Thursday, December 08, 2005

Poetry Slam II

I’ve been reading Louise’s blog (which is great, by the way), and I came across a statement that I think captures some of the ambivalence and frustration I experienced when listening to Tone’s last poem on Friday night. Louise said:

“There was a time, way back in MFA-land, when I thought I was the only female poet who had not been abused as a child. All these healthy-looking, functioning adults and not a single one of them had loving parent(s)? Wow. And so it began, my experience with female poets who feel

a) if something bad happened to them, they had to write about it
b) they needed to shock with their poem
c) they will get a "better" (read less critical) response with heavy stuff -- the abuse, the rape, the abortion, etc.

I remember sitting there, smallest person in the room in all senses, trying to make out what to say to a woman who just bared her soul about her child abuse in what was at best a mediocre poem. My inner voice said to me: I hate this.

I also remember starting to feel as if I had to write about the crappiest crap in my life just to be validated. This feeling warred with not wanting to be pegged to that topic.

Now, when I'm in poetry-slam-and-spoken-word-land, I see this kind of female poet exists here too. (Not all, mind you, the best of us seem to have range.) I see them get sympathy points in the same events where good poems get real and really earned points. And it really does seem to be a problem for women poets more than men. (Men have their own problems.)
And to those who think their i-hate-you-daddy poem is original, it was Sylvia Plath who first said:
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. - written and published in 1962"


First, I’m sorry for anyone who has suffered abuse.

Second, beyond that, I’m not sure what else there is to say. Abuse is obviously traumatic and scarring. I don’t want to downplay that at all. And to the extent that I can know someone in that situation and call them friend, then I want to be supportive. I surely don’t have the magic words to fix any of it, but I will listen, enter in to that person’s pain, and try to be there for that person. That’s what friends do.

But here’s what I wanted to say to Tone: Everybody has his or her story to tell. And it’s okay to tell it through art, but please realize that your story, whatever it is, doesn’t make you much different from anyone else. You are not the most wretched, suffering person on the planet. Of if you are, then so is everybody else. Dysfunction is the norm. I hate to say it, but your traumas and your private hells are both uniquely yours and something you share with just about everyone. So go ahead and share about them. Write about them. But don’t play your traumas as an artistic trump card, don’t play Can U Top This in the Sympathy Sweepstakes, because I’m going to claim that if you do then you’re being cheap and tawdry and ultimately demeaning to your art. It’s confrontational melodrama, but it’s melodrama just the same. And it stinks, not because it’s not real or important, but because it’s bad art, and you’re trying to pawn yourself off as an artist.

There is a fine line here, and I’m not at all saying that art can’t engage social issues. Some of my favorite art does just that. But it is a matter of, umm, Tone. Bob Dylan and Public Enemy write great social protest songs. Steve Earle tries, but then claims that Condoleeza Rice’s problem is that she’s so uptight because she’s not getting anything in bed. One is challenging and uplifting; the other is merely idiotically distasteful and misogynistic. Can you guess which side I think rants about Ritalin and Mountain Dew fall on?


danthress said...

Yes, I remember this post from Louise. Did you read the Plath piece? It may not only be the first in the genre, but it's so good it could have been the last.

Ok, enough about others, what about me. Where does that leave my poem, The Power of Words. How different, at all, is it from what Tone read?

And, you could make your point by example Andy. Throw a good one [original] up on your blog and let's have a look.

Anonymous said...

Just to give you a recent(ish) dialogue on this issue from deep in the heart of Slam country, here's a link to a journal entry on the matter that sort of exploded a few months back.

Just to save us some starting time.
I did a connecting entry that had some local poet comments on it at the same time here:

danthress said...

From a "producers" point of view, I'm very glad that Tone showed up and read. Our cut-off was 12 poets, and out of a house of nearly 70 people, only 8 people signed up.

From a "house band" point of view, I enjoyed how he sings then goes into his speaking.

I thought Mountain Dew was a white hillbilly drink. It doesn't change how I feel about Tone the person or the poet.

What's the beef, the signup sheet was there for everybody.

Andy Whitman said...

I've tried to explain the beef. I guess you either get it or you don't. But I don't really have anything else to say about it.

John McCollum said...

Dude, just so you know, I think that this discussion is FANTASTIC!

How long have the organizers of this event tried to get this kind of discussion going on in our community? This is the first one that has actually 'stuck.'

People are talking about poetry! People are discussing it intelligently (the 'yo mama' jokes aside) and passionately.

That's great!

BTW, I'm also glad Tone read. I just didn't like his poem, I thought he didn't have much to say, so he pulled out the 'controversy' card.

But that's what the slam was about, right? People get up, do their thing. People say, "I like it." Or, "I don't like it."

Isn't it great that the judging has continued almost a week after the event? Isn't this what it's for?

Jeff Cannell said...

Friends-- All this discussion has really made me look forward to the next slam! As far as I can tell- criticism is part of what makes the slam fun. I hope to read more poetry and get feedback. And don't worry- my feelings won't be hurt- but I may let the air out of your tires.

Anonymous said...

One of Slam's greatest tenets is its open door policy: everyone from the academics to the hip-hop heads are welcome. The judges determine if they get to stay on the stage, but you get the idea. Slam does not seek to weed out good or bad poets per se; it let's the audience do that, and even then a disproportionally meager sampling of the audience to keep it appropriately ludicrous.

To Tone specifically, it bears pointing out that he fashions himself a freestyler - making poems up on the fly with little to no subject instigation - and that generally works against a lot of poets, even ones who do it well.

This is an explanation, not an excuse. I generally hate fresstyle poetry unless it's hip-hop.

Anonymous said...

You all have hit on another part of why shock / abuse poems drive me a little nuts. Many tend to ignore the fact that all of us have crap in their lives. That abuse is *common*. Rape is *common*. Addiction is *overrepresented* among poets. (I once heard a woman read a piece about an adult on adult rape, but she mentioned being a cutter in it. Now that *is* kind of different -- except it usually indicates child abuse. So she covered up her child abuse by talking about the less hurtful adult on adult abuse. In this case the analysis of her poem is more interesting that the poem itself.)

Anyway, I wanted to response to Scott re: Tone's "freestyling" -- I don't think he was totally freestyling. He said to Mary Kim that his second piece was "old" and in response to the Tsunami and he tried to update it with Hurricane Katrina on the fly. And it looked like he was looking at some notes during both of them. So I'm skeptical about how much of Tone's poetry is "freestyle" -- rather it's a pre-made excuse if something goes wrong. Like submitted work to a journal with typos so when it's rejected the poet can point to clerical errors for the rejection.

Anonymous said...

Louise, good point.
I'd have to ask him to find out for sure, but I imagine he straight-freestyles a lot less than he used to because even he has to have known that much of that was...diffcult to do well.

For the record, I freestyled once, many years ago at Snaps'n'Taps, but it was mostly as a joke. It's not my gift. Thinking about what comes out of my mouth is my head before people hear it is my gift.