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)
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.