Demons and Trick Ponies

However you get to it, poetry is inseparable from individual word texture, word meaning, and the sound pattern that their arrangement can evoke. Poetic intensity, that is, the thinking that moves the poet emotionally and in turn moves an audience, is created by language – by the choice of the words and the presentation that suits the poet’s purpose.  All language is changing and its laws, restrictions and permissions are changing, but fundamental to this premise is that rhythm and structure remain as constants in the language of poetry.

Watching the recent HBO special Brave New Voices that featured highlights from the final round of the 2010 Brave New Voices spoken word festival in Los Angeles made me consider the question:  How important was the concept of “form” within the dramatized “spoken word” pieces of many of those performers? While many used poetic devices such as repetition, alliteration onomatopoeia, as structural performance props, there seemed to be at point where the spoken word veered off into drama, giving all its energy to the “actor” on the “stage”.  The work became performance and the performers had to think about other things like the judges scoring them, according to what criteria we were never told. How much the writing played a role in judging was also never made apparent although some of the work was good enough to warrant that analysis.  There was even one brave little moment when one performing troupe had cleverly (though awkwardly) performed a poem that instructed the judges to give them a score of seven, reinforcing the point that poetry does not lend itself to American Idol-like competition.

The idea of of this kind of poetic performance prompted other questions:  How did the structure of “teams” and  “coach” affect the creation of what was performed?  What guided the language decisions?  I even wondered what was left of the oral traditions that inspired the sound poets like those I knew from youth. Were the spoken word poets of today performing some reinvented ancestral dance of Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton? Were there threads that could be drawn from the Beat Poetry movement down through Charles Olson's "poetry of utterance” to the Canadian Tish movement?  Was there a wild gene that blew through poetic consciousness that related bill bissett’s performance chants to Afro-Canadian dub poets like Lillian Allen and Clifford Joseph? And  how would contemporaries Christian Bök or Shane Kayczan weigh in on all of this?

Many people who have any interest in poetry, would find these new directions in spoken word - performance poetry, slam poetry — as encouraging signs of a growing interest in and audience for the work of poets. However, for these audiences it may be more accurate to say that the interest is in the performance of the performer.

 There is a sustained desire everywhere these days to create public forums where anyone who can manage the stage, can read and perform their work and get an audience reaction.  Poetry that once languished behind an eclectic literary persona has suddenly emerged as a new populist performance magic. No doubt, hip hop and rap, hip house and the wide variety of their derivatives that permeate music culture, have helped to pave the way for this to occur. And for those involved intensively in the writing of poetry it may seem that what they are witnessing is new and innovative. After all, until this last decade who ever heard of a poetry event attracting 400 participants and audience of 20 thousand? It is difficult not to be in awe of the energy of this new movement.

But as a publisher who still accepts poetry manuscripts I know that the print genre hadn’t been swallowed up by this rapidly expanding spoken word scene, where there are those who eschew publishing in print form altogether.  The number of quality manuscripts we receive continues to demonstrate that there is a large number of writers who want to publish their poetry.  Are these the same writers who head out to slams to perform and follow the festivals and competitions of the spoken word poets?  Not likely. It was obvious that what I witnessed on Brave New Voices and what I was reading in submissions were not the same.

Spoken word performances and slam competitions are enthusiastic and energizing language events, but the fundamental and magical process of creating the poem needs to be put into perspective.  While it may be popular to claim that there is a revolution occurring in the way that poetry reaches an audience, there is still some seriously aesthetic work to be undertaken by those who desire to see themselves as poets in this new milieu. There must also be a perspective of how the spoken word performance theatre might be enhanced. Here are some considerations:

·         Thinking precedes language choice in creating a poem in the same way that one would build a house, make a weapon,or pray to a god, The clarity and precision of the thought will guide the clarity and precision of the word choice.

·        Poetry is not a team effort that is coached. While a poem (or manuscript) may receive the attention of the friendly reader or objective editor who acts as a first audience, there are no pep rallies or safety nets. In the end the poet alone are responsible for what he or she has written.  Scoring its impact is left to all those who read it.

·         Poetry is not about teaching the audience a lesson and stretching a didactic vibe. Poetry is an intense communication process, a consuming dialogue. Great poetry has no agendas. The poet writes the first half of the poem and leaves room for the unexpected and unforeseen; the audience completes the poem with its own thoughts and feelings. Poetry wastes purpose when attempting to manipulate the audience intellectually or emotionally. Poetry, as Bert Almond says, is ”the note slipped under the door” that directly engages the subconscious.

·        Poetry requires an understanding of craft. Performance poetry’s reliance on rhythm requires knowledge of prosody — music — in the same way that the written poem requires it. Having a flexible vocabulary assists this process.  To actually write the poem with knowledge of the intended pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables creates the rhythm for how it is read. This should assist and amend the spoken word artist’s or slam poet ‘s reliance on volume for emphasis, or finger pointing,  fist pumping, or hand-conducting in order to demonstrate where emphasis in the piece resides. It is not about voice strength and kinesthetic emotion, it’s about meter.

·        Poetic originality comes from breaking through the techniques that the poet has already mastered, not from spoken word fashion and body stance.

·        Poetry can just as easily be oppressed by political issues and social causes as it can by the arrogance and elitism of literary theory.  Truth rules when it is unmistakably present.

Most poets realize that language is an instrument, and that there is a paramount need for practice. This is why they read and read and write and write. The way the language is created and used, the way it is played, will determine whether or not great poems get written.  All the attitude, personality and passion a writer brings to it will be forgettable if their language core is hollow and their intentions for engagement are not clear or worse yet, manipulative.