Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Academia and Poetry Slam

This is from my summer 2006 research trip and is a draft (read, in-progress, unfinished) of something that will work its way into my dissertation. I recently read someone else's brief blog posting on poetry slam and thought it would be interesting to post some of what I'm working on with my dissertation here.



Academia and Poetry Slam

It seems that academia has a very uncertain relationship to poetry slam. There is the appearance of a certain level of hostility between the two spheres, as poetry slam, and consequently much spoken work, promotes itself as being anti-academic and on the margins of the literati. Looking at anthologies from the "heyday" of spoken word and slam in the mid- to late-1990s, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and Listen Up!, it becomes obvious that many, if not most, of the poets who have been promoted as "stars" of this movement do, in fact, have literary backgrounds and are educated in poetry and literature. It is something of a "stance" on the part of many of these artists to portray themselves as unschooled and from the streets. Miguel Algarin, himself, founder of the Nuyorican Poet's Café, teaches Shakespeare and Rutgers and did so even in the early days of the Nuyorican, when he was holding readings at his home. Zoe Anglesey's Listen Up!, includes a foreword by "Pulitizer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komynyakaa," which is touted on the cover. Anglesey's own introduction goes to great pains to place this work not within the literary canon of Harold Bloom (who has accused slam of "ruining art"), but very much within a modern "canon" that includes the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and the Beat Generation.

At a June, 2006 performance of "Louder Mondays" in Bar 13 in New York, this ambivalence was very apparent in one of the featured readers, 30-something white male poet who had just finished his MFA at The New School and announced to the audience that he wanted to "bring hip hop into the canon" as an alternative to "academic bullshit." A poet who teaches hip hop poetry to public school students, his work lacked any audible hip hop rhythms, although it did make reference to the rapper Old Dirty Bastard. Based on extensive conversations that I have had in panels and informally at the conferences, I suspect that many people in academia—particularly those who teach poetry and literature—are anxious to "critique" spoken word and particularly poetry slam.

I suspect, given the strong ties to hip hop and to marginalized cultures, such as the African American community, the Puerto Rican community that was the impetus for the founding of the Nuyorican, etc., that white academics are loathe to critique performance practices from an outsider position. At best, they seem to see their best course of action as trying to "embrace" the slam aesthetic in their work and in de facto making it part of the curriculum, having an opportunity to impact the work. I wonder to what degree this acceptance into the canon will actually neutralize this work, and if that isn't in fact some aspect of the goal. One of the major claims is that of community. When I attended both slams and open mics at the Nuyorican, the café was packed each night—standing room only. At the open mic, the room was very friendly. I ended up sharing a table with several women who come regularly to the Café and who were quite friendly and chatty with me. More often, though, people sat with people that they already knew or who had come to hear them read. There was not necessarily a sense of unity in the room or that there was a broader group of people who necessarily came regularly to see and support one another. There was also a great deal of time spent "warming up" the crowd, as with the slam several nights later.

While there may be sense of fun and camaraderie at these events, there is also a very passive spectatorship model, and the audience is there to experience and appreciate the creativity of the performer. Poetry Slam, Inc contends that "Slam is engineered for the audience, [emphasis mine] whereas a number of open mike readings are engineered as a support network for poets. Slam is designed for the audience to react vocally and openly to all aspects of the show, including the poet's performance, the judges' scores, and the host's banter,"[i] a claim which can be a bit misleading, even disingenuous. While judges are chosen from the audience to "score" a slam, nonetheless, the dynamic of a slam is still that of spectatorship and their participation is based on response. PSI's site further explains that the audience might even be instructed on how to react. At the Uptown Slam at Chicago's Green Mill Tavern, where poetry slam was born, the audience is instructed on an established progression of reactions if they don't like a poet, including finger snapping, foot stomping, and various verbal exhortations. If the audience expresses a certain level of dissatisfaction with the poet, the poet leaves the stage, even if he or she hasn't finished the performance. Though not every slam is as exacting in its procedure for getting a poet off the stage, the vast majority of slams give their audience the freedom and the permission to express itself."[ii] This definition also denies that there is an analogous audience interaction at an open mic or other type of reading, and of course overlooks the fact that anyone wandering in off the street can sign up to read at an open mic and the fact that at an open mic, the audience makes itself known by talking through a poet, leaving the room, and often interactively through banter with the poet onstage, as I have observed on many occasions. The rule at Voices From the Well, the open mic I came up through in Minneapolis, was to "respect the audience" while there was never an exhortation to respect the poet.

"[W]hen poetry and the poet move too far from their origins in communal expression--too far from participatory performance and the expectation of shared human feeling, too far into a regulated and predictable literacy bound up in academic role playing, where the reader is either passive appreciator-student or judgmental critic-professor—they are again in need of invigoration." [iii]

At the slam I attended at the Nuyorican, much time was spent encouraging the audience to "show their love" for the performers, rather than expressing themselves about the work. Where audience expression was encouraged, it was to show their dissatisfaction with the judges for not giving high enough scores. (This despite the fact the no poet that night received lower than an 8.9 out of a full 10-point range.) How would the dynamic change if instead of being exhorted a dozen or more times to clap and "show your love," there was a call and response poem, a spontaneous live creation of poetry, or an exquisite corpse that went around the room--some kind of dynamic that would engage the audience in the creative process and make them feel more like a part of the art? As Comte L'Autremont said, "poetry must be made by all," an ethos that the Surrealists insisted on. This was not a facile call for everyone to simply pick up a pen and start writing out their innermost feelings or their bad day, the "I wrote this at the table" poem so common at open mics. It was a call for techniques that released the imagination to be shared with all, rather than remaining the provenance of trained artists and intellectuals. Where better than a packed room at the Nuyorican Poets Café to put a call like that into practice? How can practices like this, borrowed in many cases from literary and performance avant gardes such as Dada lead performers to rethink their own work and their approaches to their work, the emphasis of them on stage as the "stars" and solitary geniuses (and isn't that the modernist ideal that questioning the canon is supposed to lead us away from to begin with?), as well as engendering a creativity that helps the audience question the "givens" of the world around them. This is not merely a panacea, an easy fix, for performed poetry, but it is one element on which the current model of poetry slam can be critiqued against its own rhetoric.

Despite the emphasis organizers put on community, there is no denying the doubled-edge sword of competition in poetry slams. Many poets try to downplay the competitiveness, pointing to academia and the competitive nature of getting work published at all. In Poetry Slam, the Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, contributing writer Jeffrey McDaniel points out that most poets hoping to see a first collection of their work in print must do so through the mechanism of contests, many of which charge entry fees as high as $20 or more.[iv] It is a common defense among slam poets that their approach is no more competitive than the rest of the literary and publishing world, only more open about it. Australian poet Liz Hall-Downs sees the duality of this competitiveness:

"Especially in the Poetry Slam movement, the American experience is that the arrival of spoken word on MTV has raised performance standards but has also raised the stakes. Writers can sometimes find themselves caught up in aggressive competition that serves an audience's desire to see blood on the floor but does little to enhance the writing community's cohesion and can shift individuals' focus from producing innovative work to being a kind of human joke machine or jukebox in the (I feel, misguided) belief that poetry might actually pay in the long-term."

Marc Smith, one of the founders of the slam and former head of Poetry Slam International, insisted in his manifesto that the slams are about building community, rather than competition.[v]
"The slam does not exist to glorify the poet, but rather to celebrate the community of which the poet is only a small part. . . ."

"We must all remember that we are each tied in some way to someone else's efforts. Our individual achievements are only extensions of some previous accomplishment. Success for one must spread to success for all. . . ."

[i], accessed August 1, 2006.
[ii], accessed August 1, 2006.
[iii] Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, . 239, quoted in Athanases 124.


Lyle Daggett said...

1. "Poetry Slam, Inc." The name carries so much irony that it's not worth commenting on.

2. Regarding the anthology Listen Up!, which you discuss here, Zoe Anglesey (the editor of the anthology) told me that she didn't choose the title Listen Up!, that none of the poets in the anthology are/were (at least not in any major sense) "spoken word" or "performance" poets. She complained that the publisher chose to title the anthology "Listen Up!" purely to cash in (he hoped) on what was at the time the perceived hot trend of spoken word poetry.

3. The essential difference between art and entertainment is that art attempts to get us to concentrate on what it's bringing to us, and entertainment attempts to distract us from what it's not bringing to us.

Most creative work doesn't manifest in absolute categories such as "art" or "entertainment" as defined above, so it becomes a matter of discerning which quality -- inducement to concentration, or inducement to distraction -- is more significant in the essential effect of any given creative work.

4. The element of audience participation does not, in itself, prevent a creative work from diffusing into irrelevance. Witness, for example, the numerous virulent strains of "reality" T.V.

5. As I'm understanding the concept "academic," as you're alluding to it here, I think it describes, among other things, a tendency to try to slow the potential for change, to make moving things stand still, to freeze fire. (Instructing the audience on the allowable or desirable range of reactions at a poetry slam, etc.)

6. Contrary to the belief held even by some people in the literary world, competition is not an innate human behavior. The marketplace -- even the marketplace of ideas -- is the moral equivalent of cyanide. The loser is sent packing to oblivion. "Victory" is the victory of Bush and Cheney.

7. Hitler said if you promise people bread and circuses, they'll come following. Bush (whose family did business with the Nazi government of Germany) decided that circuses alone might be enough.

8. There is not a conflict between oral poetry and written poetry. Performance is not, by nature, opposed to reading and writing. The academic world (as I think we're using the word "academic" here) is opposed to, and destructive of, both.

Fluffy Singler said...

Hey Lyle. Just a coupl'a things late at night here.

1. I acknowledge that audience participation is not a panacea. But I am trying to get at some kind of meaningful participation that makes them co-creators rather than sitting through a fricking hour of "c'mon, you're not clapping loud enough" and "show your love" which is so bloody irritating and horrible and is all about glorifying the artist who is putting themselves out there blah blah blah. I'll show my love when they EARN it and not before. It's all about spectatorship and whipping up an audience rather than any kind of genuine artistic moment shared, even though there's a lot of lip service to community and moment. You and I shared a lot of amazing participatory community moments at the Kieran's open mic, and I know it can be so much MORE than what I experienced at the Nuyo or any of the New York venues I attended.

2. In this context, whenever I'm using academic, I'm using it pretty straightforwardly as in people who work in academia and not in the metaphorical sense of an idea being "academic" and removed from practice somehow.

3. I'll have to double check Listen Up! but if I recall there's an emphasis in the intro on the performance of poetry and I believe that several of the people published were making names for themselves on the reading circuit in NY. I also did some research going through the archives at the New York Public Library and a lot of the people from those "golden years" at the Nuyorican had master's degrees and were doing MFA work, even though, again, the Nuyo was setting itself up against all of that. Tracie Morris, one of the biggies of that time, recently got her PhD in Performance Studies from NYU (my MA program) and is now teaching at Sara Lawrence College. The rhetoric is an outsider stance, but the people who get well known are still the ones with the MAs and MFAs who are straddling all that. So I'm just trying to lay bare the rhetoric vs. the reality here.

4. I don't see a conflict between performance and literary poetry, but boy, slam has certainly brought the idea of a conflict to the fore. And the mere fact that we study poetry in literature departments and not theatre departments says a great deal about how we think of it as a written form now. Of course in theatre departments, we talk a lot about what changes when you study a play, for example, as a piece of literature and don't study the embodiment of performance, the implications, the meanings of various stagings, etc. There's a lot of meaning outside of the text as well as within it, and that is lost when poetry is not studied as performance, just as when Shakespeare is studied only in an English department. And then there's the tired old saw from publishing poets that "no one reads poetry anymore." To which I reply, no one EVER read poetry. It always reached more people in performance than it did in print. So part of my work is to reclaim poetry--ALL poetry--for performance, not just poetry slam. Helped of course, largely by the Dadaists, the Beats, etc.

Thanks for your response. Cheers!