Beating Dead Poets
(for Fun and Profit)
You may not have realized it but the literary rapture has already come and gone. Oh, and by the way, some of you didn’t make the cut. Indeed, you missed that divine A-Train Ascension to deity status. Missed your chance to sit just to the right of He who controls the almighty microphone. Granted, some supplicants make it, but of course there are all those lesser scribes left behind. Left to shamble from shadow to shadow; stage to stage; coffee house to coffee house. And just listen to their lamentations: “Excuse me. Um…excuse me. Could you put my name on the list? Any chance I could read tonight?”
I guess you could say that ‘divinity’ (or lack thereof) might be a metaphor for the performance poetry scene here in Nebraska, but it sure conveys a bitter assessment. And lo, but when you’ve come to accept your lot in life, who’s to say you don’t enjoy your sub-seraphim designation? “Dude! Listen. I didn’t even get on the list! I’m sooo far more ‘beat’ than you will ever be!” And with that, it’s pretty easy to grab your beret, bongos and bottle of sour grape, slink away into a dark corner, and self indulge a mighty fine whine.
Okay. Granted, that was a piss-poor ‘Beat’ analogy. Let’s try again.
Before I step too far into a critique of performance poetry, I feel it is important to acknowledge the existence of poets who have never stood before a microphone, and possess no intent at ever doing so. Poets who are perfectly happy to have their outpour of inner thought exist upon paper without delusion that anyone would ever care to utter it aloud. For instance, some single mother who’s only intended audience is the future eyes of that adult her daughter or son will one day become. Or more sadly, that office clerk who upon his death will have an entire unseen life’s verse tossed into a dumpster. A legacy destined for landfill.
At least those of us who once stood upon stage will have had our voices heard, but please note that, listened to is an entirely different matter. Whether our presence was actually noted by those at assorted tables, shuffling their own stack of poems, is the true gauge of just how truly visible or invisible you are. Am I the only one to note how you can walk away from the stage to a round of courtesy applause and still wonder at whether my words have actually registered?
Slam poetry versus straight open mic. There. I’ve said it. Lines are formed; factions joined. Oh, we stand there smiling at each other, but full well know that everybody in attendance has their pockets full of rocks.
Permit me a further caustic clarification by way of cold war simile.
Slam Poetry? Slam Poetry is like Capitalism, whereas with straight open mic, you’ve got Socialism.
‘Isms’ in poetry? Here. Let me elucidate you. You’ve got your poets. You’ve got your coffeehouse. You’ve got your alpha-poet and coffeehouse owner who in the tradition of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, come to the epiphany of “Hey! Let’s put on a show!” They let their presence be known and like bugs to a porch light, the tables are soon laminated with sheaves of poems all angled and arrayed perpendicular towards mecca. And yes, Mecca in this case is better pronounced ‘microphone’.
Will you get your chance to stand before that mic and face the crowd? Well, your name was put on the list wasn’t it? The Earth rotates and our Sun consistently rises upon distant horizon. You put your name on the list; your horizon at the mic is inevitable. Do you deserve to be up there? Well of course. This is Socialism. We are all the same. There is no good. There is no bad. This is not to say the audience won’t experience some amazing poetry transpiring there at the mic. It will. It will also experience mind numbing banality. It will experience excruciating discomfort. Some of that by way of a well written poem done well. Some of that by a very bad poem done poorly. It will be a manic depressive bi-polar roller coaster ride that pretty much mirrors life, and if you ain’t up for that, then you have to wonder whey you’re involved in poetry at all.
Now in contrast, walk across the street into the Capitalist world of Slam Poetry and everything is Rodeo Drive. Or perhaps Wal-Mart. Pick your analogy. Glitz or bargain bin, these poems have mass market appeal. This is America after all and by God, the customer is always right. At a Slam event, every poet is a commodity and that audience out there is all about assessing value.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! What would you give for this fine set of three minute stone washed jeans?” And there in the front row we have a query. “Um… Is that Kerouc denim or W.H. Auden? Bukowski or e. e. cumming?” And with a mighty huffing from our emcee, “Sir. Madam. If you have to ask, you can’t afford the ridicule. No matter. We must have your hyper-critical/knee-jerk/astute valuation NOW.”
And let’s face it: in the Capitalist world of Slam Poetry, for one poem to achieve value, some other commodity has to be de-valued, right? You won’t find Jesus or Buddha in the world of Slam Poetry. No meek inheriting the earth. No. This is the realm of Charles Darwin. Capitalist survival of the profit test. Wrap your easily digestible rabid revelation in a three minute package and pray that the stage upon which you display it will provide favorable lighting. Three minutes to shine with full knowledge that every second beyond that limit your poem is exposed to such brutal light, it wilts. At three minute plus one second, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg succumb to entropy. Alas, a certain literary DNA spiral breaks down and dissolves, and there in the back of the coffeehouse, someone raises a stopwatch to proclaim, “Yo, dude and dudette! You suck!” And lo but Walt and Allen satchel their weighty tomes and slink away to hide in the shadows.
In their stead, the fruit of the MTV Generation send forth their token crank cased spark plugs of attention deficit overload to mount the aerie stage. Ecstasy-eyed splice hip-hop tongue tied, they deliver a 9.9 poem at two minutes fifty-nine, and somewhere deep underground Edgar Allen Poe cuts the string to his mausoleum’s bell, because he’s pretty damn sure he’s finally dead.
But wait… If I’m gonna name drop Poe, I might as well drop the name dropper of all name droppers: Truman Capote. Wasn’t it he who was not the one to sigh and bluntly lisp, “Um… That ain’t writing. That’s just shouting”?
Well pardon my slam.
©06 Jack Hubbell