Thursday 14 June 2007

The Spoken Word Revolution Redux - edited by Mark Eleveld

In true Poetry Slam style, this CD and book set starts out by putting Poet Laureate head to head with Slam Champion. Ted Kooser (former USA Poet Laureate) vs Anis Mojgani (twice National Poetry Slam Individual Champion); Andrew Motion (current UK Poet Laureate) vs Sonya Renee (former National Poetry Slam Individual Champion). I'm not a fan of Motion's poetry, but even if I were, his polite reading of Anne Frank Huis (one of his best poems) would still be totally blown out of the water by Renee's electrifying, music backed performance of Thick. The comparison is of course, unfair, Motion writes for the page, Renee is a performer. However any literary poet who is presenting their poetry in front of an audience could learn lessons from performance poets. Lessons about how to bring poetry alive and to engage an audience.

Questions, asked by Ted Kooser in his introduction to the book, about whether performance poetry will endure as literature, are in my mind irrelevant. Each performance is unique and will live on in the mind of the audience who may well memorise the words (as proven by the audience participation in the recording of David Lerner's Mein Kampf!). Dare I ask the question: is literary poetry in fact the sign of a failure in poetics? That it needs to be written down because no one can remember it otherwise? The first poets performed their work, they didn't write it down. Performance poetry today continues this tradition, Kevin Coval in his article Towards a hip hop poetica describes hip hop poets as 'modern griots, indigenous keepers and tellers of his/her/stories.' Hip Hop poetry revels in rhyme and rhythm, as demonstrated here by Invincible, in this excerpt from Detroit Winter:

The city streets are bitter sweet
I pound pavement
While I'm kicking litter at my feet
Under the snow, the ground's blanket
These heavy hitter beats.

Dana Gioia in his article The New Oral Poetry notes that "(t)he nearly universal critical bias against rhyme and meter as recently as ten years ago, especially in University writing programmes, indicates how distant the poets in a print culture have become from the orality of verse''.

Many literary poets also seem to be afraid of emotion and humour and often appear to be engaging with a select gathering of fellow literary poets, rather than reaching out to a wider audience. Performance poets however are not afraid of emotion, whether raw anger in Mayda del Valle's poem about Puerto Rican Spanish speakers Tongue Tactics or more controlled as in Patricia Smith's rambling poem of love for her father When the Burning Begins:

....... I'm telling you it's the first thing
I ever cooked, that my daddy was laughing
and breathing and no bullet in his head.

Nor are performance poets afraid to connect with the audience's points of reference, as in this line from Lebron James, by Nate Marshall one of the many young poets featured in this book:

I'll be the first spoken word brotha with a shoe

Performance poetry also is unafraid to engage with politics, which can seem confrontational, but it is hard not to at least see where Nikki Giovanni is coming from in his angry poem All Eyez on U:

if those who lived by the sword died by the sword there would be no
white men on earth.

There are some performance poets who I find too confrontational as much as there are some literary poets who bore me; at the same time there are literary poets who stun me with their distillations of powerful emotion and there are performance poets who move me with their subtlety. Both sides can learn from each other. This book is a perfect starting point for literary minded poets (or anyone else) to start learning from performance poets.

Spoken Word Revolution Redux can be ordered from
Source Books.


[a} said...

I've always wanted to go to poetry readings!! Poetry as live entertainment sounds so appealing, especially when you gave those examples of hip-hop petry & Giovanni's.

None said...

Ive been to one of the HBO's Def Poetry shows in Austin and it was amazing to see some of the poets you mentioned perform their pieces out loud. But I also like to just read some poems and have the images form in my own mind. Good post as always.

Crafty Green Poet said...

(a) I'd definitely recomment going to poetry readings or performances!

flores88 - Thanks! Now that I've read the book and listened to the CD I'd love to see many of these poets live!

patti said...

A fantastic review. I have never been to a poetry reading and you have me inspired to do so. I am also sad about the dim view of verse/rhyme and rhythm, it has so much to offer.

paris parfait said...

The thing about people writing poetry down - people have different learning skills; some are visual learners and need to see the words on paper; others learn by listening. The fact that there's more than one way to experience poetry speaks well for society - poetry is flexible enough to reach a wider audience.

rel said...

You can read about a baseball game.
You can watch on T.V., a baseball game.
You can attend a live baseball game.
You can play in a baseball game.

It's the extent of involvement that changes one's perspective.
Perhaps it is so with poetry. ;-)

Crafty Green Poet said...

weclome to my universe - hope you find a good poetry reading to go along to!

Paris - yes people learn differently and that comes into it, but my point was tnat performance poetry is often seen as a lesser art form than literary poetry and I was just turning round the argument.

Rel - good comparison! Thanks.

Left-handed Trees... said...

Very interesting post...around here there is a "Spoken Word" reading every 2nd Saturday. It is amazing to me. All of it. Though I don't write in this style, I never leave uninspired.

Anonymous said...

I have been to poetry reads and it is an experience in itself. One feels so involved.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review. I've always felt that the academy could learn from the street - and vice versa. But some of my favorite poems would be hard to pull off in front of a live audience; they're just too complex. And more than once I've had the experience of picking up a chapbook by an outstanding live performer only to be really disappointed with his or her words on the page. So literary poetry and oral poetry don't always operate by the same rules, I'd say.

Tracie Lyn Huskamp said...

personally... i believe there is room for both. i would hate to think that we... as creatives.. constantly seeking and searching for our own voice.. would in fact discriminate or snub performance poetry just because it is not the way literary poets believe this is how it should be done.

A most engaging topic!

Rob Kistner said...

Juliet -

Interesting post. Liked your take on it all.

I purchased three new (for me) poetry books early last month;
1. Long Journey - Contemporary Northwest Poets
2. Staying Alive - Real Poems for Unreal Times
3. The Spoken Word Revolution - Redux

Still not a huge fan of 'slam' type poetry -- but SWR-Redux is a fascinating read.

Catherine said...

We do have poetry readings here in New Zealand, but they are mostly readings (of literary type poetry) rather than performances. It occurs to me that it's easier to come by the best of literary poetry through the medium of books, (where I can read poets from all countries), than performance poetry (where I'm more restricted to local poets only). That naturally means the performance poets will tend to suffer in comparison.

January said...

I think we can all learn a think or two from spoken word poetry, even if it's not what we read normally. There's a lot of creativity that goes into unifying sound and rhyme.

Great review!

Anonymous said...

Compelling review! I'm definitely interested in this book...

You wrote: "The first poets performed their work, they didn't write it down." Yay! — the history of poetry. Everything becomes more clear when we take a good, strong look at our roots.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Left Handed Trees - sounds like a good local event you've got!

Gautami - yes, the feeling of being involved at a reading is great!

Dave - yes I think you;re right - literary and performance poetry do operate differently but are also two ends of a continuum!

Tracie - you'd be surprised how much disdain there can be between performance poets and literary poets....

Rob - good shopping list there! Staying Alive is one of my favourite poetry anthologies, Neil Astley (the editor) really knows how to choose poems! Great to see you've bought Spoken Word Redux too! I'll have to look out for the first on your list, though I suspect it may not be available over here (except on Amazon, which I never use!).

Catherine - you're very right, books travel further than performers in the poetry world. This book and CD are a great way to find some great performance poets, but in NZ or UK, you're not likely to come across most of them in live performance.

January - absolutely!

kg - glad you're interested in the book and yes, always good to look at our roots!!

Cassiopeia Rises said...

Great review. I have never been to a poetry reading. I have a lot to learn.

Thanks for your comments on my poem. I am glad you like it.


Writing on Board said...

Inspiring review. And thank you Juliet.

Marcia (MeeAugraphie) said...

I've heard so little poetry spoken, but some of it has been so powerful. I love both written and spoken, just as I like 2D and 3D or rock and quiet classical music. I can't wait to attend a poetry reading. I try to perform some of mine into a recorder. . . I trip on my words so much in my rush of excitement. Perhaps with practice.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Beloved Dreamer - oh you should go one day!

Writer on Board - thanks!

Marcia - I always find when I perform I have to speak what seems to me to be ridiculously slowly! It's very tempting to rush!

Anonymous said...

Wow--your review really piqued my interest in this book. I've never heard of one comparing spoken word and literary poetry side by side. Sounds great--thanks for sharing!

Tammy Brierly said...

Wonderful review! I've been to a poetry reading and discovered it is an art form all by itself. The best poets were not always good readers.

Anonymous said...

i saw this on read, write, poem. excellent review! very insightful and well-written. it makes me wish i could step out of myself enough to be a good performer.