often goes ignored, there is no restriction on the form of the poems read at
slams. Therefore, there are no such things as "slam poetry," or "slam poets." There is only poetry. There are only poets.

3) The term "spoken word artist" serves one of three purposes: a) to dismiss the poetry of a poet whose reading style is performative, b) to isolate one's poetry from critical discussion as a poem, or c) to differentiate it from something the artist considers to be "for the stage" rather than "for the page." There is no page poetry. There is no stage poetry. There is only poetry.

4) Academia, for our purposes here, is the system of professors, professionals, and institutions that gives (some) poets a voice at the university level.

5) The "Poetry Business," or "Po-Biz" for short, is a somewhat oxymoronic term for the system of publishing houses, journals, editors, industry professionals, endowed institutions, etc. that by
and large determine which poems get published in the United States.

6) The manner in which Academia and the Po-Biz conspire with each other, consciously or unconsciously, determines what kind of poetry is remembered and written about. This system has existed for quite a while, but like any monolith, it also inspires movements against it.
Slam started this way, but it has gradually been pacified through scholarly study.

7) You do not need an MFA to write good poetry, or to get your poetry published. However, if you don't read other poets because you think it's going to affect your craft, then you're a moron...and you probably don't write good poetry.

8) You do not need affectations, gestures, a large jazz collection, or a tight shirt to write good poetry, or to read your poetry aloud. But if you read your poems in front of an audience, you owe them, at the very least, the basics of speech craft. Anything less is disrespectful.

9) No poetry is an offshoot of hip-hop, no matter what Def Jam tells you. Please refer to number 1: there is no such thing as spoken word poetry. Hip-hop influences poems, profoundly so, but it does not birth them.

10) Performance poetry does not exist either...but if it did, I'd be willing to bet that Sekou Sundiata is its daddy.


Derrick said...

I agree with points 1-10. All of em maaan!!!

Randall Horton said...

Good points

Mendi O. said...


Rich Villar said...

[Mendi O: Smackin' your ideas about "performance poetry" upside the head since Lord knows when. All them Electric Ghosts, an' stuff.]

giles said...

what up rich! i agree with everything, but would like to bring up a point of - not contention, but maybe nuance - i think the phrases "spoken word poetry" or "performance poetry" can be useful - or could have been useful - if there weren't so many assumptions tied up in them.

but more useful in the way that "jazz poetry" helps place work in a specific historical frame - it provides greater context, opening the world of the poem, rather than limiting it.

but there are so many wrongful assumptions about those categorizations that using them now is risking be grossly misunderstood.

i also think it helps to have a tight shirt. both for writing and performing poetry.

The Velvet Blog said...

I disagree with the 1st 3 points. I have seen almost every kind of poem performed at the slam, however certain qualities to certain poems are rewarded & therefore often chosen & able to be defined & attached.

Slam Poetry MUST reveal all difficulties or meanings by the end of the poem or else it will not be rewarded (how else could a first-time judge grasp a poetic concept in 3mins?) to continue to be chosen as an option by the poet (i.e. consistently rewarded.) Spoken Word is poetry that often carries such markers, & sometimes exclusively, yet due to the context in which it is performed, may or may not cull reward for the poet.

These all exist under the banner of poems & poets, for sure. But they are useful & quantifiable categories.

Rich Villar said...

@The Velvet Blog
You said: "Slam Poetry MUST reveal all difficulties or meanings by the end of the poem or else it will not be rewarded (how else could a first-time judge grasp a poetic concept in 3mins?) to continue to be chosen as an option by the poet (i.e. consistently rewarded.)"

There's that "must" word again. Um, don't ALL poems have to reveal all difficulties or meanings by the end of the poem? I'm not so sure one can apply context or meaning outside of the text of a poem, no matter how the poem is constructed.

If what you mean is, all meanings and nuance must be understood within the time the poem is heard, and rewarded immediately by the crowd, or else it's not slam poetry? What does that mean exactly? That slam poetry can't be multilayered? That it must be simplified for a quick-absorbing audience? I might accept that premise, except I've seen Patricia Smith and Rachel McKibbens drop some multilayered goodness on various slam crowds, to the tune of 4 national championships, finals appearances aplenty, and lots of 10's. So have the various members of louderARTS slam teams over the years. I'd say they're all pretty successful--by your crowd-pleasing definition--at slams.

I've seen a lot of different kinds of work rewarded at slam, in many different slam venues, in my years on the scene. For me, it's too random to apply words like "genre," "rules," and "must" as it applies to how/if we analyze slam. Or for that matter, "spoken word." What doesn't play in Peoria might score high in San Francisco. And so forth. This is why I don't judge the success of a poem, nor do I characterize its genre, based on what it can do in 3 minutes on a given night.

Anonymous said...

From this Profe to that Profe, thanks for the shout out. I appreciate your definitions of terms, though I'd like to ask about your definition of "Academia," and the fact that many different kinds of poets participate in it. For example, "slam" poets and MFA'ed poets, and many poets in between, or many poets who resist easy categorization do come into the academic setting as adjunct and tenured educators, as "distinguished scholars," as artists in residence, on various fellowships, and indeed, as graduate students. So that's one thing.

I also have a question about "spoken word." I am wondering who perpetuates the myth of "spoken word artists" being different from "poets." In my own experience, I see many "spoken word artists" shying away from or vehemently avoiding claiming "poet" for their own art. In fact, I tend to think I see this more than I see the "academy" delineating the two.

Delisile said...

::wiggles in her chair excitedly::

Oh. Well put. Good points. Particularly like # 3.

What if something is not multilayered yet consistently works well (scores well) when performed. Does the fact that it is not multilayered make it an inferior piece of work? Less worthy? The performer/writer somehow not as good because their performance and/or delivery skill outweighs their writing skill?

Oscar Bermeo said...

Good post but if we are going over the 10 Points I'm going to challenge a couple of them:

#4 Academia: Should also include any poems taught at any part of the education spectrum–grade school, after-school programs, high school, community workshops, et al.

#5 Po-Biz: Should also includes the college performance circuits, Def Poetry and the National Poetry Slam. If there is no such thing as "spoken word" poetry (which I agree with to a certain extent) then why limit the power brokers to only published works.

#6 To blend my previous points together, let us include how institutions like Youth Speaks get together with HBO to produce a canon of what youth poetry is supposed to be.

#9 Oh yes, there is Hip-Hop Poetry. Please refer to Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Amiri Baraka, the Last Poets and Mikey Piñero for pre-Def Jam examples. To disavow Hip-Hop Poetry would be along the same lines of dismissing Nuyorican Poetry (Q: How can there be poems about a place that's not found on a map? A: Easy, we change the map!)

#10 Performance poetry does exist but I like to call it orality. In my personal history, my father is its inventor but for the purposes of this discussion it can start with Homer, if ya like.

A deeper look into these points is over at my blog: Intuitive Intertextuality: If knowledge is the key then just show me the lock.

Andrew said...

Maybe the divisions (distinctions?) could be viewed similarly to how we view divisions of poetic form and style, ie "This is a sestina, that is a sonnet." Could we likewise say "This is a page poem, that is a stage poem"?

The Velvet Blog said...


thanks for your timely response.

In answer to your first question, no, not all poems have to do that. A poem upon the page can continue to reveal layers of meaning over time, knowing that the audience can take all the time with it that it wants.

Of course a slam poem can be multilayered, but it behooves the slam poet to reveal all layers "within the time the poem is heard" (thank you for saying that more accurately.) How drastically has any iconic slam poem changed over time in your estimation? I'd love to see examples.

The two you presented (Rachel & Patricia) are indeed exceptions. & there are more. I disagree that the best poet always loses, & I have seen a poet with great performance & great work carry the show many times. But as far as percentages, these are exceptions, not standards.

It's not that random.

Anonymous said...

Of course a slam poem can be multilayered, but it behooves the slam poet to reveal all layers "within the time the poem is heard" (thank you for saying that more accurately.)

I think it's only the "ALL layers" that I'd quibble with. I'd like to think the best of slam poems, like the best of any poems, need to be lived with for some time. But that being said ...

How drastically has any iconic slam poem changed over time in your estimation? I'd love to see examples.

Me too, and it strikes me that this is probably the most salient question to ask in the whole matter. Still ...

The two you presented (Rachel & Patricia) are indeed exceptions. & there are more.

It's unfair pool to exclude the best the medium's had to offer as an exception. I've said this before, but any art form, art genre or particularly nifty parlor trick needs to be judged by its best, not its median.

Rich Villar said...

@Giles Wow, haven't talked in a minute, sir! The tight shirt might help YOU, but not so much me. Keeps me from flailing off my jazz hands. LOL I think a lot of what I'd want to say in response to you is about to be covered, so read on, home slice.

Rich Villar said...

@Barbara Jane
It's true that many poets who started in slam are dissolving into academia, some openly, and some not so openly. Which is why I note that it's not the subversive movement it used to be; its purpose, as Dan Ferri explained to me once, was to tear down the existing structure and Whitmanize the poetry world again (i.e. create a movement of poets as DIY'ers publishing whatever the hell they liked, academia/po-biz be damned.) I also think it's an interesting study to note who claims it in their bios these days and who doesn't. As for vehement rejection: I can think of two poets of color who are more readily labeled spoken word despite their protestations to the contrary: Willie Perdomo and Jessica Care Moore, who just so happen to be independent publishers of poets. This really merits a follow up post of its own. And I see you blogged about it too. Really good stuff here.

And of course, you're welcome, and thanks for showing the way.

Rich Villar said...

Of course you're right about the performance circuit. Indeed, what about those entities you mention, the ones vested in maintaining the loud, stereotypically slam-poetish work I wanna bash in the head with a shovel? (Pointing the finger at the youth-slam model as well.) The teen stuff is all the more insidious because the financials involved are often good for the adults...not so much for the kids. I mentioned that in an interview elsewhere, completely left it out here. Complicates things a bit, doesn't it?

On Hip-hop poetry. I'll accept one major correction, but disagree vehemently on another:

I said: "No poetry is an offshoot of hip-hop, no matter what Def Jam tells you...There is no such thing as spoken word poetry. Hip-hop influences poems, profoundly so, but it does not birth them.

a) Of course, hip-hop has birthed and will continue to birth artistic movements in the same vein as its populist roots, right down to the very artistic forms themselves: graffiti art, dance, rhyme and lyricism, politcal content, etc. So you can very much make the case for a hip-hop poetics, much in the same vein as a jazz or blues poetics.

b) I think you overreach a bit in your response when you place those poets in with a hip-hop aesthetic. I tend to think of hip-hop in terms of the crucibles it was formed in: South Bronx, youth, DIY, fusion, the four elements, the politics, the real talk, its worldwide growth and appeal, etc. While you can definitely say that the list you provided conceivably gave emcees their first lyrical and content cues, I don't think it's fair to retroactively slap a hip-hop label on them. Langston's and Amiri's poetics borrow in both form and content from jazz and blues. Piñero, Luciano, and the Last Poets grab liberally from the Puerto Rican and African-American oral traditions. Did they, like hip-hop, "start out in the park?" Sure. But hip-hop is not the specific overlay or aesthetic they based their poetics on. You can't hand them a pre-Def Jam place in the sun in terms of hip-hop poetics, lest you leave out some of those post-Cafe pre-HBO writers like Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Reg E. Gaines, early Paul Beatty, etc.

Orality. I like that term. G'head with your Walter Ong, man! Maybe we'll use that term instead.

Rich Villar said...

@Velvet Blog
All right, let me name the harm here. You're wrong. A poem is a poem. Every poem has it's shot to lay out its case in one space, whether that space is two pages in a book or three minutes in the air. Repeated hearings or readings provide all parties with the opportunity to glean whatever it is they want in that moment or series of moments. The poet's delivery changes some things, but not everything. I've heard poems in slams performed differently, and I suppose I've gleaned something else from them, but my rule of thumb is, if a poem does not possess layers of meaning, and instead lays out one meaning and ONE MEANING ONLY for its's not a good slam poem, page poem, stage poem, jazz poem, or l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e poem. It's a BAD POEM. Period. And it doesn't matter if the poem in question is a pantoum, a sestina, a haiku, or a 3-minute rant. (I've heard some really shitty sestinas in slams before, dude.) It's not about complexity of language. It's about complexity of image, of idea.

My point here...and this is where I think we'll have to agree to disagree...there simply is no standard slam poem. It's not a form, it's not a genre, and you can't box it in place. If YOU can come up with a few concrete examples of "slam poems," perhaps we'd all benefit from it. Having said that, I think many beginner poets have managed to find the formula for success in front of slam audiences, but that's the fault of the poets, not the bar gimmick. You could say the same thing for certain types of dryly narrative page poems and the journals that run such dreck.

Rich Villar said...

...and some of those beginners keep going in slam, doing the same pandering derivative crap year after year. That much is true and clear.

The Velvet Blog said...

With all due respect, I again disagree.

A poem may be a poem, but to say that the experience of hearing a slam poem & reading a poem on the page is the same thing is to completely ignore the audience's context, something which goes against your opening statements.

You say we "can't box it in place" but then you say some poets "have managed to find the formula for success". & I never said "ONE meaning". I said "all difficulties or meanings". I'm getting confused, & I'll own that.