The Spoken Word Revolution
(slam, hip hop & the poetry of a new generation)
Edited by Mark Eleveld
Reviewed By C. J. Laity
Let's not forget what this book is. Even though it is called "The Spoken Word Revolution," it is not an all encompassing overview of the spoken word scene. Let's be honest. It is a pro-slam book in all its aspects, and we can expect every chapter, every argument and the selection of every poet in this book to not stray away from the mission of painting slam as the dominant form of poetry of our times. You won't find examples of spoken word in its truest sense, such as Lenny Bruce or Henry Rollins. Instead, the editor has pursued his Regie Gibson fetish (there are 15 full pages in this book dedicated to Gibson, a clear 6% of all the pages, and it is no secret why: Eleveld is the publisher of Gibson's first book) as well as his obsession with other slam stars. Neither will you find any deep insight about the "new generation" of poetry.
This hardcover book is designed like a textbook. It seems to be targeting a younger, more naÔve audience. Indeed, the red and gray graphics in this book remind me of Highlites magazine, something nearly every grade-schooler has enjoyed at one point or another. Yet the adult language in this book is not going to win any points in a grade-school classroom, and the history presented in this book is too transparently biased to convince any higher education program to pick this book up (not to forget the fact that the essays in this book are cruelly anti-academic). Who knows? Maybe this textbook is a prelude to a planned Slam University.
I find a lot of the commentary in this book disingenuous. Many of the introductions aren't even given author credit (I'm assuming the unsigned segments were written by Mark Eleveld himself). I wouldn't care about this, if these segments weren't so mean and slanderous. In the prologue, for example, the author gives a story about a panel discussion celebrating the anniversary of an unnamed magazine (probably Poetry Magazine). The author describes the panel members as having "their credentials resting high upon their shoulders," and describes slam founder Marc Smith as the "least important in these 'academic' terms." The book continues to suggest, without naming Parisi or Poetry Magazine, that these editors on the panel have "Ivy League pretensions" and are filled with "aristocratic bullshit." This is a terrible way to start a book which is suppose to celebrate a movement. It makes the movement appear to be nothing but a grudge against the magazine which rejected its founder. It also suggests "nobody wanted to go to poetry readings" before the slam was born: OH, COME ON! This book is filled with such sweeping, prejudice statements. As the highly publicized introduction by United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins makes clear, poetry readings have had a long history and tradition. Though Collins doesn't even mention the word "slam" once in his introduction, so his part of the book seems awkwardly shoved into the pages for nothing more than the sake of sales. Let us remember, slams are usually not poetry readings, but poetry performances. Let's not get the two things confused. A bad poem presented with hand gestures and emotional vocal inflections can go a long way in a slam competition performance.
In the introduction to the chapter "Youth Speaks" the (unnamed) author says:
We have not been able to do justice to this revolution in the limited space contained between the covers of this one book and one CD. This revolution is worldwide. It would require volumes to tell the complete tale.
Well, at least the editor could have tried. Instead, it seems, Eleveld was bent from the beginning on letting Marc Smith dictate who were the important people in the history of spoken word, and he seems too concerned with including all his friends to ever make this an objective book about the spoken word scene. Having Marc Smith advise you about how to document the spoken word scene is about as objective a course as asking Donald Rumsfeld to advise about the need for war.
I love Chicago, and I can't believe I'm even saying this, but Chicago is given too much credit in this book. Yes, a lot happened in Chicago. But this book makes it appear that nothing in the entire country happened in the last four decades outside of Chicago (save New Mexico, Boston and New York, which are depicted as being directly influenced by Chicago). Too bad the argument is not convincing, but this one sided history is given without any facts to back it up. Not even the material about Chicago itself is complete. Has the editor ever heard of The Guild Complex? Has the editor ever heard of Marvin Tate or Chuck Perkins? Maybe if so many pages weren't filled with irritating images, which look like they've come straight off a Xerox machine, there would be room for more actual poetry.
In the horribly incomplete section on "The Beat Remnants" there isn't even one female poet represented. It confuses the reader with contradictions, in one paragraph calling the beats "gritty, real, and revolutionary," and three paragraphs later calling the beats "safe and elitist." Which is it?
On Postmodernism and the beats: This new school of thought wanted to maintain that poems are well-constructed objects to be judged independent of anything else. In a way, the artists became the critics, the revolution an institution, and -- quite simply -- the young the old. Instead of art being an attempt to change social problems, or to evaluate the realities of existence, as modernism did, the value became the art in and of itself.
Yes! But within the context of this book it seems to suggest that slam poetry does "attempt to change social problems." No! Anyone on the outskirts of it can see that the slam scene has become even more elitist than the academic scene, its accepted styles even more strict and formulated than those of postmodernists, and its artists ten times as self absorbed as the beat poets were. I am reminded of a lyric by Pearl Jam: "If you don't like something, don't you do it too." This book itself, how it purports that the slam scene is the dominate scene of the day, how it says outright that "Allen Ginsberg's 1956 Gallery Six reading of Howl'" was "not a direct link in terms of style . . . in the importance of reading poetry aloud" shows how the anti-academics have become their own worst enemy. And why is Regie Gibson included in the "Beat Remnants" chapter?
Nor is the hip hop scene covered in any great detail. Instead of giving us the chance to actually read the lyrics of some of the fast moving words of rap, half of which normally escape us during oral presentation like intervals of darkness in a strobe light, we get, guess what, more slam poets: such as Tara Betts, or an anti-Israeli poem by Keven Coval which leaves one thinking, what the hell does this have to do with hip hop? Slam poets seem to be oblivious to the link between Mystical and James Brown, and, if it is not careful, slam poetry will fall victim to the same forces that turned the friendly "Rappers Delight" into the demented Insane Clown Posse. And, please, tell me, why is Regie Gibson included in the "hip hop" chapter?
The "Performance Art" chapter of this book is just as confused and incomplete. One would think, reading this chapter, that Lisa Buscani and Cin Salach had more to do with the performance art scene than Karen Finley or Laurie Anderson did. It's nice to support Chicago and believe this kind of thing in the privacy of our own home, but this is in print and will survive as a guide for the next generation, and, let's face it, it is simply not true. Instead of going into any intelligent analysis of what performance art is, the authors once again attempt to convince us that these revolutions--beat, hip hop and performance art alike--served only as small steps to the big goal: a poetry slam. The book takes potshots (in Jean Howard's never ending self promotional passage) at the Poetry Center of Chicago, putting the words "top name" poets in quotation marks as if being cynical about the quality of the Center's poets, yet not putting quotation marks around the words "groundbreaking performance art" when referring to slam poets. This tainted history of performance art could fit in a cracker jack box, and belongs there too. The four poets which supposedly represent the entire performance art scene of the eighties and nineties are: Cin Salach, Todd Alcott, Jean Howard and Lisa Buscani (all slam poets).
I'll say it again. This book is filled with sweeping, prejudice statements, such as calling non-slam poetry "boring" (we are to believe this because Andy Warhol said so). It criticizes postmodernism for giving "meaning to the form rather than the author" yet seems to be unaware that most slam poetry has absolutely no form at all, a practise which is just as radical, just as dangerous to the art of poetry. This book seems to have come out of a cave, never having learned that the Postmodern Era is over and that the Millennial Era has already begun, and that Slam Poetry is not the Millennial Era, but only one important part of it.
Onward we travel with the insults as we read this book, with an introduction to the chapter Poetic Pugilism, an unsigned paragraph calling the poetry of the 70s and 80s "stale" and "dried up." This paragraph claims that performance art gave birth to performance poetry. What? Who gave this author the power to mutilate history like this? Performance poetry was born a long, long time before the 1980s!! It goes on to say that the slam movement "resuscitated poetry." We are then given a much needed break in the madness with Jacobus' more complete essay about his version of how it all happened. That over thirty pages of this book are dedicated to the Taos Poetry Circus poets is the first sign someone was at least making an attempt at being honest. Indeed, without what was going on in the boxing rings between Jacobus and Codrescu in New Mexico, Marc Smith might never have been inspired to try a similar thing called the poetry slam at the Green Mill in Chicago.
That's the first half of the book.
The remaining half of this book (including more work by Regie Gibson) I give a big thumbs up to, as it finally gets to the point and concentrates on the slam scene, giving special attention to the Nuyorican Poets of New York. Luis J. Rodriguez gives a little history about the criticism which had been published in Letter eX in the early nineties. And there are some classic stories about the Uptown Poetry Slam as well. Finally, we are offered slam poetry which doesn't pretend it is something else. Absent of all the propaganda which has thus far attempted to convince us that none of us would be anywhere without the slam, we at least learn a little about the slam itself, though much of the narration continues to cling to the illusion that there is no poetry scene outside of the slam scene, and that without slam there would be no poetry readings in coffeehouses, bars and "on city stages." I guess if you never attend anything but slam readings it would appear to be that way.
If you are a fan of slam poetry you should buy this book for its second half, and take the first half with a grain of salt. The book comes with a really good CD narrated by Marc Smith, which places slam poetry where it belongs, in the air instead of on the page, and since good CDs usually cost about $15 these days, I figure the second half of this textbook is worth the remaining $10 of the $25 total this project will run you. If you don't want to buy it, wait until it comes to your local library and then check it out. Know, though, that many of the poems contained in this book have already been repeatedly published elsewhere, so, though you will find yourself with a nifty trick, don't expect any real magic. And, with an epilogue which begins "there were three bums sitting outside the door," donít expect this to be anything sensitive to anybody's feelings except those of the slam stars hungry for another fifteen minutes. . . . and, of course, expect a lot of Regie Gibson.
--C. J. Laity
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Note: C. J. Laity takes an advanced peek at "The Spoken Word Revolution" -- a new book from the creators of "Poetry Speaks." This review is now in its final version.