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.





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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