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, February 09, 2010

A HISTORY LESSON, OR GOLDIBOOKS & THE BANKING TEACHERS

I had to write this for my teaching class. It's based on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I had fun writing it and I thought I'd share it and see if it works outside of the context of my class.

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On stage are three classrooms. The first two classrooms are virtually identical. The have a blackboard at the front of stage and seats in rows, full of students. Students should have their back to the audience, facing the teacher, who will stand at the front. The first two classrooms should either have a student in every seat but one or be empty. Student responses are done with voiceovers unless otherwise indicated. The students in these classrooms always speak in unison, whether live or in voiceover.

The third classroom is arranged in a circle and should have a student in every seat but one. The teacher is also seated.

The teachers may be male or female and need not be the same in each classroom. However, three should be a teacher present in each room regardless of whether live students are used or not.

GOLDIBOOKS is the only person who moves between scenes. GOLDIBOOKS can be male or female.

All the lights are down in all three classrooms.

The lights come up on the first classroom. U.S. HISTORY is written on the blackboard. GOLIDBOOKS comes wandering in and sits down in the empty seat (or randomly, if the seats are all empty).

TEACHER #1: There are the important dates you must know. They will be on the test. The United States became a beacon of democracy to the world on July 4, 1776.

STUDENTS: July 4, 1776. Beacon of democracy.

TEACHER #l: The constitution of the United States, which secured freedom for all Americans, was signed in 1787.

GOLDI BOOKS: Excuse me? The constitution didn’t really secure freedom for anyone but white males until much later.

STUDENTS: 1787. Secured our freedoms.

TEACHER #1: The United States has continued to be a shining example of democracy to this day. The United States liberated Europe from the Nazis on June 6th, 1945. June 6th is known at D-Day.

STUDENTS: D-Day. Nazis. June 6th.

GOLDIBOOKS: A lot of other countries were involved.

STUDENTS: Shining example.
TEACHER #1: The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 represented America’s victory over communism. Capitalism, or democracy, won. The small wars we must fight now are against those who hate freedom and resent us for it. But we will prevail, just as we did over communism.

STUDENTS: 1989. Capitalism. Democracy.

GOLDIBOOKS: Capitalism isn’t the same as democracy. There were a lot of factors involved in the fall of communism. What about the complexity of issues in the middle east and the role of the West?

STUDENTS: Hate freedom. Communism. We will prevail.

GOLDIBOOKS leaves and the lights dim, but do not go fully out. The TEACHER continues quietly saying things (these can be nonsense or can be from a book) and the students continue quietly responding. Meanwhile the lights go up in classroom 2. SOVIET HISTORY is written on the board. GOLDIBOOKS comes in and sits down in an available seat.

TEACHER #2: The Russian Revolution was in 1917. This led to the formation of the first worker’s government in the world and was an inspiration to people struggling everywhere against capitalism.

GOLDIBOOKS: Actually there were several smaller revolutions before that one, including the Provisional Government.

STUDENTS: 1917. Capitalism. Workers. Inspiration.

TEACHER #2: In 1945, the Soviet Union helped to win World War II. America often takes credit for it, but without the Soviet Union, the other allies would not have been successful.

STUDENTS: 1945. America takes credit. Soviet Union.

TEACHER #2: After that, we established the Eastern Bloc. To ensure their protection from both Fascists and capitalists, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and part of Germany.

GOLDIBOOKS: But people in those countries weren’t necessarily better off. They were persecuted for disagreeing with the government,

STUDENTS: Poland. Germany. Saved from Fascism.

TEACHER #2: Other countries, like Cuba and China were so inspired that they, too, had Communist Revolutions . . .

GOLDIBOOKS gets frustrated and leaves this classroom too. The lights go up on CLASSROOMS 1 & 2 for a minute or two and the students responses are heard playing over another in a cacophony so that it is difficult to tell what they are saying.

The lights go down slightly, but not completely, in classrooms 1 & 2 and the teachers and students continue talking and reciting. This can be nonsense or can be read from a book.

Lights go up all the way on classroom 3 and GOLDIBOOKS goes in and takes a seat.

TEACHER #3: Ok, class. So let’s talk about what you read last week. What is democracy?

After a brief pause, a student raises his/her hand.

STUDENT: Government by the people.

TEACHER #3: Good. Now, what’s an example of a democracy?

GOLDIBOOKS: Well, that’s a pretty reductive view of democracy. Aren’t we going to discuss it further?

STUDENT #2: America.

TEACHER #3: Very good. Now . . .

GOLDIBOOKS: There are a lot of other examples of democracies. There’s England and . . .

STUDENT #2: Nuh-uh. England is a monarchy.

GOLDIBOOKS: Well, a constitutional monarchy, but it’s still . . .

TEACHER #3: (As if nothing happened) What is communism?

STUDENT #3: Where the government controls production.

TEACHER #3: Very good. Can you name a communist country . . .

GOLDIBOOKS: Technically the workers control the production, we just haven’t really had any examples . . .

(No one reacts. Instead there is an awkward pause as the other students don’t know what to say.)


GOLDIBOOKS: Well, Venezuela is sort of Marxist. And there’s Cuba, and . . .

TEACHER #3: Past or present. (Still no response) Can you think of a country that broke up into smaller countries . . . (Still no response) The S. . .

STUDENT #4: S . . .Soviet Union?

TEACHER #3: Right.

STUDENT #5: I thought they were a dictatorship.

TEACHER #3: Yes, well that’s the way communist countries were run.


GOLDIBOOKS goes running out of the room disgusted and exits. There is no response from students or TEACHER #3. For a minute, the lights go all the way up on all three classrooms and all 3 continue with their lessons at a regular to loud volume culminating in a cacophony so that it is difficult to tell what they are saying. When after a minute or two the cacophony hits a fever pitch, FADE TO BLACK.


In Theatre of the Oppressed, at this point, the lights would go up and there would be a discussion with the audience of the three classrooms and if there is an alternative..

Word Salad: Dada, Surrealists, Aphasia, Schizophrenic Writing

O. M. G.

I just learned the BEST thing in my psychology of language class ! Expect a poem soon.

It's interesting studying language "disorders" too, like aphasia, or even studying how language works and how we pick the right from the wrong words, because all their examples just sound like good Dada to me! Which makes me think of Jakobson, who accused the Surrealists of "schizophrenic speech" which isn't an accusation to me, but to him it was.

I think there's a lot we can learn by employing such speech -- some forms of aphasic speech or schizophrenic speech -- and seeing how it's processed by people who don't have those conditions. Someone with aphasia might say "it was too breakfast when they called" and that, to me, first of all is decipherable and isn't really a word salad, but in the middle of a kind of discourse like that, certainly can take a while to slog through all of the things that is said. But what kind of connections does the person who processes language in this skewed way make, and what kind of connections could it make the minds of those who hear it?

Of course the person with aphasia is struggling to be understood and must be frustrated, as does the person trying to discover what he or she is saying to him. So I'm not trying to make light of this at all. But if we can control that, can use it for poetic purposes to open up the imagination, as the Surrealists, zaum poets, Dadaists, and many many others have tried to do, if we could turn those kinds of functions on and off, not to systematize them, because then we're still proscribing the limits of the imagination, but if, and when, we can turn that kind of thinking on, I think it can have some very extraordinary results.

I think about Robert Desnos, who the surrealists used in their seances to do automatic writing and the stories about him becoming temporarily narcoleptic as a result! I don't know if it's true, but it's a great story, but also if it is true, somewhat cautionary about doing these kind of experiments among ourselves! Imagine someone becoming aphasic as a result of too much Dada poetry! (There's no evidence of that so far! It tends to be the result of an injury or trauma.)

This class, which is so heavy on science and experiments, and so in some ways is making my head hurt because I don't think like that and so I have to really focus at time, is also generating the most creativity and deepest thinking.

Soon, maybe after my conference this weekend, which is a little space of time, I will write and post some poetry. I was already scribbling notes for poems in my class notes.

More later, if I'm lucky.

Words Got Me the Wound

Part two, and the meat of my presentation, which also forms the crux of my argument. I still have to edit it down.



Words Got Me The Wound and Will Get Me Well

With some reservations in mind, Barthes explains how modern, anti-language poetry, occupying “a position which is the reverse of myth,” can intervene against the mythification of language.


[Poetry] tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves. . . . .The subversion of writing was the radical act by which a number of writers have attempted to reject Literature as a mythical system . . . some went as far as the pure and simple scuttling of the discourse . . . as the only possible weapon against the major power of myth.”


Looking to several different literary movements, including Russian Formalism, Surrealism, and more recently, Language Poets and the Umbra Poets, we can see wrestling with language in an attempt to confront these kind of forces. Formalism predates of course, Barthes and Debord, as does the heyday of Surrealism, although several of the founding Surrealist poets, including Breton, continued to practice into the 1960s and 1970s and there still exist a great number of surrealists worldwide who carry on the mantle of language experimentation.


The Formalists looked at poetry through the lens of linguistics, rather than the usually-employed analytic tools of psychology, history, culture or aesthetics. Without knowing what we now know about how the mind processes language, without a mediated culture like ours, they nonetheless saw the tendency for conceptual processes to fall into ruts, rather than original ways of thinking. One of their primary concerns was the way in which “as perception becomes habitual . . . our habits retreat into the area of the unconscious automatic.” The antidote as they saw it, was an estranged language that would keep one alert to perception. “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’ . . . to increase the difficulty and length of perception.” By doing so, “art removes objects from the automatism of perception.” “And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war.” “The language of poetry is, then a difficult, roughened, impeded language . . . attenuated torturous speech . . . poetic speech is formed speech. Prose is ordinary speech.”
Inspired by Freud’s work, Breton and the Surrealists were interested in the liberation of the imagination and toward that end, sought ways to circumvent rational thought and delve into subconscious.


“[T]he mind released from all critical pressures and from academic habits offered images and not logical propositions . . . in which we discovered a universe unexplored up to then.”


The Surrealists are best known for “psychic automatism,” which unlike the numbing “automatism” spoken of by the Formalists, was a method that “made possible informative reconnaissance into the poetic domain.” Breton made it clear that the object of his investigation included language itself. Despite its subsequent influence on visual art and virtual disappearance from literary history, Breton makes it clear in his manifestos that it is thought, first and foremost that Surrealism is concerned with. “Whoever says expression says, to begin with, language . . . you must not be surprised to see Surrealism place itself first of all almost exclusively on the plane of language.”


For the Umbra Poets and the Language Poets, what’s important is not a transparent language, but making obvious and transparent the self-conscious nature of meaning production. Andrews looks as the way in which “Political writing . . . unveils, demystifies the creation and shape of meaning.” Recognizing the struggle for meaning that occurs in the de-formation of myth, “reference . . . is to be seen as the result of a conflictual social process in which various interests compete with one another in order to assign particular values to particular signs.” Language Poets attempt to confront the trappings of myth and spectacle, of ideology and relationship, focusing instead on Barthes’ call for a “fissuring.” Identifying meaning itself as a construct encourages the reader or the audience (in the case of performed poetry) to challenge the universalized, naturalized assumptions behind the word, and consequently, the very social formations that they find themselves within. In Clarence Major’s work, “we see an insistence [also] on the ‘arrangedness’ not only of the poem, but of language inside and outside the poem as well as the reality to which language and poem are commonly said to refer.”
If spectacle offers slick surfaces, easy meaning, and commodified relationships, then a writing that implicates the reader in the process of making meaning is one that stands in opposition to spectacle. If the spectacle is ultimately the relationship itself, then the reader-writer relationship is critical, not merely the one-way transmission of meaning from writer/performer to listener/audience/receptacle. The audience cannot merely be a “fourth wall” on which to be splattered with meaning, like graffiti, a poster, a billboard. When not everything is given outright, then a relationship is created with respect for the reader or audience member who brings something to the relationship as well. The hierarchy is collapsed and reader and writer stand on an equal social footing. Bruce Andrews’ “Text and Context” emphasizes “unreadability” as an element that both requires and teaches “new readings.” These new readings, which must be computed, rather than being able to draw on stock images and prefabricated chunks, keep us awake to language, wake us from the sleepwalk of automatism and help to inoculate us from the de-formed and seemingly naturalized discourses of myth and spectacle.


Spoken word poetry sits in a very unique position as both a literary and performance genre. In Barthes formulation poetry is possibly the only genre that can take on myth, partly because of its imprecision and therefore its inability for its meanings to be stolen and deformed. As a performance form, spoken word is dynamic, able to be written and rewritten with every performance, either spontaneously or rehearsed. The meanings can be drastically altered and even interrupted within a performance. On the other hand, the immediacy of the performance can also bring about in the performer a desire to be liked, not to be rejected by the audience, which means the danger that the poet will play it safe. I have seen and talked to poets who will not do their more challenging literary work because they want to be liked, not to mention understood. They pull out tried and true audience pleasers, not works that will leave the audience scratching their heads. At a poetry slam I attended at the Nuyorican Poets Café, in fact, 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. It wasn’t so much about challenging the audience, but getting the audience on the side of the poets. This can leave a poet wanting that positive attention all the time and thus play it safe, relying on humor and heavy on pop culture references, easy to identify (and identify with). When the work is more serious, it tends to be taken from the headlines or from the poet’s own personal experiences. There is, to be sure, a diversity of styles in spoken word poetry that range from the quotidian to the very wildly experimental, which is as it should be, for a variety of reasons. I don’t mean to proscribe exactly what poets should be writing about or in what style, or to suggest that all spoken word poets need to become Dadaists. But at the same time, there are pitfalls we should look at in spoken word, ways in which such work may play into the very thing that poets are so often fighting against.


It is precisely because of its immediacy of form, though, because it is a relatively unmediated form, and because it carries with it the freedom in language that poetry inherently has, that spoken word poetry has the power to challenge both myth and spectacle, to be imaginative, and to set off in the reader a creative or imaginative reaction beyond what we have ever experienced. The poet has the power, as Barthes said, to point not to the referent of language but to the thing itself. It also has the power to point to nothing itself, to nothingness itself, and moreover, to the unknown. It has the power to make connections that we may have never made before, and in doing so, to get us out of our ruts, our slogans, our clichés in thinking by encouraging to think, literally to use our brains, in entirely different ways. Not in the ways of lazy language, prefab chunks, but to use our brains in entirely different ways and to get out of our conceptual ruts and perhaps reconceive of the world. Avant-garde work has often been considered art for art’s sake. But Breton and many other avant gardists and experimental poets, have known for decades that it was not necessarily so. It was and is highly political in its desire to change consciousness—not just consciousness about a particular issue, but all of consciousness, consciousness in general. The fact that it may lack political content per se does not make it apolitical. Helene Lewis makes a spirited defense of the political side of Surrealism, for example, when she writes “[t]he Surrealists, in their collective and anonymous art forms, succeeded in creating an anti-elitist art that acquired a new social meaning. Their belief that talent is irrelevant and that everyone has creative potential in his unconscious could be a perfect vehicle for a truly revolutionary art.” This is anti-myth and anti-spectacle before Barthes or Debord and the goals of Surrealism, particularly as outlined by Lewis, are still current and relevant, even if some of the methods of contemporary Surrealists have changed.


Poetry is a literary genre, but also a visual genre, for the poet creates images in the readers mind. And the spoken word poet can not only create images, but sounds, both musical and bruitistic, in the ears of the audience. It also has the freedom from the constraints of story, character, and plot that other literary and performance genres have. Spoken word poetry works on us on a number of levels and carries with it the potential of its own genre, as a literary form, as well as other genres that act on other areas of the brain. It can give people what they already know, and thus fall back on familiarity and habitualization in language and thought, or the poetry can challenge them, literally, to think for themselves when they listen by offering what is unfamiliar and totally new.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Spectacle and Language

Ok, this is a conference presentation I'm working on that also contains a lot of the work I'm doing for my dissertation. This is the first half to two thirds. I'm still working on the poetry section. I'd love to know what you think. Particularly, since I just finished rewriting this section, I'd love to hear opinions on whether or not the examples seem relevant. Tell me what you think!


Spectacle

Guy Debord outlined a society of alienated social relationships mediated by images known as the spectacle. Debord defines the spectacle as a totalizing system, discussing under its aegis everything from celebrity culture to avant garde art to concepts of time and history under the spectacle, as well as the commodification of every day life. Whereas in Barthes’ conception of myth, the interests of the class in power, are made to seem universal, natural, and “just the way it is,” the spectacle “manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond all dispute. . . . it demands . . . the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances.” Not only does the spectacle in this case naturalize its own interests, but it also demands passivity, and through it, “the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise,” ultimately serving as “total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification.”


The spectacle itself is not the image, or even the media, but the media is a part of the spectacle and as such, “presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.” Debord describes this aspect of the spectacle as “the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” He goes on to explain that “due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.” We no longer have only three television channels to watch, in which to have our gaze concentrated, but there are still cultural icons created by television, movies, and magazines which all the people in given culture or society know about.

The ubiquity of Angelina Jolie, for example, on magazine covers, in movies, on television gossip shows, etc. means that it is virtually impossible for anyone in America not to know who she is. The ubiquity of many of these American media in other parts of the world means that she is known throughout the world. Anything that happens in the American media happens in all media – magazines, television, the internet, etc. In this way, the public’s gaze is kept up on things that the media deems important. And celebrity reigns high on that scale as beautiful, rich people who supposedly embody the dreams of Americans and keep up the appearance of the rags to riches, American Dream. For those who claim to hate celebrities, there is room in the media for them to be mocked and made fun of, particularly if they get too big and need to be taken down a peg, like Britney Spears. Praise or criticism doesn’t matter to the spectacle. What matters is the focus of the public’s attention on what it deems important. The spectacle functions as what media analysts have called a feedback loop, a symbiotic relationship between culture and marketing, or between the interest that the public has and what is presented in the media that feeds back into the public, albeit in a slightly altered form.


Consumption of Language


We are exposed to an intense level of linguistic activity (talking, reading, watching television, browsing the internet, listening to the radio, etc.) on a daily basis. Assuming an average day of 8 hours of such activity, we are exposed to 72,000 words a day, or 504,000 words each week. Thus, we are forced to process language in as shallow, quick fashion as often as we can, saving our more advanced linguistic resources for the most complex mental and linguistic operations. “There is growing evidence that the process involved in ordinary language comprehension is in fact fairly shallow . . . Some linguistic expressions . . . are retrieved from the memory . . . [in] prefabricated chunks, and others . . . must be computed . . . .”


We can, I think, extrapolate from this some ideological implications. In a world saturated by mythological and spectacular images and statements, it is not possible to linger over every expression and analyze its ideological basis. Furthermore, the constant repetition of slogans, jingles, clips from television shows and movies, etc. ensures that those items will eventually be stored into prefabricated units. Consider how common the “Got Milk?” campaign has become and how often “Got _____?” has become used in other contexts. A prefabricated phrase so simplistic, yet so ubiquitous, can even be pushed to the forefront of our warehouse of stock phrases and in some situations, might become the first thing we think of when we’re searching for the right phrase. There are several sites that have the phrase “Got Blood?” ranging from a Halloween site advising people how to make fake blood to an anti-war magnet that has “a picture of George W. Bush with a red mustache like the Got Milk Ad.” PETA ran a series of ads entitle “Got Beer?” I can tell you from my media class that when we do culture jamming spoof ads we have a high number of “Got _________” ads. It’s a pre-made, easily understood piece of culture that they can draw upon.


There are Facebook sites with names like “I speak movie!” and “I memorize and recite movie dialogue for fun and everyday conversation.” The description for “I speak movie!” says “This is a group for everyone who realizes that the best dialogue EVER happens in the movies and can fluently speak movie in any situation.” The wall posts consist mostly of people reciting movie dialogue for their own amusement, with occasional posts or commentary by other people, but largely it is not interactive, but recitative. We hear things like this all the time—people inserting conversation from Seinfeld or Family Guy. Sometimes they quote it, and sometimes they just pass it off as they’re own thoughts or comments. How many times have you heard “show me the money” or “you had me at hello” or a myriad of other well-known movie lines used in everyday conversation? It’s sometimes used to be funny or clever, but it also constitutes and shortcut to conversation, hence a shortcut to thinking. The availability of the prefabricated chunks forecloses the need, and hence the opportunity, for more advanced linguistic procedures that would lead to more original forms of expression. And once again, we see as Debord indicated, the media has acted as a unifying aspect of spectacular society, providing us this time with not only images of ourselves reflected back to us, but the very language, in the form of dialogue or slogans that we can use as prefabricated chunks. There is no longer any need to think critically or creatively for ourselves.

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.