Not many of you came to see the WORD! poetry show this past weekend. That's okay, you've seen slam or spoken word before. What I have to tell you is that I have been doubtful about the genre for a while now. My doubts stem from artistic concerns. I list a few:
is more entertainment than art.
is necessarily a personal form.
is always an immediate experience.
sometimes gains emotional clout by tapping into 'real' events, which are effaced in an effort to provoke chills or tears.
is stuck in a form with a very limited range of possible variations.
These things have led me to choose to perform very specifically selected pieces. Last fall I collaborated with Eva on a piece called Moving that was literally about moving, in a lot of different ways. Not explicitly personal, no make-you-cry punches in the face. Good. This year I performed a piece called Building that was intentionally obscure, although far more personal. The poem referred obliquely to both a specific place (a prison) and a specific person (an inmate). I mentioned the inmate's name, in the midst of a gesture intended to erase the graphic novels of criminality that had been sketched onto him, but in doing so (as was pointed out to me) I completely obliterated him for the sake of using an inmate (any inmate) in my poem. By only mentioning his name, I fell softly, but firmly into my own critique.
His name, your brother's illness, some kid's death at police hands, hardships elsewhere, histories of hate.
Easy fodder, right? Tricks of the trade. Talking about things we all already know (the president is an idiot, racism is present) get snaps, and things we don't understand yet get passed over. And with the same ease that the Slam Poet slides facts into his fiction, the facts become art and artificial, and begin to stand next to the churning wheels of armchair liberals who went out and started the car, but it was cold, so they are just waiting and rocking. Waiting and rocking.
Not all poems rock like that though, some rock it big like boulders, some rock it silent like stones. And some do rock it like a brick through the window that tells you that its time to wake up. One poem caused one person to look up Executive Order 9066, and then caused me to write here about it. Another has led to at least four conversations that I considered worthwhile, and built towards something.
It can be either bringing a new light to something familiar, or bringing something new to a new light. The same tired topics are getting worn and falling apart. If the poem sees this, relaxes, and doesn't try to put anything back together, it destroys spoken word, and makes something new. The conversation is like a real one. I write something. You write something. And they were about the same thing, and had the same words, and I was looking at you, and you at me, and somehow we were talking. What could be more personal than freaking out, or arguing, or laughing? And if it is artificial, then I am artificial when I ask to hold hands, and when I apologize, and that's alright I guess.
Spoken word does not need to be saved, or to be told what to do. Criticism does not take you all the way there.