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!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Notes on my preliminary statement on spoken word poetry, politics and postmodernism

Feedback is greatly appreciated!



Of all literary and written theatrical forms, including plays, monologues, short stories, novels, creative nonfiction, etc. poetry has the most freedom to be non-linear in form. It is not tied to a plot or a theme and is not even tied to sense-making, as seen in Jabberwocky and in Dada and zaum poetry.

In a culture such as the United States in which almost (if not) all communication is intended to persuade such as advertising, partisan political campaigns, the politicizing of television news, or even to colonize the mind, as in highly normative television shows and media that portray wealth, money, and power as the greatest value, are the messages of performance poets who attempt to present “political” or “social” themes in their work really getting through? Or are they just preaching to the converted? What would happen if instead, performance poets in trying to be political, focused on liberating the minds/consciousness of their listeners by taking the freedom that poetry affords: not by presenting what is already known or thought to be known through narrative, but in presenting the unknown through the use of form and language.

1. I will look at the goals of several avant-gardes, specifically Russian Formalism, Surrealism, and the Language Poets for practices that might be adapted to contemporary spoken word performance, by which I mean specifically the performance of poetry. I will be looking specifically at Surrealism and the Language Poets through the lens of postmodern theory, contending that these two avant-gardes have the most to contribute to performance poetry in their experimentation with language.

a. One of my contentions is that Dada/Surrealism was postmodern from the very beginning, hence the Marxist rejection of their work as well as their failure to mobilize revolutionaries until the Negritude Poets in Haiti. Jameson referred to the Surrealists and duplicating schizophrenic speech, but he also said the schizophrenic speeches was one of the markers of the postmodern era or condition, which would seem to suggest, whether he meant to or not, that Surrealism itself is inherently postmodern.

b. I will talk about the goal of Russian Formalists’ goal of defamiliarization, using poetry to make strange that which we take for granted, as Barthes would say, that which has become naturalized.

c. The Language Poets have a little more straightforward lineage with Kristeva and postmodernism and take semiotics as the subject itself of much of their poetry.

d. My point is not to proscribe one type of writing to be used in performance poetry, but to suggest some goals and ways those goals have been achieved by poets who seek to have a political end to their poetry.


2. While it is not possible to prove a political effect, I will use semiotics, with the cornerstone being the theories of Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, to talk about the politics of resistance in poetry. I will talk about Kristeva’s four signifying systems. I will discuss Barthes’ use of myth and the power of poetry to confront myth as well as his discussions of the reader/audience as a shared creator in meaning in an open text.

a. I will also do some extrapolating of psycho-linguistic theories, which would have appealed to the Surrealists and which, although as-yet untested, might shed some light on the effect of non-sense to reshape our thinking .


3. I will look at Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as the backdrop to talk about aspects of an image-based culture and the ways in which poetry plays into this and also the ways in which poetry can confront Spectacle.


4. Finally, I will look at some examples of contemporary performance poetry through all of these lenses. Because poetry slam is the most dominant form of spoken word poetry, and because it is not possible to talk about spoken word without being asked about poetry slam, I will look at some slam poems that have won the national slam over the years that have a political or social theme to them as well as to some contemporary avant-garde performance poets.

a. I will look at the potential of performance poetry to keep the text of a poem open rather than fixed, allowing for a kind of experimentation and continual rewriting consistent with postmodern theory. One poet that I will rely on heavily for this is Tracie Morris, whose poetry is different with nearly every performance and who, herself, came up through slam poetry.

b. I will look at several modernist assumptions underlie much current spoken word, including the question of authenticity in poetry slam “voice” which often assumes a unified, authentic self as a form of “truth telling” and the solitary genius of the poet which is manifested in the largely 1-way communication from poet to audience. While there are attempts at reversing this through audience response and the points given at poetry slams, the truth is that there is an emphasis on “showing your love” to the poet onstage (especially since the poet has apparently “poured their guts out” on stage) and the fact that there are rarely poems that receive less than an 8 in a 10 point scale. This would seem to indicate that the “communication” from audience to performer is not really so reciprocal. I will look at how the avant-gardes mentioned above can complicate these assumptions.

2 comments:

Fluffy Singler said...

I've gotten feedback over the past couple of years that I should not deal with poetry slam but just to focus instead on my main thesis, the liberation of the imagination through spoken word poetry as a political act, looking at avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and the Language Poets. What think ye? Do I cut poetry slam loose for now?

Fluffy Singler said...

I've gotten feedback over the past couple of years that I should not deal with poetry slam but just to focus instead on my main thesis, the liberation of the imagination through spoken word poetry as a political act, looking at avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and the Language Poets. What think ye? Do I cut poetry slam loose for now?