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!

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Liberation of the Imagination as a Political Act and Spoken Word Poetry: Introduction

This is one possible intro to what will be my dissertation/book on the liberation of the imagination as a political act in spoken word poetry. Please feel free to comment liberally, tell me what I've missed/overlooked, what's not clear, etc. I've tried to answer all of the criticisms my committee has made of my work and I'm a little bit fighting for my academic future here.

Thank you. Please drive through.

Many artists and writers want their work to be political in some fashion, to change the world, to have an impact. Moreover, most, if not all, artists and writers, want their work, their art form, to be relevant. There have all kinds of warnings over the past 15 (or 300) years that poetry is in danger of becoming irrelevant. No one reads anymore, no one reads poetry anymore, etc. etc. These questions – of the relevance of poetry, of the political relevance of poetry, have been one of my major obsessions of the past 15 years. What is it that poetry offers that no other artform does? Why read and write poetry in an age of novels, short fiction, flash fiction, of creative nonfiction, memoir or autobiography, biography, journalism, etc. What separates poetry from these forms in and what way poetry can poetry do something that no other artform is capable of doing make it a) relevant and b) political, ie, c) politically relevant?

Over the past 15 years, I have devoted myself to studying these questions, both formally in graduate school, and informally, through my own studies, through talking to poets in person at open mics and online through blogs and email exchanges.

I don’t mean to proscribe creativity here, although I’m going to inevitable sound like I do. There are a lot of good and useful goals to poetry. There are many reasons and many arguments for all kinds of poetry. I myself like the occasional love poem, lyric poem, or epic poems. But what I am going to discuss here is how poetry can liberate the imagination and in so doing, make itself politically relevant. I feel strongly about this and so I will at times make pronouncements (which I will try to back up with theory) which may sound exclusionary, showing work which fails in specific ways. For example, work that is easily read. While some may argue that such work has layers of meaning to it, which it no doubt does, it is on the surface easy grasped and most people will not delve any further into it, simply enjoying it on a surface level. This is doubly so when the work is read outloud or even performed, as in spoken word poetry, which is the style or incidence of poetry that I am investigating.

Some may argue that spoken word poetry itself does not have “a” style, something with which I am also inclined to agree. However, I will argue here that spoken word poetry has a “dominant style,” particularly that which has been influenced by poetry slam. As the dominant style of spoken word poetry, then, I will deal in part with poetry slam and poetry slam style as it tends to show itself, recognizing, once again, that are always exceptions to the rule. It will be some of these exceptions that I will be exploring, in contrast to the rule.

What I will be arguing for instead, is work that automatically, immediately confounds rationality and may or may not be something that the reader can “figure out,” but cannot be immediately grasped in any way at all. As such, I am not really interested in what the message or meaning of poetry is, but the way in which it subverts expectation in meaning, either in the writing of it or in its performance. Thus, for example, much of Tracie Morris’ work may seem to be straightforward and “readable” on the page, but in performance, she disrupts those meanings. It is the disruption of meaning that I am interested in, rather than the meaning itself. Edwin Torres’ work, which I will be investigating in some depth, is a particularly rich site, as both writes work that is not immediately graspable and performs it in a sometimes equally befuddling manner.

One of goals is to suggest one future path for spoken word poetry in general, for spoken word poets who desire for their work to have a political edge. And part of that is to identify what is and to point out how the past (in the form of these avant gardes) may be prologue in terms of what could come next in spoken word poetry. One of the mythologies of spoken word poets is that they are “street poets,” unschooled in formal or “academic” poetry. This is most heavily promoted by Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club and Marc Smith of the Green Mill in Chicago. The truth is that there is both truth and falsehood to the premise. Many many poetry slam participants, past and future, either had their MFA’s at the time they were competing in slam. Many others went to school to get an MFA after being introduced to poetry through the slams and so did not study poetry initially but were turned on to it through the slams. And still others remain “street poets” eschewing any kind of training or education in poetry, preferring to learn from other poets “on the scene”. Whatever the case, I would encourage spoken word poets to investigate these avant gardes. Tracie Morris herself has said that she was introduced to Kurt Schwitters, author of the Ur Sonate, by Torres and found Dadaism to be particularly fruitful as a spoken word performer.

In the course of my work I am going to refer to several avant-garde schools of poetry, including Formalism, Surrealism, and the Language Poets. I have been challenged and asked why these avant-gardes and why subject yourself to the baggage that the avant-garde carries. My response is that these particular avant-garde poetry movements have articulated things which are useful and yet which have not been fully employed or investigated. It seems that every 20 or 30 years a group of writers goes back and tries to rehabilitate the avant gardes that came before them, never really gaining widespread acceptance and remaining a marginalized voice in the wilderness, crying out for revolutionary poetics and making moderate headway at best. I’ve always been interested in what I consider to be incomplete revolutions in literature, asking myself what aspects of this or that particular theory of literature has failed to be “pulled forward,” or put another way, what was ignored or left behind, but which still has relevance. This has been my quest for probably 20 years or more and continues to be the focus of my work.

To critics who would say the avant-garde is a white institution, I would argue that is more a “whitewashing” of literary history than anything, on “both” sides of the literary aisle. There have been a number of people of color involved with the goals and practices of these avant garde movements, as I will show. Clarence Major and Russell Atkins were doing work that was very similar to what the Language Poets were doing. There were any number of artists, particular in Latin America and the Francophone Caribbean (such as the negritude poets) that were in line with the politically liberatory aspects of Surrealism. And contemporary poets like Edwin Torres continue to keep alive the work of the Russian Formalism while working within the framework of “spoken word,” having come up through the Nuyorican Poets Café in the 1990s.

It has taken me a long time to realize what my methodology was, to see what it was that I was doing instinctively, and make it conscious. My methodology is multivarious, with one part being less prominent than the others. First, I am looking at the claims of these three avant-gardes, particularly through the lens of Barthes and his piece “Myth Today.” Next, I am looking at specific poems and poets, adding to Barthes, Kristeva and her four types of signifying practices: the metanarrative, which is close to Barthes’ conception of myth, the contemplative, narrative, and the text. Along the way, I will be referring to theories of how language is processed, drawing on theories of cognition, both linguistic and psychological, to think about how disrupting the normal processes of language and understanding can, in fact, get us out of what is known and easily processed and move us forward in our imaginations. Sometimes I will be taking, for example, cognitive theories of how language does work and thinking about how we might subvert the working models of language and understanding and what that might accomplish. It is not my goal here to undertake new experiments at this time, but to work with what currently exists and apply to semiotic understandings of language.

Finally, I will be to a very small degree, reporting on “ethnographies” of the dominant places of spoken word poetry. It is not possible to be at every poetry reading on every occasion, but having attending the seminal, or germinal, if you will, places of poetry (the Bowery Poetry Club and the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York and the Green Mill in Chicago) as well as a number of other site in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York, I feel that I can report on what are some dominant streams of Spoken Word poetry and some aspects of the hosting and the audience reactions, as well as how those two things work in tandem with each other. This is the limit, however, of my ethnographic inquiry and I make no claims, nor do I find any claims possible, as to the “completeness” of this research.


Bob said...

Fluffy, looks like your heading in some great directions, hooray and congratz! -- but I have never said anything about slam/performance/spoken word being solely from the street, nor promoted slam as such. I teach at NYU and Columbia, I've directed plays by Tzara, Artaud, Mayakovsky; I'm currently a member of the Urchestra that performs group renditions of Ur Sonata. I'm a believer in the democratization of verse, and have been totally inspired by figures like Jorge Brandon, Pedro Pietri, way back to Moms Mabley -- but don't blame me for this phony dichotomy.

Fluffy Singler said...

I'm sorry if that's not true. I'll go back and check my sources again. But I thought that in some of those 1990s spoken word anthologies for which you wrote intros you had also championed the street poet nature of slam. I do know that you do a lot of avant-garde work, yet also when I talked to you at the BPC a few years ago you talked about the avant garde as ok for its time, but not really relevant for today. So I've found your position on all that confusing! But I know that you contain multitudes!

Fluffy Singler said...

By the way, the Urchestra sounds like a really interesting project. Things like that make me wish I had stayed in NY after NYU.