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


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.

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