Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Trash, Art, and Performance Poetry

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Trash, Art, and Performance Poetry

Article excerpt

Paul Beatty. Joker, Joker, Deuce. Penguin USA 1994. 108 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Dana Bryant. Song of the Siren: Tales of Rhythm and Revolution. Boulevard Books 1993. 128 pp. $8.00 (paper)

Dana Bryant. Wishing From the Top. Warner Brothers 1996. 50 mins. $15.95 (CD)

Wanda Coleman. Hand Dance. Black Sparrow Press 1993. 271 pp. $13.00 (paper)

Wanda Coleman. African Sleeping Sickness: Stories eF Poems. Black Sparrow Press 1990. 328 pp. $14.00 (paper)

Wanda Coleman. Native in a Strange Land. Trials and Tremors. Black Sparrow Press 1996. 292 pp. $15.00 (paper)

Grand Slam! Best of the National Poetry Slam, Vol. I. Mercury Records 1996. 50 mins. $15.95 (CD)

Patricia Smith. Big Towns, Big Talk. Zoland Books 1992. 114 pp. $9.95 (paper)

Patricia Smith. Close to Death. Zoland Books 1993. 119 pp $10.95 (paper)

Patricia Smith. Life According to Motown. Tia Chucha Press 1991. 75 pp. $6.95 (paper)

The United States of Poetry. Joshua Blum, Bob Holman, Mark Pellington. Harry N. Abrams 1996. 176 pp. $29.95

The United States of Poetry. Mercury Records 1996. 56 mins. $14.95 (CD)

The United States of Poetry. KQED Video 1996. 120 mins. $29.95 (video) It's a slick, well-spoken Monday at the Sanctuary lounge. A young man tests a line at the mike; he likes it, says it again and again, like a soul singer finding his groove. ("The poet must become a performer, the way James Brown is a performer-loud, gaudy, and racy": thus Larry Neal in 1968, but he could be writing director's notes to this scene from the movie Love Jones.) As they wait, the other poets spar. Ed mocks romance in casual rhymes. Darius disagrees. "Romance," he muses, "is about the possibility in a thing.... When people who've been together a long time say that the romance is gone [pursed lips, a stagy shake of the head] what they're really saying is [a glance at the others, held a beat] they've exhausted the possibilities." Ed retreats to higher ground: "Poetry," he counters, "is the possibility of language." Laughs, approval, wry salutesexcept from Sheila, their seen-it-all sidekick, who groans, "Give me a break."

As a reader, I like to think of myself as Ed: tough on the outside, but inside, a sucker, ready and waiting to fall. The treat of reading is to be open to offers, to be swept off your feet, in giddy succession, by this poem's line dance and that one's merengue, or foxtrot, or a professorial poise. When it comes to performance poetry, though, I've been a wallflower at best. I never bought the glamour of the scene, the smoky bars, the b-boy posturing, the endless swipes at all that stuff they bored you with at school. Yes, it tickled me to see Entertainment Weekly hand a book of poems a well-considered "B," or to hear Sassy warn teenage girls that the Poetry Slam can be an "unsupportive and ego-crushing" experience. (Tell 'em, JB: It's a man's, man's, man's, man's world.) But the bigger the claims I heard for this New American Gesamtkunstwerk, especially as a political art, the more I sighed, like Sheila, Give me a break.

What chance the nation will be healed by the sweet, hamfisted gruff and uplift of Marc Smith's "For the Little Guy":

Or, to slip back to the Sanctuary, by a cocky, awkward come-on like Darius' "Blues for Nina": "Say, baby," this one begins, "can I be your slave? / I've got to admit, girl / you're the shit, girl / and I'm digging you like a grave."

Poor Nina winces, and so do we, watching, but the crowd wants more. "That's all right!" a woman shouts, not "Block that metaphor." Whatever its actual boosters may claim, this fictional audience knows that performance poetry isn't radical because it has "a crucial mission a healing mission" (Bob Holman), or because it can "promote a tolerance and understanding between people" (Miguel Algarin) as the poet "invites us to `hang out' in the 'hood" (the jacket copy of Willie Perdomo's Where a Nickel Costs a Dime). …

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