Unintelligible ≠ Poetic

10 02 2012

As one might expect of a performance poet, I go to many poetry performances.  As with art, or movies, or, say, basketball, when one sees a lot of a certain thing, the individual utterances of that thing can start to blend together in one’s memory.  At a given National Poetry Slam, I will easily witness the performance of 150 poems—and that’s just at the official events. Upon returning home from NPS, I’m often hard-pressed to relate a story of a single poem that struck me. Keep in mind that these poets are the top poets from their respective cities from all over the world.  After a week of poem after poem after poem, their similarities and “slamminess” start to blend them together.  The list poems, the persona pieces, the team performances about rape or cancer all merge together in memory to become one massive lump of slam. For a particular poem to stand out at an orgy of performances like NPS, it needs to be exceptionally unique.  In this way, the poems that make impact are often either very good or very bad. The following poem is the best poem I have ever seen at Nationals.

I once had a photography professor with a peculiar grading rubric.  There were five total points possible for any given assignment.  One point was issued based on “impact,” two points were possible for “theme,” and three points were possible for “technique.”  The impact point was the most interesting part of the rubric.  If there was something about the photo that made it stand out, it got a point.  It could be that the photo was the most original out of the group.  It could be that it was mounted on colored matte-board.  It could be that the photo was obviously over-exposed.  It could be that it was egregiously offensive.  The impact point could be assigned if the photo was very good, or if it was very unique; it could also be granted if the photo was very bad.

Since poets have to qualify to compete at NPS, there are very few examples of very bad poems that stick out there, and the predominant “good” poems are what blend together over the course of the week.  This doesn’t mean that all memorable poems at Nationals are “exceptionally good.”  Sometimes they are memorable for being unique.  Sierra DeMulder’s “Mrs. Dahmer” is a good poem, but when I saw it first in West Palm Beach in 2009, it was the first true persona poem I’d seen.  In a form that is predominantly viewed as true-to-life confessions of the performer, it was refreshing to see her speak about someone other than herself while remaining within the first-person narrative convention of slam poetry.  It stood out because it was unique.

Uniqueness is not necessarily synonymous with good.  A truly unique and high-quality poem or artwork has the capacity to make the viewer think—to ponder the possibilities of meaning and the connection to his or her own experience.  However, poets and artists often confuse “thought-provoking” with “unintelligible.”  Some seem to think that to be poetic, one must be obtuse.  Metaphors can be used to help communicate an idea, but too many too thick can obscure any cohesion whatsoever.

Anis Mojgani is an example of high-quality obscurity.  His work is popular; he has won national individual competitions, and is an incredibly nice and intelligent person.  It may be that I am the one falling short in terms of understanding.  Miranda July is an artistic jack-of-all trades, but it is beyond me to try to elucidate what exactly she’s getting at in her work.  Her website is as open-ended and confusing as anything (mirandajuly.com).  The entry page asks for a password, “You know the password, just clear your mind and look within… If that doesn’t work, try looking at a candle for a few seconds.”  No password is actually needed.  On the next page, the bold heading announces that, “You obviously know what I’m talking about.”  There are two videos clips from “’It Chooses You,’ wherein I share with you the part of my life where I was interviewing people selling things through the Pennysaver classifieds as a sort of open-ended visionquest that I secretly hoped would help me finish my screenplay (The Future) and teach me how to be a better liver of a finite life.”  No offense, Ms. July, but I really don’t know what you’re talking about.

This kind of non-sequitur amalgamation of words or images or metaphors or symbolic actions can seem to be the stereotypical requirement for qualification as art. Performance artists and poets seem to prepare by standing around in a warehouse with a methed-out David Sedaris, asking questions like “When I bleat here on page seventeen, do you want me to just bleat or really let go and ‘bleat, bleat…’ I feel like ‘bleat, bleating,’ but if Mother/Destroyer is going to be crawling through the birth canal of concertina wire, I don’t want to steal the focus, you know what I mean.”  Bizarreness and shock value can be harbingers of uniqueness, but they can also be ultimately alienating to a larger audience.

Shock performance artists like Bob Flanagan (pictured) and Carolee Schneeman paved the way for the stereotype. Yes, Flanagan is hammering a nail through the head of his penis.

Slams have a built-in qualitative evaluation mechanism.  If a poem doesn’t connect with the audience, it won’t score well.  There are those who disapprove of this kind of evaluation of art, but any viewer or concertgoer or reader of poetry is evaluating the work, whether or not it is publicly attached to a numerical value.  In slam, poets who lay on the metaphor too thick or become incomprehensible in a Gordian knot of aphorism won’t get past the first round.

In other art forms and in other venues, the dictates of politeness limit how demonstrative audiences can be in their evaluation.  I have never heard an audience openly boo a poet at an open mic.  I have, however, seen audiences with their heads down, desperately looking into their phones waiting for the convoluted epic monotonously recited onstage to come to its conclusion.  Perhaps the most effective evaluation is the strange silence between when the poet has stopped speaking and the audience starts politely clapping—not yet realizing that, yes, the poem is over.

I have been to multiple open mics where the audience looked exactly like this.

I have said repeatedly that art is communication.  For communication to work, both artist or author and viewer or audience must understand the message.  In a presented form like poetry or painting, it is up to the artist to make sure that message is at least understandable. The audience can only meet them halfway.

The David Sedaris quote is from “Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist,” in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000).

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