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, July 19, 2011

Authencity. Bah!

Ok, so this is why I don't get very many books read, especially when I am trying to do research. I read 3 or 4 pages and then I have to stop and write 3 or 4 pages of commentary that turns into a blog. This time, it is about the return, always the return, to that infernal word:


I can't tell you how many times I have read about poetry slam and the authenticity of the author/poet's voice and how the strength of poetry slam is from that authenticity.


I thought that we had long ago abandoned the modernist notion of an authentic self, a holistic sense of identify that you could point to and say "this is me." I thought that long ago, for example, black feminists had said I'm black and I'm a woman and I come from a certain socioeconomic class and I have an urban or a rural and a northern or southern upbringing and all of these things go into making me the multifaceted person that I am and sometimes several of these things come into conflict so I sometimes have divided loyalties and so I don't really have a stable subject position from which I can speak. Then again, about 150 years ago, Walt Whitman wrote Do I contradict myself? Yes, I contradict myself. For I am large and contain multitudes.

This was my problem with poetry slam 15 years ago, when I dabbled in it. I saw this functioning as well. People pimping out their identities as a woman, as an angry (or depressed - take your pick) college student, as a gay man, as a grandma, as a Latino, etc. etc., giving the audience what they want to hear, spewing out cliches in the process. When I did my bitch feminist poems I placed. I took home money. When I did poems that were not only more complex, filled with more original images, were metaphorical and lyrical and also were performed every bit as well, I got lukewarm scores. (Not responses however. The responses I got after the slam was over, were generally very positive, dare I say, fantastic.)

Besides which, it's a poetry slam. Poetry. Poetry is about imagination and images and language. What you write about is not as important as the way you write about it. You can go ahead and write identity work, write political work, write about -- heaven help us -- flowers. I love to quote Bryon Gysin. Writing is 50 years behind painting. As long as we insist on some kind of authenticity of the writer's voice and experience instead of on the actual work, daring to do abstraction perhaps, or at least mess with the conventions as visual artists have done, we will continue to be 50 years behind painting.

I did a project a few years ago on the Iranian-American artist/photographer/filmmaker Shirin Neshat. I read a quote from a Turkish artists who said that the non-western artist, the "other", is always playing catch-up. It is assumed that they will always be one step behind. When artists in the west had already moved on to abstract work in painting, they were at the same time praising middle eastern artists for painting nudes. This is the assumption that there is a natural evolution to art and culture, so nonwestern artists must paint nudes, their culture must be advanced enough that they can paint nudes, before they can do abstraction.

This would seem to be the case with poetry slam. Many in academia praise poetry slam for getting young people to care about poetry, praising it for giving a voice to "marginalized groups." Fine. Good. But I think the problem with getting young people to care about poetry has been the presence of poetry teachers who were somewhat lacking. Who looked at poetry as a higher art and too good for the common person. You were supposed to read poetry for the same reason you were supposed to eat broccoli. You could have been doing ass-kicking poetry readings for years and it would have encouraged students to read poetry.

But we are perpetuating and praising poets for doing what post-modernism (and in some cases, it's parallel movement post-colonialism) have said is not possible. If there is always a doubled consciousness in post-colonialism, what self is the most authentic? And ultimately, does it really matter? The exploration of the fractured, doubled, shattered self, in fractured, doubled language, in imagery, is so much more interesting than trying to create and perform an "authentic self" for the masses. And how condescending to the audiences of poetry slam to assume that creating a populist poetry means that we have to give people what we think they want from us, to assume that we have to "dumb down" our poetry for them and save our good, "literary" poetry for editors of literary magazines, for people who can appreciate them. I have seen more than one poet who has good, difficult, beautiful poetry refuse to read those poems before a slam audience, choosing instead to do easily digested work that they know will go over well.

My critique is not of the poets themselves (at least not entirely), but of the people who perpetuate that system -- the academic, the promoters of authenticity in the form of slams, Def Poetry Jam, those who perpetuate a worn out system of reference that condescends to audience and poet alike, that continues to keep them at arm's length, always one step behind the "innovators," rather than encouraging poets to do what poets ought to do best: to create new and fresh images for our time, using our references, rather than cliches of what they see on television of what they think the audience expects them to be, which is someone else's version of authenticity anyway. Poets should be experimenting with language, taking us to new levels of seeing and understanding, rather than to perpetuate the old, the given, that which we have already been living with.


Britt said...

I'm in total agreement. Thank you for writing this!

Anonymous said...

So what do we do? Do away with slams?

Fluffy Singler said...

Only if you think poetry slam is a static, known entity that cannot grow or change. Then yes, do away with them. Otherwise, what I am calling for is more experimentation in poetry slams and less emphasis on things like authenticity, which don't really have anything to do with how good a poem is or how well performed it is, which is ultimately supposed to be the real point of poetry slam.

I went to poetry slams way far back in the day, in the 1980s, and there was none of this emphasis on "authenticity." It was a competitive poetry performance, period.

I think the emphasis on authenticity came with the insistence that the poem be an original poem by the poet, rather than a "cover song." Eventually I suspect that factor, along with several others, evolved into an emphasis on authenticity.