Influence

26 08 2012

In the Fall of 2007, I was new to organizing slams.  One night, I arrived at our usual venue early to set up, only to find that the venue (a comedy club that was usually dark on Mondays) had booked an X-rated Hypnotist on our usual day.  I was somewhat disappointed, but I resigned the slam to what I saw as its fate for the evening:  I assumed we’d have to cancel.  When I called the Boise slam-master, Cheryl Maddalena, to tell her the news, she did not hesitate in telling me that there was no way we were cancelling.  “Aren’t there restaurants and other clubs right around there?  Go ask them if we can have the slam there?”

It seemed preposterous, but it happened.  We walked across the street and asked the wait staff at  a restaurant and bar if we could hold a one-night event in their space… you know… right now.  Surprisingly, they agreed and we were back in business.  Never mind that most of the audience was there to eat dinner, not see a slam.  Never mind that a majority of the poets who performed had prepared satirical baby-eating poems, and were now performing them for old ladies trying to eat fish and chips.  This is not the most awkward situation in which I have performed poetry, nor is it the only one to involve Cheryl Maddalena.  In fact, all of them involve her.

We once performed during registration day at the College of Southern Idaho.  The school put us right next to the doors of the registrar’s office and across the path from the LDS student organization.  A group of Boise poets once performed for the city on the sidewalk in front of a parked bus.  The city did not provide us with a PA system or with signage informing passersby why four earnest young people were shouting metaphors at them as they passed.  Maddalena and three other poets were dismissed from the second half of a scheduled workshop and performance by a high school for using the word “dildo” in a poem.  Maddalena had made it a point to clear the content with the school beforehand.  Apparently, it was not sufficient.

Cheryl Maddalena, Isaac Grambo, and Tara Brenner perform “Moustache Poem” at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships (iWPS), Berkeley, CA, 2009

Boise poets have performed at everything from car washes to wine tastings to high-school punk concerts to burlesque shows.  It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always done with a purpose, and it’s always done with heart—and that heart is embodied in the person of Cheryl Maddalena.

Cheryl Maddalena did not invent slam poetry, nor did she bring it to Boise, Idaho.  Maddalena started slamming in Berkeley, California while she was earning her doctorate in psychology.  In short order, she was on teams competing in for National Poetry Slam Championships.  I don’t mean that she was just at Nationals, I mean she was on the Finals stage.

Jeanne Huff and Bob Neal started a slam in Boise in 2001.  As scenes often do, the scene was in a state of flux when Maddalena moved there in 2005.  Some of the novelty had waned, the regular poets were growing out of slam and moving on to other things, and the organization had never been the kind of tightly-run ship that one would see in a slam venue in Berkeley, Seattle, or Chicago.

Cheryl Maddalena is, quite often, the most reluctant organizer I know.  She didn’t want to assert control over Big Tree Arts, Inc. (the non-profit that organizes slams in Boise).  However, she couldn’t bear the idea that a scene wouldn’t send a team to Nationals, or that poets wouldn’t have a way to raise funds to make trips they might not otherwise make, or to not see the kinds of poets she had come to know and love from the Bay Area, New York, Vancouver, and all points in between.  There are times when arts organizing hurts feelings and breaks friendships, and the growing pains of Big Tree Arts left a few former figures of poetry in Boise by the wayside.  This is an unfortunate byproduct of making changes and moving forward, but for any kind of scene—be it slam or visual art, concert venues or literary bongo-circles—changes will ruffle feathers.  Old people will leave, new people will enter.  The most important part is the art, and that is what must be maintained as a constant.

Cheryl Maddalena performing at Neurolux (Boise, Idaho), circa 2010

Sometimes meeting someone who will influence your life is a rather inauspicious occasion.  When I first saw Maddalena perform, I leaned over to a friend who had come to the slam with me and said, “If I EVER sound like her, you have to tell me and I’ll walk away from this whole slam poetry thing immediately.”  At that moment, I had no idea how much she would eventually teach me about performing, organizing, and the inherent value of being an artist.

For all of the crazy things Boise poets have done, Maddalena has been a leading voice insisting the poets be paid in some form or another.  Poets are afforded the chance to work as volunteers for Big Tree Arts in exchange for BTA covering the bill to send them to Nationals, iWPS, or WOWPS.  Poets from out of town who lead workshops are paid $150.  At a time when I was altruistically clinging to an idea that art was priceless, Maddalena was teaching me that even that has a price.  Poets who want to live as poets need to be paid to do so.

Cheryl Maddalena taught me the importance of the audience and how the seemingly arbitrary rules of slam are the key to audience participation.  In some cases, I resisted the lesson, telling her “I will swear at any place at any time—these eight year-olds are are going to hear these words on the playground eventually!”  In some cases, it was a lesson she let me learn on my own, sacrificing her own ego by performing “White Lady,” a poem I had insisted on, in a room full of Black poets and people waiting for a Hip-Hop concert to start.

That performance of “White Lady” didn’t turn out like this, but from the dirty looks and the low scores, it may as well have.

I am influenced by artists long dead and by writers so famous I will never meet them in real life.  I am also influenced, on a much greater and personal level, by artists, writers, and organizers I work with every day who don’t have book deals and will never show up in an Art History survey course.  If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that Cheryl is the second-greatest influence on me and my work, next to my own father.  If this essay reads like a eulogy, let me be clear:  Cheryl Maddalena is still very much alive.  She continues to write, organize, and perform and has the unique ability to both inspire and frustrate me, even when I’m eight months and 500 miles removed from Boise.

In some ways, Maddalena is a reluctant organizer and, in others, she is a selfish one.  She keeps organizing slams, writing grants, coaching troupes of younger, less experienced poets to perform in front of audiences as foreign to native Boiseans as performing for Martians, and writing, writing, writing.  She keeps organizing because she can’t bear the idea of slam not being there for her.  Luckily for me and for the rest of Boise, keeping it around for herself has kept it around for us as well.

photo by Benjamin Lzicar, LZ Photography

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Villains

24 06 2012

I am a regular patron of Broken Mic, a performance poetry open mic in Spokane, Washington. The average age of both audience and performers is somewhere in the late teens and early twenties. There’s a lot of angst, altruism, and shock value and even more support from poets and the audience. That support is not, however, unconditional. In April, a poet stood in front of the audience for the first time ever, and prefaced his poem by saying, “I wrote this poem about butt sex and I’m going to do it even if there are little kids here, so fuck you.” By the time he was finished, he was hearing boos as he went back to his seat.

The content of the poem didn’t bother me. Shock and vulgarity are used in many instances to gain attention. While I think his poem lacked in the category of substance, writing about something that is culturally taboo and performing it in an atmosphere that promotes free speech shouldn’t be a problem. The fact that there was a six or seven year old child in the front row doesn’t bother me, either. The mother was present, there is an announcement at the beginning of every event making it clear that poets can and will say things that offend. If she had wanted her son to not be present for this display, she could have left well before the offending poet made it to the microphone.

Where the poet erred was in alienating the audience. Leading off by telling the audience to go fuck itself put the performer at odds with them before they even knew who he was or what he was all about. American audiences hold self-assured artists in high regard, but not before they’ve either paid their penitence or demonstrated their work as being of the highest quality. We may delight in the character of the villain, but we always expect the good guy to win in the end.

LeBron James alienated a nation of basketball fans in 2010 by leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. He compounded the alienation by announcing his decision in an hour-long televised special, the team holding a celebratory pep rally before the newly-formed group had even held one practice, and James telling the crowd that they would win “not two, not three, not four…” but eight championships. Cleveland fans burned his jersey in the streets. The rest of the basketball world decried this hubris, and LeBron, for the first time in his life, found himself cast as the villain.

James and the rest of the team embraced this role as they pursued a championship in the 2010-2011 season. While American audiences take a certain pleasure in villainous characters like Frank Costello in The Departed or The Undertaker in professional wrestling, they have little sympathy for a villain who has not accomplished anything. LeBron, who had come straight into the NBA out of a ridiculously-hyped high school career, had never received any kind of disapproval, certainly nothing on this scale with this kind of vehemence. The villain role was not something James and the Heat could fill, and their loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals was the equivalent to getting booed off the stage after an indignant poem about anal sex.

LeBron alienated the public by very visibly and very publicly demonstrating that he did not care what they thought. Of course, he did care, and was genuinely hurt when the public reprimanded him for his actions. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, the poet from Broken Mic in April was hurt by the boos as well. At the heart of the actions of both was a fear of rejection, which was all but guaranteed.

If a kid wants to protect himself form schoolyard mockery, one tactic is to display that he does not care what the mocking children think. If they get no response, the mocking is fruitless and they move on. If a performer is putting herself in front of an audience with the danger of not being approved, she can mitigate the rejection by claiming to not want the approval in the first place. Superficially at least, both sides come away as if they’ve won. The audience has rejected the performer for hubris, and the performer has rejected the audience’s lack of approval by saying she was never seeking it. “Of course they didn’t get it. They’re just too simple to understand…”

We can compare this attitude to the Greenbergian notion of the separation of high Art from the rest of life. For Greenberg, if Art was to progress and advance, it needed to be separate from the rest of society—artists should not worry about the approval of the masses. Non-educated art patrons and popular audiences were to be ignored in favor of focused investigation into the specific area that was High Art. A painting did not exist for the enjoyment of some schmo on the street—it existed for the sole purpose of being a painting.

The authority embodied in the artist (here, Jackson Pollock) and the critic (in this case, Greenberg) made the hubris of High Modernism titanic. In a postmodern age of skepticism, authority isn’t what it once was.

On the one hand, this alienates the larger public. On the other hand, it provides a group for artists to identify with. There is a cachet that comes with being an insider—whether it’s in a dance-club scene, the world of high art, or poets in Spokane. The attitude paradoxically justifies whoever holds it as both an individual (in rejecting the expectations of “the masses”) and a part of a group of artists, writers, performers, or thinkers who hold similar attitudes, education, and experiences. The attitude of specialization inherently creates cliques, and if we remember anything from Junior High School, cliques get jealous of other cliques.

In 1989, Piss Christ, a photo by Andres Serrano, became the flashpoint in what would come to be known as the Culture Wars. Without simplifying the issue too much, the photo was given an award that was funded partly with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This enraged conservatives who used the image and the award as reasoning to cut funding to the NEA.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

The fact that it was a photo escaped some politicians. The fact that it was among a series of other photos of different objects and figurines submerged in a mixture of urine and cow’s blood escaped almost everybody. The formal or conceptual considerations of Serrano were moot points in the larger discussion—the shock was all that mattered. It was an inflammatory image with an inflammatory title. This, combined with the already entrenched attitude of the art elite dismissing the approval of wider audiences, meant little sympathy and little resistance to the evisceration of the NEA’s funding of the visual arts.

In 2012, the political climate again has public funding for the visual arts on the ropes. In Spokane, there is much hand-wringing over the fate of the Spokane Arts Commission, which has already seen a long series of cuts which has left it a shell of a “commission” with only one employee and a handful of volunteers. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (known as the MAC) has fired its director for undisclosed reasons and is facing the ire of the public for this decision and a demand for an explanation. The MAC has also been forced to look for private sources of funding as public money for visual art in the region has dried up.

Outside of the people actively involved in the arts in Spokane (which consists in no small part of artists themselves), there has been little protest over the possibility of doing away with the Spokane Arts Commission. The Commission oversees the acquisition and maintenance of public art projects in the city from the Harold Balazs sculptures floating in the river to the garbage-eating goat to the murals on railway underpasses. It is an organizational hub for small non-profits from Saranac Art Projects to Et. Al. Poets, and, yes, it helps those organizations find, apply for, and get government grants.

Sister Paula Turnbull, The Garbage Goat, 1974

The Spokane Arts Commission is on the precipice of nonexistence not because of anything it does, but because of an attitude perpetuated by those involved in High Art. We ignore mass audiences at our own peril. By continuing to isolate ourselves and dismiss the larger public, we make what we do appear to be something other than necessary. What’s worse, the expectation of government funding has led to ignoring potential customers. If we do not expect them to pay to see what we have to offer in person, how can we expect them to think it is necessary to pay via taxes if they don’t (or aren’t even invited to) see it?

The problem isn’t with the product: poetry, art, music, and plays are as vibrant in Spokane now as they have ever been. The problem is in perception—it’s in marketing; it’s in public relations. If we abandon the idea that art should be separate from the rest of life, those people who decide how art is funded and therefore how artists can live will see it as a necessary part of life. This change in attitude starts with the artists and performers. It starts with conversations. It starts with including anyone who is even remotely interested and alienating no one—even if what you are saying with your work is confrontational.

With inclusivity, art can be a valued part of everyday life, and everyday life can be a valued part of art. We aren’t going to force anyone to pay attention to our work by telling them we don’t care what they think. We have to care. Without an audience, what are we doing any of this for?

‘Broken Mic, June 24, 2012’ Photo: Michael Schomburg





Legend, Myth, and Street Cred in the Image of the Artist

2 06 2012

In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life.  I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.

Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam.  Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves.  They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it.  As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.

6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) performing “Her Name”

This is not something that is limited to slam.  We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs.  The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work.  In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.

Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people.  When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering.  The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other).  Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.

An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House.  Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago.  The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson.  He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain.  Everyone in the audience has experienced pain.  Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological.  Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain.  Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture.  However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience.  He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.

Yet, House is a fictional character.  Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent.  We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain.  We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took.  We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about.  As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.

In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat.  He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York.  He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11.  His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone.  His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.

Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous.  It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle.  This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.

Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for.  Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton.  But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:

Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it

No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references.  But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.  Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.

Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell.  His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father.  Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.

Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer.  Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances.  Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets.  The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.

Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem.  A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view.  The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder.  The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience.  But even this can backfire.

Alvin Lau

In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam.  One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister.  As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister.  It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from.  It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.

Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?”  McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation.  To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself

I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post.  Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article.  Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.”  Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.”  DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer

Sierra DeMulder

As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis.  My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others.  We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it.  Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence.  No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit.  It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer.  To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist.  To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.





An Extended Conversation

26 02 2012

This week I was interviewed by Wyatt Trull of Spoke Journal, a start-up literary magazine here in Spokane. The interview was conducted by email, which has produced a record of the conversation in full. Topics ranged from the open-ended themes of the journal’s first two issues to discussion of ideas I’ve put forth on this blog. The point of this blog is to think about art as something different than an object-making enterprise, but an endeavor of meaning-making between artist and viewer. Sometimes the line between the two parties blurs, as it does here. For more information on Spoke, please visit the website: Spoke Journal.

Topic: Place/Displace

Trull: What constitutes one’s place or origin? How does your concept of origin or place mold your identity and art?

Grambo: “Place” is the community an artist (or any person) identifies most closely with. This community is shaped by the landscape, climate, and culture of its physical location. At times the community sets itself against these factors, and at times it is in cooperation with them. The relationship is similar between my own identity and my identification with a place or community. At times, I identify with the prevailing attitude and create work in conjunction with it, and at other times I create work to satirize and critique that prevailing attitude. As much as I love the people and poems that come from slam poetry, I enjoy skewering the tropes and cliches that are employed through satire.

Team Boise performs the satirical "Rape is Bad: The Musical" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009. For a time, the identity of Boise poets was linked heavily to high style and sarcasm.

Trull: What is the process of this interaction between a place and a person? How does each entity change as the relationship ebbs and flows?

Grambo: I had a professor in graduate school who would ask, “What about your work is original” in critiques. It’s a very frustrating question, especially when one is 23, in graduate school, and thinks they are the most unique artist on the planet. There isn’t a very good way to answer that question, because, in a postmodern view, nothing is original. Originality isn’t a prerequisite for art status. Nonetheless, the modernist ideal of uniqueness is still a part of how we view art and artists, so the question is pertinent. The only answer in a postmodern era is that the work is original because I am making it–not a person who made it before.

In that sense, a person can impact their community (or place) by being present and being involved. In some cases, there is a firm and identifiable effect on a community by an artist. In Boise (where I lived for eight years), the music scene is undeniably effected by Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. The sound, stage demeanor, and even fashion of indie musicians in Boise are all influenced by Martsch. Of course, they are all also influenced by each other, and by the community of Boise at large, just as Martsch was. Sometimes, people embrace their regional identity as part of their own. Other times, people want to distance themselves from their own region as much as possible.

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

In that area, Spokanites seem to be somewhat split. There are many who lament the “smallness” of the city—who think the conservative politics that affect local government, the limited number of artists within the community, and the lack of large-market media exposure. They want to get out of Spokane. Boiseans wanted to go to Portland. Spokanites want to go to Seattle (at least that was the “Xanadu” when I was here as an undergrad from 1998-2002). I like the smallness of the market. I like feeling like I have an opportunity to be on the inside of the scene. There are many Spokane artists (especially ones I’ve met since I returned) who feel like Spokane is a great place to make an effect and to be effected. They are creating co-op galleries, having basement exhibitions, reading poetry in bars and burrito shops, and publishing photocopied Zines like crazy. What is the deal with Zines in this town? While I’m thinking of it, what’s the deal with photocopied (rather than printed) handbills for benefit concerts and underground shows? I’m not putting it down, but it’s certainly something that is cool in Spokane that is not visible in Boise.

Trull: What makes Spokane unique as a place or origin? What role does the artistic community play in generating the essence of this place? How can the art community as a system be improved to better suit this role?

Grambo: A small city like Spokane can be at the same time very accessible and intimidating because of the small size and high familiarity of the people within each community–be it athletics or business or art. As in other areas of cultural production, the self-pride of the artistic community is the engine that drives it as well as fuel for the pride of the city at large. Spokane artists have the opportunity to set Spokane apart from other cities and define Spokane itself. Spokane is great because it isn’t Seattle, and it isn’t Portland, and it isn’t Chicago or New York or anywhere else. Spokane can be whatever its artists make it, they have to do just that: make it.

Topic: Signal/Noise

Trull: How do you differentiate between the concepts of signal and noise?

Grambo: The purpose of a signal is communication; noise is purposeless.

Trull: What role does noise play in your art? In your identity?

Grambo: Noise is essential, but it must be controlled. A performance or poem or painting can seem to be haphazard and purposeless, but that is in service of the overall message–there must be purpose to purposelessness.

Trull: How does Spokane, as an artistic community, manifest both signal and noise? Does art need to be louder? Or simply expressed through a better forum? Is the problem systemic?

Grambo: Art should be loud–volume can get attention. Noise for the sake of noise alone can be alienating, however. It is the task of artists to walk along that line in order to make the most impact with their work. Since I am new to Spokane, I can’t say how well this community balances signal and noise with any authority. I will say that I don’t think it’s a systemic problem–it may be something that artists must experiment with before they can find where they fit on an individual level, and that in turn affects the outlook of the community as a whole. In what I’ve seen of the performance poetry scene, many poets are trying to find their voice–in large part due to the fact that they are at the dawn of their careers. As a result, the anarchic noise that is performance poetry in Spokane has become a kind of siren for young poets and artists–a Bacchanalian refuge of chaos. This isn’t a “problem,” it’s simply the identity of Broken Mic.

Mark Anderson, organizer of Broken Mic

Trull: You’ve written a lot on your blog about the qualifications of great art. I find it quiet amusing that we’ve both used Miranda July to clarify our conceptions of art (that may be an overstatement on your part). (Unintelligible ≠ Poetic) Watching Me, You, and Everyone We Know and The Future completely transformed my conception of art. I had a profound inexplicable reaction to that film. I actually felt a profound confidence in my reception of her film, though I walked away unable to articulate a single theme. In fact, that experience is what ignited some recent passion for the dichotomy of Signal and Noise. So along the lines of this shared experience that we’ve reacted to in seemingly opposite ways, I have a few questions: for you, what is the nature of meaning? Do you think there is a type of meaning that is ineffable (an essence, shape, or flow of thought) or a type of noise that can be meaningful without any relation to a signal? Does one have to understand to perceive the articles of communication?

You wrote in a blog post that “one of my maxims in art is that ‘presentation is everything.’”(A Tale of Two Exhibitions) You also make the distinction between the existence of art and the potential for art. Can one quantify the leap that is made to bring art into existence? What is this leap in your artistic process?

Another one of your qualifications for great art seems to be the idea that great art is only exist in dialogue, or the communication between the artist (piece of art) and the viewer. Is it possible that a piece of can born from signal but develop into noise as this conversation proceeds? Is this undesirable? If so, what’s the artist’s burden?

Grambo: I’m going to the three previous questions (or paragaphs of questions) here. I think there is absolutely the possibility for open-endedness in art. Art as communication can be art as dialog, without a set “message” to be delivered, and I prefer this approach to art. It can work with one-way communicative art forms (like films or paintings or poems), though in a different way than in a truly interactive art form (like interventionist performance, or even a discussion via emailed questions). The lynchpin is intent. What kind of meaning are you trying to create as an artist or a writer? Are you intending to be inclusive and provoke thought, or are you intending to be perceived as clever or deep in your opacity?

Isaac Grambo performs "Airport Love Affair" at the Individual World Poetry Slam Championships, 2009

My problem with this approach is that it is alienating to a broad section of potential art viewers–those who don’t like art because they don’t get it. It appeals to a small subset of society that seeks out the hard-to-understand and the open-ended. I don’t necessarily think that’s bad, but it does add to the perception of high art as being outside of society–something for the rich or the over-educated or the weird. This is the small subset of society that deems art important, but still regards it as nonessential. (If it’s something only for a few and not for everybody, it is not essential). When artists themselves contribute to the notion that art is not essential, they are self-defeating. This attitude contributes to the greater marginalizing of art in school curriculum, in federal and private funding, and in the place of art within culture. When budgets get slashed, the arts are the first to go, and when arts budgets get slashed, visual art is the hardest hit. Nobody complains about movie stars getting paid millions of dollars because their profession is culturally thought of as important (if not completely essential). The marginal position held by art leads to frustration and dismissal by a greater public who wants to know why any of their money (tax or otherwise) should go toward something “that my kid could do.” I’m not saying that we have to make Norman Rockwell/Thomas Kinkaide crap. I’m saying we have to meet the public halfway if we expect them to be willing to understand and support performance art or installations or interventions.

The intent of the artist has to be inclusivity, not exclusivity by power of opacity. This goes for arts patrons, too. I performed a satirical poem last Wednesday that was laden with metaphors. I purposely wrote the metaphors to not make any sense. Three people (the three people who had been to a national poetry slam and seen the precise kind of work I was satirizing) got the joke. On the one hand, the audience was all-too ready to look for and find meaning where there was none. On the other hand, my satire fell short, because there was a meaning: a critique of gratuitous metaphoric imagery.

The artist’s intent is made apparent through the presentation. If the intent is clear, the communication can be clear, too–even if that communication is open-ended.

Trull: In another post, you write that in modern world we can “communicate with everybody and yet we talk to nobody.” (Musing on Methods of Communication) Each successive advancement in communication makes our language more and more sterile, but our message remains just as human (though that’s debatable). I think this a great example of the logical extreme of the typical western understanding of noise. I would like to think that as artist we reject this sterilized conception and affirm a human condition, but how can we be sure? When does the intricacy and density of one’s message turn into a disordered clutter? Does a line even need to be drawn?

Grambo: I think I’ve addressed this a little bit in the previous answer. Too much intricacy, as you put it, leads to confusion. Reading even friendly correspondence from eras of flowery language drives me to distraction–it becomes tough to remember what the writer is trying to get across.

That said, your mention of advancing forms of communication as a contributor to noise brings another thought to mind. I can’t cite an author on this idea, though I’ll mention that it isn’t mine. The more freedom of speech we assert, the less we seem to be saying and the less communication seems to happen. It’s apparent in politics. Even in the age of up-to-the-minute twitter feeds acting as short news releases, nuances in politics in America get assigned to Right or Left. Once a given politician or person aligns him or herself with one side, the rhetoric becomes more and more shrill in order to try to be noticed above the din of similar soundbites. You get the mouth-foamers: Limbaugh on the Right, Maddow on the Left; Hannity and Olberman; Fox and MSNBC. While the two sides have plenty to say, they aren’t saying much of anything. Neither side listens to the other, and those in the middle are ignored on-air and alienated in their living rooms. For all the advancements in communication, American politics haven’t changed since the days of partisan newspapers and Tammany Hall.

To “affirm a human condition” in terms of communication, I think we have to communicate on a personal level. I think this happens in poetry. I think it happens in emails. I think it happens on Facebook and I think it can happen on twitter. I think that communication–that mutual creation of meaning–is art, so I think all of these are art. As before, intent is the key. If we seek to use these methods to include each other, we create art. If we create art, we are affirming the human condition.





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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