Since my piece is about contemporary performance poetry, I feel that I need to provide examples of this, in whole, not chopped up. It feels like a violation to chop up little pieces of a poem and offer them as examples of the whole. The professors of my course may have had something else in mind when they assigned the task of creating a podcast (they probably want something like a radio piece), but my particular topic seems to call for the use of this medium. So here is a plethora of contemporary performance poetry of different sorts and I hope to continue adding to it. (Of course, I have to figure out how to put these into podcast format)
One of the best performance poets I have seen yet is Regie Gibson. He has a wide range of styles and I may end up including more of his stuff. Luckily, he has given me permission to use his intellectual property for this.
This is a comic poem written by Oscar Brown Jr (Regie is just performing it):
This is an original:
Here are some examples of Slam Poetry, from a recent slam at the Bowery Poetry Club:
Kareem Johnson (I like this because, unlike most slam poetry, it isn’t self-centered, identity driven):
This is something a little different. A poet named Eve Packer and two jazz musicians create a funky fusion:
Bob Holman, head honcho, MC of Manhattan poetry, reads d.a. levy at a reading in honor of levy’s birthday. Levy is a legendary Cleveland poet/anarchist, died when he was 26, in the 60’s:
All of these have to be formatted. I want to just have a blank screen with the name of the reader, the poem, and a little context written in white over a black background for the duration of the reading. This entry is a work in progress.
Here is Bob Holman’s reading in Podcast format, with some contextual narration added.
I met this really creative young poet a few days ago named David Levine. I felt at the time like I had just been handed a gift. He is the sort of person I’ve been looking for – someone young that has been doing performance poetry for years and has acute insight into the vast, and under-advertised, New York performance poetry circuit. Dave is into hip hop and performs with a flute playing beat boxer. It’s original. Check it out here
It’s the video called FUSE.
I was actually a little surprised when I saw this video. In person, Dave is polite and speaks in a disarmingly outside-of-the-box way, like an artist, not a rapper. I know he loves hip hop, but the other work of his that I have seen seems to be more avant garde than my idea of hip hop. I would have thought that he had already left hip hop behind, or would at least be doing it in a completely new way. He seems like an innovator. He has this long piece called Fuck the Slam that I will post here as soon as I learn how. It is a long diatribe about the limitations of slam poetry and how unfortunate it is that it seems to be the only popular venue for young performance poets. In the piece, he promotes a new form of public poetry that he calls a jam where people are not in competition, as in a slam, but collaboration. This is not a new idea, Dave just has some interesting ways to go about it.
One of his ideas is to do wheat pasting campaigns. This is akin to graffiti in that it entails covering city blocks with posters, each one of them containing verses, so that a whole book (or at least a poem) will spread out over several blocks.
Another idea of his is to get groups together to hold street performances that are like a form of spontaneous protest. If the topic is the current American war, then the group would go somewhere very public, like the subway or the airport, and give a series of public readings all centered around that topic. The purpose of this is to confront people who might disagree, give them something to talk about later, affect them. Performing a ‘Fuck Bush’ poem at the Bowery Poetry Club is singing to the choir. Like a gay pride parade on Christopher Street, no one is shocked. I think much of the point is to be shocking for its own sake, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Dave has done these sorts of things with random groups around the City, but he wants to make this a regular gig, like a performance art group.
He has been organizing similar shows and events for years in several cities in America and Europe and wants to galvanize a popular art movement in New York. No small ambition. I’m stilling learning about him.
I had the good fortune to meet a man named Lytle Shaw,
who is coincidentally an English professor at NYU, at an after party for some poets who had performed at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday. I was there to interview a poet named Rob Fitterman, but Lytle ended up doing much of the talking. Its wonderful that you can randomly meet such fascinating people in this city. I won’t talk about Lytle’s accomplishments as a poet. you can read some of his stuff here. More important for me was the new direction he, and the whole party group that night, got me thinking in. Here is a transcribed excerpt from that interview:
Me: Do you think any professional poets are down on slams?
Lytle: yeah, of course. Somebody’s down on everything.
Me: But do you think it’s a pretty widespread feeling among professional poets?
Lytle: Conversations like this have happened because of all the attention that’s been paid to slams. They always come up as the one form of popular poetry and everybody feels anxious about that, because that’s the extent of the so-called “public’s” engagement with poetry, and it’s not very much of an engagement. So they feel called upon to reflect on something that they may not even themselves be very concerned about. Like I don’t think that people that read in the Segue Series are thinking very much about Slam poetry. It’s not a major frame of reference for them. They’re thinking about modernism, they’re thinking about the history of poetry outside of performance poetics in the last thirty years. So its great that they were able to make a certain version of delivered, performed poetics popular, but it should not come to stand for the whole history of poetry.
This may not illustrate the extent of what I learned from those men and women that night, which is this – I’m not particularly over-concerned with slam poetry either. One point that was repeatedly made that night is that slam poetry is too often about identity, or self-expression, and this can only go so far. Its not fair to say that all of performance poetry is this way, but slam is just one form of performance, contained in a competitive format. Slam increasingly seems like a sort of entry-level poetics. I’m looking for more than that, something beyond slam yet not antiquated or inaccessible. Not just what is compelling to me, but a sophisticated performance poetic subculture, a new genre. ***************************
An offshoot of contemporary poetry is Digital or E-poetry. There seem to be many different types all based around the basic concept of blending verse with various media elements – video, audio, even interactive features. The American center of this mind-bending preoccupation seems to be SUNY Buffalo. For an example of digital poetry, check out this page by William Poundstone.
While fascinating, this work seems to be simply before its time. I honestly don’t see how this new artform might break into the current mainstream consciousness, except as a clever diversion. However, I am fully willing to admit my shortsightedness. Perhaps with new technology, new viewing mechanisms, some advanced version of this basic idea could become very popular indeed, perhaps even essential if integrated into different platforms, like email or news sites. I’m not underestimating ingenuity and there is something very appealing about this fantastical business.
At the moment, though, this artful, collaborative media is being used to deliver poetry, and not all of it by upstarts. Check out this page by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins.
He has basically had several of his published poems animated and I think the effect is wonderful, more accessible than most of the tripped-out e-poetry.
Don’t make noise just to make noise. If you’re going to play, play something good.
While it seems, as Dana Gioia predicted (read previous blog entry), that performance has become the new lifeblood of poetry, not everyone is so pleased by this prospect. Least of all, people that were enamored with the secret society of the academy and who wanted poetry to stay there, for its authentic place to be seen as being there. The simple proposition that yea-and-nay sayers can agree on is that the two different worlds of poetry are worlds apart. The belief among many defenders of the old guard seems to be that performance is not really poetry, but something of a bastard step child, an unwanted guest at the table. Who can deny that this new poetry is inferior in technique and high theory? Though that’s far from what matters about the new poetic form, it’s a sticking point for many like David Groff, whose picture looks as distempered as his essay.
The thrust of Groff’s essay is the assertion that the enjoyment of performance is not a literary pleasure, is more primal and less intellectual, and this lowering of the bar damages the art form. Towards the end of this essay, Groff seems to suggest that what really matters is book sales, when he says:
Gathering warm bodies for a public reading doesn’t automatically translate into more people heading to a bookstore or poring over poems on their own time. And of course, if a poem is ill-presented—as so many so often are, since a majority of poets either act as if they’re encountering their own poems for the first time, or else histrionically wring every atom of significance from them—potential book-buyers can be driven away from poems that work wonderfully on the page.
This argument, if I’m understanding it correctly, is in bad faith. Since when is sales the measure of success? Maybe it is for a professional poet like Groff, but for the general public, what matters is the dissemination of the word, and access to it. At this, the new poetic has been wildly successful, as can be seen here:
LISTING OF POETRY EVENTS IN NYC
The idea is to weave different media elements together into a coherent tapestry. The possibilities are limitless, so eventually you just have to pick and go. So I’m going, having picked.
My central focus is the notion that performance poetry (in all its various forms) is becoming the only relevant form of poetry. The musings of academics are far removed from ordinary people, so what are they really good for, except for providing an elevated inside joke of sorts. This isn’t to disparage erudite, professional poetry; only to suggest that it might as well be dead because only a few tweedy old gentlemen and ambitious grad students are reading it.
This topic is not new. It’s been covered through and through by better qualified men than me.
Dana Gioia, current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has written extensively on the subject. His best known essay on this topic, Can Poetry Matter?, was published in 1991 and predicted much of what has happened in poetry in the intervening years. The opening remarks are written (his italics):
Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.
That choice has not been left up to established poets. They have been bypassed by young nobodies who have risen out of obscurity to create a viable spoken-word scene. The number of venues hosting slams and other types of performance readings has grown rapidly, along with those dedicated specifically to the art form. The ranks of young poets are swelling. This is all due to poetry’s return to common culture from the distant heights it has been held at for most of the last 100 years. Essays on this topic are easy to find, but the central idea that I have come to admire is – this is nothing new, this is a return to the position that poets have held in society since time immemorial; the poet as storyteller, entertainer, and eloquent voice of social conscience. It predates Homer. Poetry is essentially a populist artform, and only relatively recently has it been cloistered in the stuffy halls of the academy. The two kinds of Poetry are separate artforms, 2nd cousins.