i guess what it all boils down to is the fact that there's enough shit on tv and on the radio already to entertain me. i don't come to poetry for that. i come to poetry for different reasons.
(after i write up this diatribe, i'm gonna go watch some tedtalk my roomie posted called "how to live before you die." sounds appropriate.)
so, back to our regularly scheduled programming. i've had an internal battle about spoken word for a long time. i recently attended my first slams, and i had a great time. i really did. i do not, in any way, deny that what i watched all those performance artists get up and do took serious talent, commitment and love. i appreciated it very much and i'd like to see more. i also understand that i don't want to attempt to actually do what i saw them doing.
i started off typing "i don't think i COULD ever actually do it." but i refuse to put that kind of self-limiting energy into the universe. i know i COULD do slam if i put my mind to it, but i don't really WANT to put my mind to that...
why? it's hard to explain without sounding crass or snobby... and though that is nowhere near being my intent, keep in mind THIS IS MY SPACE AND I SAY WHAT I NEED/WANT TO SAY. period. so, if you must, get offended. i'm sure you, dear reader, have said or done something to offend me before too. and i bet i kept pretty quiet about it.
i love to write poetry and i love to read poetry. i love to think about poetry. i love to hear poetry in some of the crazy, silly things my three-year-old says. i love to find it on abandoned sticky notes on the streets. i used to write it around the perimeters of sugar packets and napkins in restaurants and leave them there, energy rushing through me just knowing that i'd put poetry into the universe and that maybe someone would notice it, read it, and therefore have it as a part of them (whether they actually wanted it or not). i love buying books of poetry. i love having them on my bookshelves, preening away, waiting to be remembered so that i might reach forward, pull one from the shelf, open it and go into the world of another person's creation. the idea of random poetry on billboards or the sides of buses makes my stomach flutter with excitement. seriously.
i have the weirdest conversations with myself, and God, and my friends, and my child, and strangers in line at the grocery store, and the world, and that's why i write poetry. i can't memorize my poetry anymore than i can memorize those conversations. i'd love to, but something gets lost in translation. the best i can do is either to let you read the poem or to give you some rough retelling (via reading the poem to you) and hope that you can catch the nuances. sometimes, you seriously just had to be there. and that's a shame, but i don't feel i have any right to try and control the situation by recreating that exact moment for you. you're the reader. you're always at least ONCE REMOVED. that's the nature of the beast (or the art).
there is something in slam and/or spoken word poetry that robs me of something essential, something that i long for when i experience poetry. that something just MIGHT be humanity in a certain way. well, first of all, i love the page. i'm a bookworm. that's all there is to it. when i hear someone recite or perform a poem that sounds good or dynamic or interesting, i want to SEE it on the page. it's kind of like checking references. i want to see how the poem is laid out, where the punctuation marks are, where the play with language took place. i love to see the kinds of tic-tac-toe games other people play on a sheet of paper that result in poetry. when i can't have the page, i feel cheated. when someone tries to offer me a cd instead of a book, i feel a little hurt. i can't exactly explain why. it's like not showing me yours after i showed you mine. or something. the page is very intimate. it’s full of room for your flaws and breaths and chicken scratch and typos and idiosyncrasies.
i love going to poetry readings where people step up to the mic and are awkward. i attend a regular open mic (every second friday of the month) where i hang out and share poetry with a really great community of poets – most of them are spoken word artists. i revel in the times when they get up to share a new piece, one they have not yet memorized, and they stand there with a sheet of paper in their hands, reading and stumbling a little bit. that, to me, is a conversation between them and their writing that they’re allowing me to see. those are the times that i really feel i get to know them. i feel closer to them because they’re vulnerable in that moment.
the best poetry performance i’ve ever seen was by a poet named d.a. powell. he’d just done a reading at boise state. he was making his gracious appearance at the reception-like gathering held at the house of one of my professors. everyone was having wine and snacks. the professors started reciting poems – not their own, but great poems they’d read and liked so well they decided to commit them to memory. it was beautiful and humbling. mr. powell launched into this amazing recitation of one of my favorite poems, “the love song of j. alfred prufrock” by t.s. eliot. the entire room fell silent. his voice whispered and shuddered and croaked and flowed. i could feel his humanity reverberating with each word. when he whispered, “do i dare disturb the universe?” i could feel the question of his own mortality couched within. i could feel him living and dying within the words of someone else’s poem. i shed tears – not because of the moving performance but because i was honored to get to know something about this person in a few minutes, and through someone else’s words. something he’d probably never share with me in general conversation. something only the POEM could bring forth. something to which no spoken word performance has ever allowed me access.
watching an incredibly polished, meticulously memorized and well performed spoken word or slam piece is like watching a dramatic monologue. it’s exciting, engaging, moving. sometimes it’s even tender. but the only moments in which i feel i really get to KNOW the performing poet is when he/she is adjusting the microphone, getting his/her jitters out, correcting stance, and taking a breath before beginning the performance. and then i basically LOSE the person and the poem to the performance. the performance takes over. and i enjoy performance. for some reason, however, i prefer my poetry without that element that turns the poet into a character right before my eyes.
i’m easily manipulated. there’s my confession. this means that, when i watch spoken word and slam, i’m WITH the poet/performer all the way… but is it because the poem is that good or because my willing suspension of disbelief is THAT strong? this is what the page helps me figure out. i am a muddled and procrastinating, though passionate and committed reader of poems. i may screw around with your poem for a long time, avoid it, make excuses for myself all the while… but once i commit myself to your poem and read it, i’m going to give it my all. i’m going to profusely praise you for your moments of brightness, newness, love and humanity… and i’m going to call you on your bullshit as gracefully and brutally as i can. because i care about you and i care about your poem. so, i guess it’s hard for me to separate the brightness from the bullshit when it’s all given to me onstage. it’s a performance, so every move and inflection is intentional, meant to be compelling – but what about the POEM?
the point, for me, is not the performance, that’s all. the point is the poetry. i don’t want anything distracting me from the poetry.
oh baby, the rambling!! does anybody understand what i’m getting at here? if you don’t, crawl in my brain and try being my perpetually torn and yearning self for about five minutes. that may not get you any closer to what i’ve tried to explain here, but at least you’ll know my intentions were true.