Academic journal article Liminalities

Voicing Diverse Working Class Sentiment and Bringing Poetry to Life: The Contribution of San Diego's Millennial Poetry Crews

Academic journal article Liminalities

Voicing Diverse Working Class Sentiment and Bringing Poetry to Life: The Contribution of San Diego's Millennial Poetry Crews

Article excerpt

In Fall 2000, poetry happenings swelled in San Diego, California, as organized collectives of poets emerged on the scene and poets and audiences came out in unprecedented numbers to participate in nightly events. The most well attended happening, a featured poet and open-mic event, drew 80-120 audience members and poets each week. Every other night of the week, poetry open-mics happened at other venues and drew between twenty and fifty people, and about once a month beginning in 2002, a poetry slam took place. Events were almost always free of charge and most were located in diverse, working class neighborhoods.

Chris Vannoy, long time San Diego performance poet, mentor to many newcomers, truck driver, poetry crewmember, poetry scene organizer, selfdefined "blue collar poet," and former host of five local events from 1990 to 2000, reflects on the job of host and the fate of most poetry events: "Most of the time, people just dwindle down until there are just two or three people coming and the guy gives up! The poetry crews really helped get it going."* 1 In 2002, San Diego poetry event host and poetry scene organizer, Marc Kochinos reflected on their emergence, "When I first came into town in 1994, the Taco Shop Poets had just started. Until two years ago, they were the only poetry crew... [Now] there are Ocie Able Minded Poets - Shan non Perkins, Nazareth Simmons, and BE Dean; the Folkalists... Goat Song Conspiracy - Chris Vannoy, Scotch, Sun Dubois, Christina... Elevated, and a few others.. ."2 The poetry crews ranged from three to ten members each and in 2000, at the height of their organization, there were eight poetry crews that performed in local venues on a weekly basis. A small but primary constituency, they played a key role popularizing events at the local level and setting the tone and purpose of an emergent poetry world.

In the following pages, I draw on ethnographic research carried out from 2000 to 2007 with poetry crews, poets, event hosts, and audience members in San Diego, California. These participants gathered through events staged in coffeehouses, nonprofit art spaces, taco shops and bars to practice poetry and, through the backdoor, rehearse an inclusive, multicultural community. Here, I focus on the poetry crews as primary participants in the poetry world of this time and place and their role in retooling the meaning and purpose of poetry for themselves and their audiences. I argue that the poetry crews' innovative use of language, organization, and practice of whole bodied poetry gave voice to a diverse, working class ethos. Further, the aesthetic criteria they ascribed to poetry making and their live acts of it before audiences conveyed this ethos and influenced the kind of community that emerged through events.

Claiming Language with Bodies and Minds

With names such as The Able Minded Poets, the poetry crews challenged dominant rhetoric directed toward blue-collar working class communities by being more than able bodied and redefined the practice and purpose of poetry for themselves and their audiences. Popular music critic Simon Frith (1996) explains that beliefs about the mind and body were propagated during the Industrial Revolution that claimed the head was for mental activity and the body for work and pleasure. He argues that rock musicians raise the role of the mind in the body through their thoughtful and creative performative practices distributing music across their bodies. In so doing, they counter the belief that the head is the exclusive site for mental activity (1996). Likewise, the performance poets I discuss here intervene in the mind body split by turning the whole person with head, body, and embodied voice into the poem during the performance. This practice of what I term whole body poetry becomes particularly salient in the context of diverse working class communities.

The view that the head is for mental activity and the body for labor and pleasure leaves blue-collar, working class individuals and their communities with a heavy archive of experiential knowledge from embodied work experience and no critical form of expression. …

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