Strictly process, strictly progress.
NPR recently saw fit to publish an article entitled “Where Have All The Poets Gone?” It’s the kind of woe-is-poetry diatribe that comes out about twice a year from some random mainstream news source that otherwise pays little to no attention to poetry, riling up the poetry community for about three days. It says almost nothing on the matter that hasn’t been said before, though I commend Vidal for focusing on the political weight (or lack thereof) of poets in the modern age.
Ultimately, there is little to concern ourselves with in the article proper (again, almost none of it is new and even its errors are cliche at this point), save that the thesis-posed-as-headline is wrong. Despite what this glancing title suggests, Vidal doesn’t have any problems acknowledging that poets exist. What he really wants to know is why the ones we can all name have no impact.
I want to speak here on how asking that question is wrong, not why. Why is an entry all by itself and easily twice as long. (I almost slipped up at the end of the previous paragraph and went there.) How the question is posed is pointlessly distracting. What the author MEANS to ask, and it is clear in the content, is “Why is the Poetry Canon So Impotent?” See how that’s a WAY more interesting question? See how we don’t have to start off by drawing lines around camps of poets, or by putting in the obligatory poetry slam reference? We have focus, we have context, we have a platform…everything you need for a fair dissection of the question. There are reasons why the question is presented in this dull-sounding safari hunt for internet clicks fashion, but again, who cares?
To show you how useless this boilerplate has become at generating useful dialogue and debate on what are actually pretty interesting questions I’ve taken the liberty of remixing the original article, changing the question and focus to “Where Have The Slam Poets Gone?” to drive the point home. You will note that I have mostly changed the examples and some of the motive, but none of the structure. That’s to express how facile and rote the average conversation about poetry has become. We can’t get to the next level of discussions about what poetry can do or be because we get stuck debating unnecessary tripe for the one-thousandth time.
Below are two pictures of the red pen markings of the article to fit my new subject, mostly to show how much didn’t change. The completed text of the remixed content follows them. Read Vidal’s first, then my remix and see what I mean. “Enjoy.”
Where Have All The Slam Poets Gone?
A riff on Juan Vidal’s “Where Have All The Poets Gone?” for NPR, September 5, 2014 to make a point.
For decades, slam poets were the mouthpieces railing loudly against academic voice and an ever-increasingly insular poetry ivory tower. They gave voice to the stories of a variety of people everywhere, as well as performative sheen. From Patricia Smith to Morris Stegosaurus and the Carl Sandburg-influenced rants of Slam founder Marc Smith — so many — slams once served as a vehicle for expressing social,cultural and political discourse. There was fervor, there was anger, there was comedy. And it was embraced: See, there was a time when the poetry of the day carried with it the freedom of no media consideration whatsoever. It was effective, even as it became overtly political and censoring. What has happened?
At its root, slam is the tool of engagement. Whether centered on love, beauty, or the ills that plague a nation, it’s all inherently about connection, and it all holds up as a force in any conversation. What seems like forever ago, slams – and the poetry in them – unflinchingly opposed conformity and censorship, civil and personal.
Take Beau Sia’s “The Horse Cock Manifesto,” in which he subverts the stereotype of Asian men having small penises by inverting, as rumor, the insidious “lie”:
some menace, villain, nemesis, enemy, threat
to the asian community as i know it,
has been spreading around that
“asian men are hung like horses!”
and i hate the idea of the fact,
as the word has spread farther than i can control.
Of course there was Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make,” a polemic against the traps of conformity and cultural conservatism. Considered celebratory and urbane, it went on to spark a plagiarism discourse in 2004; something that no doubt brought added attention to its overall merit.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’m wondering why the words of today’s poets don’t pack the same range and freedom as works like “The Horse Cock Manifesto.” Sure, people are still writing, but gone are the days of poets feeling free to satirize without sanitizing. The singular heart and free-range danger of the Poetry Slam is dead, and literary individualism in America, I submit, is at a low. The last of them, Jack McCarthy, left us last year, and with him went some much needed heart.
You could argue that, on a whole, people are less and less comfortable beyond prescribed communal values. But why is that? Fact is, although there is more poetry being published than ever before — from anthologies to chapbooks and literary magazines — it lacks a viable WTF-ness. What was once embraced has now been confined to a subculture, something primarily reserved for featured readings and open mics.
Sure, the age of social media has changed the way we approach the written word. The introduction of tweets and status updates has significantly altered the way we translate values of all sorts. But it would be misguided to not place some blame on the state of the art form itself. Could it be that modern Slam has lost its vibrancy? I ask: Has Slam ceased to penetrate our national consciousness because we are no longer stirred by what’s being said? When was the last time a slam poet made enough noise to be threatened with censorship?
Right now, at this moment in history, with so much to rally for and against — from police brutality in our backyard to the massacring of innocent children across the planet — have the poets gone missing? Not exactly, no. There are many poets, beautiful poets. Female poets, poets of every color and creed doing valuable work. Today, in America at least, rappers and slam poets — wordsmiths of a different stripe — appear to be the ones whose work is consistently tinged with fury and social diatribe. There are examples: spoken-word artists like Saul Williams and Sage Francis have consistently put out new and provocative material that tackles difficult issues.
And on a commercial platform, we have actors like Tom Hanks, whose performance of a “slam poem,” about the defunct TV show Full House, is the latest to make waves. And then there’s Kanye West. Listen to “Self Conscious,” which is considered by at least one website to be one of the most influential slam/spoken word poems of all time, despite West never having performed in a poetry slam or published a single poem ever.
We need slam poets with more stories beyond the political polemic now more than ever. In fact, they should be on the front lines — at rallies and marches — questioning and rebuking whatever systems they deem poisonous to civil society. They once fed us, our slam poets; emptying themselves in the process. Generously, courageously, they brought the full range of human experience to light. They said what we felt, and didn’t mind taking the heat for it — whatever that meant. Did they stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?