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!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Liberation of the Imagination: From “Feminine Writing” to Revolutionary Poetry (Part II)

It has to be said, lest it sound like I am proscribing something equally restrictive and repressive . . . I am not arguing against any type of poetry per se. I do not want to create a monolith of styles, themes, as restrictive as a Marxist-Leninist insistence on social realism. I do oppose the stilted reification that much slam work has fallen into, both stylistically and thematically. There is a certain sound that poetry slam audiences and judges have come to expect, a rhythm to the words that isn’t necessarily organic to the poem and therefore it becomes a contest of style rather than of performance, of doing justice to the words.

Also, it is a time worn cliché now that a slam poem needs to be about either the poet herself (her deep feelings, a break-up that he just went through, a situation that the poet is confronting) or about a social condition (a homeless mother and child, a junkie, someone that the poet knew of and/or read about), or both (about the poet’s identity as a woman, as a Puerto Rican, an Asian, a gay man or a lesbian, a Latina lesbian, etc. etc.). When I competed in poetry slams, it was always what I call my “bitch feminist” poems that won rounds, not my more interesting and complex poems that I had worked on to perform well as well as to craft in the first place.

In 1986, I was at a writer’s conference in Illinois and I heard several poets, including Carlos Cumplian, talking about these poetry contests in which people showed up in costume and performed poetry and I realized about 10 years ago that what he was talking about where the early days of poetry slam. This is a far cry from the sense of “authenticity” and the singular voice of the poet with the poem itself that I have heard poetry slam participants talk about today. In the initial days of the slam, as described by poets working in Chicago in 1986, it was merely about providing a sense of excitement to the audience and performing the poem as best as you could.

At around the same time, I heard other poetry slams in the Quad Cities, about 3 hours from Chicago on the Iowa/Illinois border. There, slam was already becoming entrenched as a style, with the poets reading their poems very fast, almost like a race to poetry. Yet there were no set themes to the poems. It had not yet merged with rap music to develop the style and had not yet merged with identity politics, which had not really become widespread, moving out of the academy, until the early 1990s when activists and artists around the country started to pick up on that aspect.

I do want to honor and acknowledge the word of identity formation, community building, and progressive values that many forms of poetry can participate in. I do want to acknowledge the role that poetry slams have played in building an audience for poetry. From their inception, they sought to bring the excitement of sport to poetry, a spirit of fun and of not taking oneself as a “Poet” so seriously. All of these things are good things. But poetry slam has been around officially for a quarter of a century and is now an institution.

I want to ask, then what? NOW what? Where do we go? After at least a century of searching actively for a revolutionary function of poetry, (why) have we given up? (why) have we abandoned the incomplete experiments of the past? Where and how can poetry function uniquely, in other words, what are the unique functions of poetry, as a revolutionary practice? And how can poetry slam fit into this without providing a known form, which is antithetical to the imagination that it should be releasing?

If the term avant garde, where avant garde falls into elitism, is in its very accepted (if perhaps unofficial, naturalized) definition that the avant garde is ahead of, “anticipates” and in many ways, is therefore, more advanced and “better” than mainstream art, culture, society and art, culture, and society need only to “catch up,” then of course, in the catching up, the mainstream has then co-opted the avant garde, misusing it for commerce or entertainment, for style, failing to recognize the true substance, the original intent (as contemporary Surrealists are and were famously wont to lament).

I prefer instead to think of the avant garde as the “first wave,” the ground work of consciousness, preparing the field. The change of consciousness, overused and virtually emptied of meaning as that idea may have become, is what necessarily must predate genuine social change. It is not up to poets (or even activists, politicians or “leaders”) to proscribe where that change needs to go, but to empower the imaginations around us to imagine something new, to dream our way out of the current world, which works only for a very few people. And this means that the avant-garde will always be the avant-garde, will always be changing. Even as we feel that we “know” surrealism, that is because surrealism has been associated with a style, which can be painted, written, and then put away in a box, rather than being a “technique” for opening the imagination, which it can do over and over again, without repeating itself, for each iteration of the surrealist techniques for getting to the imagination will yield different results, different images, different juxtapositions, especially with literature, which was a field that Andre Breton, the so-called “pope” of Surrealism, contended.

Education is the watchword and it has a very important role to play, but as an instrument of “instruction” and propaganda, it is subject to the same pitfalls that all other forms of discourse and communication fall pretty to. Religious missionaries often (almost always) accompanied or came fast upon the heels of conquerors to ensure that hears and spirits were converted while trying to enforce a new culture and a new rule upon the conquered. Poets must see themselves as missionaries of the imagination, not as propagandists.

To restructure language is to restructure thought, to restructure possibilities. To scramble, if not permanently, which is impractical and will not lead to the world we want, but temporarily, the world as we (think) we know it, the language that binds us to the now, to put new ideas, new juxtapositions into play, new planets into orbit. This is the revolutionary work of the poet.

To then take this and bring it to the people is what poetry slam can do -- to take literature off the page and bring it to those who would not normally pick up a book of poetry, for example, or to bring that alive with performance, to reach a larger audience that is hungry for something real, something surreal, something unknown. This is the lure of science fiction and it could also be the lure to poetry. Not to write science fiction into poetry, but to perform possibilities never before imagined. Some people who know me think that I am especially hard on poetry slam and perhaps I am, but only because I think there are so many more possibilities that poetry slam can bring to the world, rather than giving it simply a different type of institutionalized, reified poetry.

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