Posts Tagged ‘poems’

Egon: Don’t cross the streams.
Peter: Why?
Egon: It would be bad.
Peter: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean “bad”?
Egon: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.

***
During workshop week, I sat with different poets and talked/shared about our writing and performing lives and philosophies. Someone asked about my writing and poetry life and I asked them theirs. Over the days, it occurred to me how many of the writers here didn’t perform or read their work very often in public. Meaning, they rarely or never went to a café or performance space and read aloud anything they’d been writing. I considered it part of my practice. For many of them, it was uncommon.

That’s not 100% true. A couple of the people there were very familiar with public readings. But others, for example one or two of those leading the weeks’ workshops, had no idea how to use or approach a microphone.

It struck me odd if only because I discovered poetry In Public — in this bookstore, or in that café. ‘Spoken word’ is synonymous with ‘poetry’, right? And after years of familiarity, once I heard Gwendolyn Brooks read ‘We Real Cool’ aloud at a sold out event at UC Berkeley did I realize that was the first time I’d ever heard the poem at all.

If music is created for instruments, isn’t poetry created for voice? If lyrics are made to be sung, isn’t poetry made to be spoken? If a theatrical monologue belongs to a play, shouldn’t a poem belong to the voice as a random, anywhere recitation?

At the end of dinner on the final day of workshop week, all the participants gathered together and volunteers were asked to recite a poem they didn’t write from memory. It was a way of bringing the classics, the published, the famous and infamous, the authors from different cultures and languages into our current conversation and gathering, grounding us as would a prayer.

But earlier in the week, seated at the foot of a gorgeous mountain and the sun quietly setting behind it, when I asked a woman if she’d ever gone to any open mic events or read aloud, she shook her head, unsure if events like that even occurred in her home city.

I had no idea what to say to her.

***

I went to an event at a café in Berkeley Friday night, in support of my friend, a writer and storyteller and who herself has never attended any kind of workshop and, now in her 70’s, is ‘starting to consider’ signing up for one since I’d been going on about it.

It brings me little joy to be at a poetry reading on a weekend night, but since she’d been so supportive of me in the past, I felt socially obligated. We walked in and the place was packed wall to wall with people. My friend, S, came over to me and asked if I’d help him do a quick skit for his part of the open. I loved him and without thinking quickly agreed.

“All you have to do,” he directed, “is go: Oh really, and then what happened.”

He signed up first, of course, and instead of his name, signed up as a corporation of some kind. Instead of doing any poetry, he decided to just play– as he’s apt to do– to throw away any poetry and vibe his way through a absurd story or joke he’d made up.

Once the host stood and got the room to quiet, he had me stand with him at the side of the room, then grabbed my wrist pulling me up to the front of the room with him. Like a bad Abbott and Costello routine, we went to it. He immediately began stammering and spitting about being in a horror workshop with a bunch of, in his impression, slow witted, condescending old people. And in his story/sketch, a child was asked to come speak to the workshop group and of course in the story provided the best poem of the night.

The audience applauded, and we sat down as if nothing had happened, allowing the rest of the night to unfold quietly and without further incident. I sat with him. He’d taken out a mini notebook and wrote while the first feature began, giving his manic, impulsive OCD a point of focus to sit still. I took out an equally small notebook and also wrote, mostly to complain about what I was hearing.

I thought about S during my week in the mountains, mostly how much he’d like the area and hate how we were using it. That his OCD and distractions would tickle his impatience too often to even sit and have a reasonable conversation about writing — much less take time to read anyone else’s work. And though he’d love the outdoors and nature, he’d never stay with the group on any hikes or lectures. He’s his own man, uncontrollable, impatient, distracted, impulsive, manic. And hates even the idea of workshops and what he perceives them to be about.

And then I thought: how sweetly he used me to shit on whatever he thought was going on in the mountain, to illustrate how little he cared or respected anything he assumed was happening during my week, and to basically toss his arm around me and flip off the experience I’d just had, while smiling broadly.

And we sat together for a while during the reading, but he had to run off for work mid-way through and vanished. This just before the friend I came with read. I stayed and listened until the end of the night.

I don’t remember anything I heard. My friend who was featured that night and I arrived minutes before the reading began. I did not sign my name on the open mic sheet. Later, when the host announced the last reader on the open mic for the night, the woman I came with turned and stared at me. I didn’t return her gaze. Reading/sharing wasn’t immediately essential. I was there for her.

As the room began dispersing, I chatted with someone whom I’d known for years. I made the mistake of mentioning to her about my week up in the mountains and asked if she’d ever done anything like that and she immediately scoffed. Read: laughed in my face.

Maybe you don’t need it if you get access to the cabin, I said referring to the one she just mentioned in her poetry.

Oh, its run down, she said, dismissively. The structure I’d sketched in my mind immediately fell apart, splintering and sagging as she spoke.

She laughed, hard, over even the idea of a poetry workshop. She’d heard of it, she’d
“submitted something once before, years ago…” but never applied again and she was now 70 so why bother. She knew ____ about Galway Kinnell and _____ about Sharon Olds and what else did she need to know? I felt foolish for bringing it up and left it alone. But as I was trying to make my way to the door, my ride trailing far behind me soaking up the appreciation for her set, I stopped to talk with someone at the entrance whom I hadn’t spoken with in a while. He seemed distant, shy, bewildered and talked about being/feeling stuck and not writing. Lacking anything new to say, I began ministering to him about the prospect of going somewhere if just to get out of town, out of his life, out of his head for a minute. To refresh himself and his work. He seemed to not know what language I was speaking.

I had nothing else to say to him. My ride approached and I leapt out of the room ahead of her.

***

I nearly thought my ride was going to ask what I thought of her or her work. I expected her to corner me into a review. She waved off anything I tried to say.

“I recorded it,” she said. “I’ll find out later…” I shut my mouth.

***

These are the two worlds I live between. Worlds that I thought were the same or similar but are obviously not. The rooms are full of poets that periodically share the same people, but they are not the same at all and barely have anything respectful to say to one another.

Years ago, before Poetry Slam even, back when I first began this journey through poetry, I would often sit in on conversations about Page versus Stage poets. Performance artists who sound great, but you just can’t read them. Standing alone in a room with just their work, the poems lose much of their electricity and appeal. S could be guilty of this. I tried reading his book, which is as stubborn a tome as he is a person, and find the book is exhaustingly unreadable and weirdly joyless. Hypnotic in its commitment, its a single poem at roughly 120 pages. Where’s the rest of his amazing poems I’ve heard him do over the years? Where’s the easy exhilaration had in listening to him? Perhaps I should try again, but there isn’t much of a hook to engage me and return with commitment beyond the fact: I know him!

In turn, there are Page poets– who write lovely work but who cannot (or should not) read their own material, and often stamp out any power or joy found in their poems simply in the droll way they read them– reading into their chest dispassionately, as if they held their breath. One of the sweetest, warmest writers I met at workshop is an awful reader of their own work. This reminds me how years ago there was a brother who attended one now-defunct series in S.F. who always used to sign up early and was one of the greatest poets, writers I’ve ever heard. He was someone I still think of and consider, without hyperbole, a genius. He would place his lips directly on the mic and whisper his work, which was deadly personal and close– about death, drugs, relationships, family, abuse. The room would hold its breath and physically lean towards him, listening. He didn’t need to emote. We, knowing he was good enough and worth it, went towards him.

I, naturally, aim for the middle ground. I want to sound good, and I want the poems to work without me. I want anyone to pick up my work and find something of value in it, something to hook themselves with. I also enjoy reading aloud and finding the audience wanting to pay attention. Neither of these things is easy or come naturally. But seems to me an obvious lesson that emerges between practicing and performing. Practicing your craft (writing) is about strengthening your work on the microscopic line level, (which means publishing). Practicing your craft (reciting/reading) is necessary in order to hear what gets received, what gets missed (which means performing, slamming if necessary). Being clear in what you’re communicating. There exists a middle ground between the two, and of course its unmarked. But I think its worth finding and settling in. There’s valuable audiences awaiting both sides of the fence.

But what if improving and getting better at what you do is not the point? What if all you know is all you need to know?

ui7qolp

The continuously awesome journal Eleven Eleven has published three familiar poems which are up and available for your critique. Its a consistently gorgeous journal and website I’ve admired for long time. Its an honor to get in with so many other strong artists.

I went to an open mic last week, and an old friend asked what my writing goals were this year. I’m pretty simple; send out more stuff to get published, (which means, you know, I have to keep writing) wrestle with the octopus arms of my manuscript, and apply for some writing retreats. A retreat with purpose will do me much better than just staying home where I fall into a black hole and no work gets done. But this is a good motivator and great omen for the forthcoming year.

writingpoems
SPOILER: I don’t. They write me.

I woke up in time to catch CBS Sunday Morning and the moment it was over, I clicked off the television, already annoyed by the Sunday morning crew newscast, and started getting myself dressed and my stuff together.

Four notebooks, some print outs of articles and Other People’s Poetry I found the previous week at work, two pens, one pencil. Some books I didn’t open.

I’m a morning person, obviously. If I can get out of the house before 8:30 I feel like I’m accomplishing something and there’s hope. I like it early when the streets begin to aspirate gently. What people there are move slowly. By rights I should walk, but the arthritis in my knees and my unreliable feet make that downhill mile more daunting than I’d like. I don’t wait long for the bus. From there, its a two block walk past the children’s playground to my preferred café. The other name cafe’s you’d recognize, with better coffee and pastries, have tables that are much too small. In their large communal rooms, only a couple of tables are appropriate, both at the window and against the brick wall (one inside, one out). Those tables usually go first to students staring into their laptops or seniors leisurely combing over newspapers. I found one café with strong coffee and kinda miserable Costco pastries and huge tables with bay windows overlooking the lake that’s dreamlike for me. Its owned by an Ethiopian family. And part of my effort to get here early is for a prime window seat. Both tables were taken by the time I arrived, but I found a large table, centered against the wall, a couple of arms length away from the window where a woman sat talking on her phone with her laptop yawned open. On my other side, a younger Asian male finished a breakfast burrito and stirred the white pages on his desk.

I took out a yellow legal pad and a pencil and wrote three pages. Those were pages of therapy. Cleansing out whatever stray detritus floated in my head. Last nights dream, my insecurity, shame, wishes for what I’d rather be doing, what I did the day before and what I didn’t do. I wrote without stopping, as if sitting across a therapist and free associating. Until finally I ran out. I sipped coffee, I pinched off a chunk of muffin.

In one of my notebooks I made a bullet list: What goals did I want to accomplish, Right Now, while sitting here? I wrote three sentences. My intent was to write about Prince, via three specific experiences. Friday morning, I wrote a page of stray inconsequential notes and phrases. I gazed at them again, then took up the essay I’d found on line the previous week. Then read a poem. If writing my head clear with a pencil is one thing, this act of reading harmonizes my brain. Pointing my imagination to a goal, a direction.

Reading was a way to jump start the conversation in my head. Where and how do writers begin– how do they track their feelings on the subject, in this case Prince. How are they successful and how do they disappoint me? The poem I read started with a truly lovely idea and image, but it kinda devolved into sugary gibberish as it reached its end. The essay I read was better: strong, beautiful, admirable and personal. He’d write a far better version of whatever it is I’m sitting here hoping will emerge.

I reminded myself there were three memories I wanted to try to capture. I took up another notebook and free-wrote thru one memory at a time. I couldn’t stop. It was like automatic writing. I watched the images in my head and like a journalist made notes on what I was seeing, thinking, feeling. Because it was a poem, I pushed the boundaries of what I remembered and attempted to add things, images, elements that didn’t happen but could have. I wrote quickly, almost trembling in effort to write faster.

I stopped and looked up. A half dozen spandexed joggers had come in and sat down. A dude with a very runny nose sat next to me, also with a notebook so I quietly wished him luck. I took up my second memory and turned it over in my mind. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Then picked up a pen and ran with it; When I couldn’t remember something, I made it absurd. Surreal. Sometimes its not just what the Thing is, its what else it is. I wrote quickly, choreographing all manner of insane things into a memory which was more like a GIF file stored in my brain. Same with that third memory. Crazy write, I think is the phrase.

I left my laptop at home. On purpose. Hand writing is like sculpting. Creating directly from the heart. Because you’re writing by hand, you work slower and become more specific in your word choice — or crazy in your word choice once you realize you can’t stop and check a thesaurus for an alternative. To stop and check something is to stop, period. I only found myself stopping and looking up across the room from time to time as if I were listening to someone on the phone and they just put me on hold. It was swimming a few strokes and coming up for air. Right now, the goal isn’t to get anything right, its just to Write: to dump out of my mind every crumb of imagery that wants to come up while turning something specific over in my head.

Consequently, to initiate something on the computer– as I’m doing now– is creating something directly from ego. The effort is faster, which isn’t to say better, more muscular and from a seat of certainty, knowing. Ego. I can end this, scan it for errors, and publish it quickly. Instead of being the best it could be, it’ll just be Done. Last week I found a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas: “The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.” I think handwriting leaves holes that allows for conversation to happen later once you re-approach the page. What I’m writing now, this blog, will be finished in a few paragraphs and never thought of again.

But yesterday… I left the café to go to a bakery for cookies. Then I returned home, put on Oscar Peterson, Art Blakely then a recording of Langston Hughes The Weary Blues. I cleaned up the kitchen, smoked half a joint, then typed up all the notes from earlier this morning. The typing showed me a lot of holes and clichés. How many different words can there be for heart? How many different ways can I say galaxy? Being high I made editing choices that were raw and interesting (and brief. High-James is not a great writer, but he’s a solid typist and edits well enough).

Those notes are marinating now. I finished and mailed them to myself for today, to print and go back over tonight when I leave work and to review ‘what happened’. I printed those pages blindly without looking, then slipped them into my notebook. To marinate your work seems most essential in writing– even more important than whether you type or hand-write. My brain is, even as I type this, very curious as to what happened in those notes. But forcing myself to wait while thinking other things, to let the words congeal on the page without me, allows me to approach my own work again, but with fresh eyes, a different face and new outlook. To read my own work as if I were a friend or critic of myself.

ME: Hey!! I wrote seven pages yesterday!
NEW ME: Are any of them worth reading?
ME: Hater!

Grace Jones Live

Posted: September 28, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

grace-jones-chris-levine
I chose sleep over the blood moon last night and woke up to good news for a change. A poem I’d been tinkering with over the past few weeks surprised me by being accepted in a journal. I included a draft of it in a submission package a while back and its acceptance this morning made my heart lovingly rattle in my chest. Did the moonlight light up some darkened part of my chart? The woman at the bakery offered my the largest peach muffin they made. The bus driver, a queenly woman I’ve seen most days over the last couple of weeks, cheerfully honked and waved at me over the weekend while driving a different line. This morning on my regular commute, she said: Did you know that was me? and we exchanged names and I felt like a shy schoolboy for even asking.

That I was without any weed over the weekend made me very productive. I got out of the house first thing Sunday and went down to the café to write. More of a clearing my head: six unlined pages, shaking thoughts from my mind like a wet dog shaking water off itself.

A while ago I wrote notes for a poem inspired by laying on the beach at Pyramid Lake and being awakened by shooting stars and the choir like waves of the water. A couple of the best lines in those notes were used already in another piece. But looking over the remaining notes during my session yesterday, I was able to rescue the unused lines and thread them into something different.

Another rough poem, a memory piece involving my grandfather, has disappointed me yet again. At some point I’d typed and printed it and made a bunch of edits then left it unfinished. I took that poem and applied the edits but it still doesn’t have much of a narrative and worse, it doesn’t end it just stops. There’s value there, something’s going on, but it needs a radically different form or way of telling the story. I will have to break open the poem and my expectations of it and create something totally unexpected and new.

The little neighborhood café I was in began to fill and get busy and by the time it got noisy and crowded I was already a bit thought-fatigued and ready to take a walk. I got some supplies at the supermarket and went home and cleaned house.

Over and over I listened to Williams Blood by Grace Jones while I swept and Pine-solved my apartment. The night before, I saw Grace Jones live. I was neither drunk (I had a single shot of Maker’s Mark which was no more dizzying than a spoon of cough syrup) nor high and I’m going to use the words Thrilling and Breathtaking to describe that show, which could be one of the best live concerts I’ve ever seen. I expected something theatrical which I got, and then some. A body painted Grace hoola-hooping through Slave To The Rhythm I expected, but she brought so much more, in terms of fashion and fun and control of the stage. The hoola-hoop stunt would have been enough, but she encored with Hurricane while wrapped in a black cape while standing before an offstage wind machine and holding onto a strippers pole. Several times I turned to my friend and said: She’s 67?? He nodded yes. The aforementioned William’s Blood was a new song to me. She performed it in the middle of the show (“We’re going to church,” she said wearing, what best constitutes an appropriate Church crown for Ms. Jones) and it was enthralling. Both as she staged it visually and now my ear can’t get enough of it.

I went with my coworker who’s a couple years older than me, openly gay and said he expected to see “a lot of people from the past” out there. He did. A youngster in a tight knit cap that seemed like something he’d wear 24/7 that my friend said was probably ‘concealing some secrets’. It was a queer positive and diverse house. We sat on a cement planter just at the corner from the venue after the show was over, him smoking and me processing the experience. Of all the concerts I’ve attended, this is the only one I didn’t immediately leave. I sat with him while he finished his cigarette and watched the parade of people. Men and women, men in LED-lined fur jackets, women in mini dresses with delicious thighs. Dudes dressed as Urban Cowboys, Village People-style police, and a very skinny member of 300 people fresh back from Burning Man, people like me in jeans and a t-shirt, people dressed more formal, people in glitter. Ripped t-shirts and dinner jackets. Slick bald dudes with scraggly beards and a woman with three kids, maybe a 12 year old right up through college freshmen, I guess. All of us were brought together in love and got an extraordinary show. I don’t think I will ever need to go see another live concert. Grace, looking as if she were having as good a time as we were, killed it for everybody. As expected.

Saul_2

In the mid 90’s Saul Williams helped change the landscape of delivering and reciting poetry. In his own defense he’d prolly cite folks I’m overlooking as equally influencial as himself, but I make the statement because I saw the change take place first hand. The first live performance of his I saw was around the release of 1998’s Slam. He appeared on stage at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, a huge music hall packed to the rafters with young people trying to figure out how to write and express themselves as richly as he could. He was enthralling. And it wasn’t as if he had a huge, diverse body of work. But what was so special about him?

His voice as a writer/poet is wholly unique; he plays language as hip-hop/jazz fusion. Words and images bounce off one another in huge, intergalactic explosions of imagery and ideas. If people miss his abstract/painterly metaphors, they certainly remain hooked for his heartfelt, electric delivery. His writing samples history and philosophy in hip hop lyricism. He validated backpack MC’s and introduced them to performance poets and vice versa, crossfading audiences of both. You may not understand what is being said, but your third eye does. He’s a kind of conjurer who you’d think could manifest something out of thin air just from the way he whips his body and language through time and space.

I could not sit and read his work on the page. But I could listen to him for… ok, it would be hyperbole to say ‘hours’. A half hour after midnight in a packed room is more than enough.

Last week was my second time ever seeing him live. I did not buy a ticket and barely wanted to go. One of his opening acts called and said she put me on the guest list. I couldn’t say no. As happy as I would have been to stay home, I went anyway. A couple of blocks from the venue, she called and sullenly said: The show won’t start before 9:30. I was already more than an hour and half early.

Saul had been performing music for a while, and I thought the night would include his band, but I was wrong. The stage was set with a dj and some mics. This would be a superstar reading– akin to Bukowski or Beat readings from decades ago where it was just One Name reading to a packed room of dedicated followers. I was naturally one of the first to arrive, found a seat above the stage on the balcony. By the time the show got underway, the main floor beneath me was packed as a bag of marbles. The show that occurred was powerful in ways I’m not sure I can articulate.

A group of high school poets opened, performing two poems in unison. All eight members shouted their poems quickly– running through them not for meaning, but speed. The sound was overwhelming and as their elder, I’d say it was nice, but it didn’t leave me with anything. The kids hit the expected tropes on race and history and black pride, but their delivery made the poem sound as if they were repeating one long word with its letters crunched together. But they came, they killed, they got off stage. There ya go.

My friend who invited me is a storyteller and her performance grounded the energy in the room. She did an amazing long story-poem daringly about the Bible, religion and faith. The audience listened like a classroom, not a bunch of drunken revelers, and soberly received her. Her piece felt more like a sermon, and for many performers after her, that sense remained. A sense of confession, of being honest. I was nearly brought to tears by a performer from South Africa, Theobikile. A young brother, Donte Clark had a piece that started so quietly I wondered if he was stoned when he started. By the time he finished, his piece also was very sermon-like and the room caught emotional fire. Same said for the brother Amir who did some very strong pieces and then stopped his set, compelled to tell us a story about one of his older poems, Danger. That story was as good as his poems and I could have sat listening to him all night.

But Saul was the reason we were here. He came out on stage with no real fanfare, just a bag of old fashioned printed poems (on paper, unlike the two performers who I noted read from their cell phones placed on music stands). He said this was all new stuff and combed through his work, with old grandfather glasses and picked stuff out at random. We stayed with him and would have let him do anything for us. He stopped mid set to hug a woman in the front row, then told a cool story about how he met her.

It was a glorious night that I’m grateful I got to see. Didn’t realized the friend who invited me was gonna offer me a ride home after the show. I’d listened to Saul a solid half hour and thought, if I don’t take the next bus leaving in 10 minutes, I’d wait another hour or dig in for a taxi. I felt full and grateful. I told a stranger leaving before me, Make sure you write. I came home and did the same thing.

Elements

Posted: February 14, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

milk

Dear ____

I was about to email this to you, but stopped myself, not certain if you really wanted it. But I did. After leaving your place the other night, (thank you for the cake) I realized I wanted and needed to write more. My heart needed it. So I began looking for elements.

For me, an element is just a random thing that you pay attention to, something you find beautiful that remains collected as a favored or curious image in your subconscious.

Writers Pay Attention– to activity, conversation, choices made– and writing is a processing of everything that’s been collected.

I’d been depressed. Depression stops me from paying attention to the outer world and its elements. Depression keeps me internalized, searching for meaning or release of what I’m feeling. It keeps my head down and my eyes on my heart. Therefore, I don’t write. Or I write very personal, very journal-minded essays.

Depression stops me from looking. Though after leaving your house that night, I wanted to look. I wanted to find something beautiful or curious and figure out how to use what I was seeing. Lately, during my commute I’ve been seeing construction sites. Even riding the bus to your house I noted the muddied tractors inside the crumbling shell of a block-long building. It looked bombed out and raw. Dirt floors, ripped sheets of insulation. My child-size heart wanted to stand and stare at the work; the cranes, the digging. Instead I longingly walk past the machinery and ache to climb the mounds of soft dirt.

Last night I came home and after several weeks of silence, began to write. It was hard; I handled the pen as if I were a kind of cripple, or afraid. But I wanted it. I picked up a nearby book, opened at random to a poem by Adrienne Rich. Her words chosen as if having strolled through a garden. I recalled what I’d seen earlier in the week and wrote:

hollowed buildings made crumbs
in the name of industry, not war
cranes reach towards a steel plated sky
like a jeweled giraffe

I kept writing… Went back and circled the word jeweled, liking it and disliking it simultaneously. But: disliking things keep me from pushing forward. Disliking is the critical mind. Disliking while writing: Too soon! Too Soon!! Its more important to write. To cease being critical and transcribe everything the spirit that visits me wants to say.

I mentioned to you that night: the pieces I’ve written that people strongly respond to were pieces that came to me as if I heard someone whisper– they were not poems I Sat Down To Write. Sitting, thinking is a type of prayer. Writing practice or journalling or notetaking is a kind of exercise, a loosening of your resistance to what comes. All of us await the big message, but what if it comes and you’re not ready for it? Where does it go so quickly that it stubbornly never returns? Its easier to Stay Ready than to Get Ready. We must remain willing to wait, willing to stay open, willing to collect elements, willing to fail. I know nothing about construction except how beautiful a tractor on a mound of dirt can be amidst rain polished buildings. Vigilance is the word, diligence another. And patience. Patience, always.

What elements draw your attention?
What makes a common thing uncommon?
What’s beautiful?

Lovingly,
jms

baraka

Read this brief on point essay from 2008 about poetry slam. I’m at work, bored and found myself conversing with the article in my head.

“The oral traditions of poetry are in trouble, and performers like this are to blame, performers who believe that as long as words are being performed, they don’t have to be well written.”

I recently watched—and listened—as colleagues gave a poetry performance. It wasn’t so much a poem as it was shouted bullet points, designed to trigger cultural memories the performer has with the audience. Referencing elements from pop culture– commercial jingles, cancelled tv shows, the bridges of top 40 singles, triggered the audience to clap with recognition. Nothing said went anywhere or made any points. It was a quickly recited list. I love lists, myself. But, but! You have my attention– what are you telling me??? I was hoping to hear something, learn something, or be surprised by something. I lost interest before three minutes elapsed. My bad: I’m over 40.

“Newbies are quick to copy the mannerisms, and literary quality, of the performers they see. Soon, a homogeneous and predictable performance style develops”

I started with open mics in the mid 90s. Just prior to poetry slam’s ubiquity, two things shook up my community. The movie Love Jones and the man Saul Williams. Love Jones made people grab hidden notebooks and go hit up their local open mic nights. Saul Williams saw his unique voice sampled worldwide as if he were the Funky Drummer. Saul brought hip hop heads and chapbook minded poets together thru abstract imagery and rhythm. He pollinated the culture of spoken word just through being himself—and seemingly, I might add, with only a handful of poems: Ohm. Amythest Rocks. New poets infected by his style brought in storm waves of more poets to beach themselves at open mics. Many sounded like his children. Ain’t it funky?

“Usually the important word that requires this kind of illustration is a first-person singular pronoun”

One difference between Before Slam and After Slam– Before Slam people seemed more politically angry and engaged with the community, All Of Us. After Slam—it became all Me, Mine, and I—self concerns, inner demons and psychological musings. Often, not always, even second-person YOU poems conceal an invisible, victimized “I” in their narrative. “We” is French.

when I say, “tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms,” I mean the writing is unoriginal, old-hat, and boring, something that generally indicates that the author of the work in question hasn’t read very much poetry (the work of his friends doesn’t count)

I was asked to be a writing coach for a slam team which was cool with me since I had no responsibility at all. One night I asked a member: “…So, do you read poets or have you studied any poetry at all?” She said No. She got on the team she said because she won the slam, one of he first slams she’d ever attended. That night I did my best to encourage them to write. But she wouldn’t. I remember her sitting alone on the floor in the next room, thinking. I remember thinking to myself: I’m a failure. What am I doing here?

In my experience, the audience members (at least the enthusiastic ones) are largely the performer’s friends, and the shittier his “poem” is, the louder they will clap

Full Disclosure: I don’t consider myself having many friends and rarely have I been able to ‘roll deep’ or even bring a date to a feature. (Only once did it happen when I featured and later that night got laid). The audience response was always genuine. I was fortunately liked, even if I was lonely. (For that I’m eternally grateful. Many nights I’ve gotten off stage wanting to kill myself, and I was encouraged only because some stranger truly Heard Me.) My best friend attended several of my readings, but I stopped asking him. He’s not an artist, he’s into science and math. After the last event, he said, incredulous: Everybody sounds alike.

And the more familiar the clichés are, the louder they clap still

Clapping with recognition is still clapping, I suppose. Since you’re standing before a room full of people, you might think they’re clapping for or because of you instead of what just happened within their own minds.

if you applied the most basic principles of English scansion to the composition (I’m loathe to call it a poem), you would find that almost all of the stresses in the delivery of the composition are not naturally there in the writing. In short, the rhythm of the piece as performed is quite different to the rhythm of the piece as written

Q. What exactly makes a ‘poem’ a ‘poem’?
A. Well, because I’m a poet and I say so.
Q. Oh.
I mentioned I’m over 40, right? Yeah, fuck me.

But it’s important here because I Don’t Understand why an artist would recite SO FAST, therefore leaping over any impact their words might have. Am I not supposed to understand what you’re saying? Should I be more impressed by your Twista technique, compressing 5 minutes of an overwritten poem into 3? I mean– I’ve done it. Pressed down the throttle, speeding through the poem for the sake of ‘time’ as opposed to ‘meaning’. But its horrible, pointless mistake. A waste.

many of the compositions in this genre carry with them a message of social or civic outrage. This is kind of noble, I know, but the delivery is usually intended to scold the audience for their implied complacency in, or culpability for, some on-going social injustice.

…but you know, it CAN be done; social outrage regarding injustice and scolding the audience for their complacency. And we just buried the master of it. Amiri Baraka’s death this year (10/07/34 – 01/09/2014) was interesting to me for all the ways in which the media ignored his legacy and voice. (Let Ishmael Reed’s commentary shine some light) More than a couple colleagues have dismissed his work as not being ‘poetry’. He wasn’t a lyrical writer, he wasn’t an admirer of beauty, he was an activist who had to fight for the rights young people today take for granted. None of the speed-readers at poetry slams will be called onto the Nightly News to defend four lines from one of their poems. But I watched on youtube a visibly shaken Connie Chung speak with Baraka regarding A Stanza in his piece Somebody Blew Up America.

Diversity is the beauty of poetry. And poetry is an art of expression. Baraka was a poet amongst other things, but in him I hear Jazz. The Blues. I hear him as a vocalist, a truth teller, a rebel, a fighter. In a lot of slams, young people fight to protect and defend their egos. Baraka fought the system, the law, and respect from universities and a system that was offended by his insistence on naming names and calling bullshit when the rest of us have settled for complacency. Baraka was a man and socially conscious warrior amongst tv watching stoners. To listen to him is to engage with Coletrane or Monk moreso than Langston Hughes or Rita Dove. His was a music that stung and fought with the system and societal complacency. Many of the folks at open mics poetry slams happening tonight just fight with themselves.

If I’m wrong, please advise.