I ducked into the derelict back-room space of the Rivoli restaurant in Toronto, one recent wintry eve, for the launch of Word Up. Subdued celebrants nursed bottles of Upper Canada and nibbled herbed foccaccio as six of the anthology's twenty-four poets took to the stage to present a sample of their work. Shafiq strutted his stuff midway through the set. The young, black, gay, Caribbean-born, Torontonian is, perhaps, the consummate exponent of "the spoken word". (His biography in Word Up reads: "Another `queer' African man [who] owns his space with no hint of an apology, and no silly phobic fear of what Louis Farrakhan has to say about it. The man will wake you up, sex you down, and take you for a ride into the twenty-first century.") Shafiq calls himself a "Per-4-mance Poet", and can be seen around town doing "jazz poetry" to the music of a band called Project 9. He appeared on the Rivoli's stage dressed in an army jacket and ski pants, his medium-length dreadlocks captured in a topknot ponytail. He chanted, "Breath/Word/Body," while painting his mouth with black lipstick.
"Spoken word poetry" is a loosely defined genre that embraces an array of styles and forms. It encompasses traditional, modern poetry; sound, concrete, and language poetry; Jamaican dub and rap poetry; as well as performance art, dramatic monologues, rock and roll, and stand-up comedy routines. Jill Battson, the Toronto-based poet, producer, and film-maker, who, along with the poet Ken Norris, edited the Word Up collection, says, "A spoken word poet is a poet who performs her or his work." The nature of that performance, however, may vary widely.
Spoken word poets see their work as arising from, and being informed by, the oral traditions of a multitude of cultures. They believe their work is thus more "alive" and possesses greater authenticity than what they call "page poetry" (poetry written to be read off a page). Concurrently, they view themselves as standing outside the confines of a largely academic poetry establishment. Here is a paragraph from Jill Battson's introduction:
"Spoken word artists are returning poetry to its oral roots. Poets were traditionally the storytellers of our societies, the newscasters of their times, whether your culture was Chinese or French. All that changed when poetry fell into the hands of the academics. White, middle class, privileged men imprisoned the living word in books and anthologies and set the precedent for poetry as high art. It stayed that way until the 40s when the Beats paved the way for a new kind of writing, attempting to free the word with music and rhythm, making a significant wrench in the stranglehold of academia."
Battson's one-paragraph, mini-history is absurdly simplistic. (How do the sacred poetic texts of the Old Testament, or the Ramayana, say, fit into her schema?) She would probably argue that I'm quibbling. I've met her several times. She's brash, brainy, energetic, and capable. (In Toronto, she organizes the Poet's Refuge, a series of readings that takes place once a month at the Free Times Café; in 1994, she set the stage for Wordapalooza, a poetry "slam", or poetry-writing competition, at Lollapalooza, a rock-concert extravaganza; and for two years running, she has produced the city's week-long "Festival of The Spoken Word.") She is also savvy about the media: she knows how to give good copy, and her introduction to Word Up, the first book of poetry put out by Key Porter Books, will undoubtedly help it sell.
The anthology has a particular history: In 1993, Battson approached Denise Donlon, the director of music programming for CITY TV's MuchMusic, with an idea she had, originally for promoting her own work. She contended that MuchMusic could foment and capitalize on "the spoken word thing." (While what they are doing is not new-Homer's epics may have been written to be recited on a stage-spoken words artists have, in the 1990s, spearheaded a popular resurgence in the live reading and recitation of poetry.) After much discussion, MuchMusic contracted Battson to produce forty-three Word Up! poetry videos, to be aired in regular rotation with the station's musical offerings by such bands as Nirvana, Hole, and Counting Crow.
Each of the minute-long segments features a Canadian, British, or American poet reading, or reciting, a single work in his or her own inimitable style. The poets are shot using props and in settings of their own choosing: New York's Bob Holman, for example, bops around a supermarket wearing black-framed Elvis Costello glasses and an old black hat. Staring into the video cam, he deadpans his two-lined, spoken word classic, "Post Modern Lovers". ("In order to save our relationship/we will never see each other again.") Montreal's Julie Bruck coolly reads her poem "Car Alarm" seated in the driver's seat of a silver Mercedes Benz convertible. Toronto's Courtnay McFarlane recites "Wail", fingering a string of cowrie shells like a rosary.
The videos are replete with split-screen images, double exposures, and nervous, jumpy frames. They look like low-budget and slightly amateurish versions of their more commercial musical counterparts. I found it ironic to learn that, despite the self-consciously hip and irreverent stance of most of the poets, the videos were partially funded by the state-by the federal government's literacy secretariat. (I wonder what the response of MuchMusic fans would be, knowing that the Word Up! videos were part of a "government plot" to improve their minds.) When interviewed in The Globe and Mail, in July 1994, Jill Battson came across with the earnestness of an inner-city social-worker. "After five Megadeth videos, it's good to have these spoken word segments come up," she said. "It's trying to help keep kids reading after a steady diet of TV."
Given Battson's obvious talent for promotion, it is not surprising that the spoken word videos have inspired other projects. Following upon their production, Battson went on to produce, along with Geoff Kulawick, a CD, also entitled Word Up. The comprehensively packaged disc was released by Virgin Music Canada early in 1995. Having finished the CD, Battson then played an instrumental role in the publication of Word Up, Spoken Word Poetry in Print. The anthology features twenty-four of the same Canadian and American poets spotlighted by the videos and the CD. I applaud Key Porter for recognizing that Canadian poets work in an international context.
Word Up is fittingly slick. Its electric-kool-aid orange jacket seems peeled off the pages of Wired. Inside, the graphic design attests to the fact that the personality of a spoken word poet is integral to his or her work. The first of each set of contributions is accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of the poet and a (sometimes entertaining) biography. We learn, for example, that Toronto's Nancy Dembowski "has been a secretary for Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey, and has also sold cemetery plots." (I don't know why the photograph of Jelani Nias is missing. A production oversight?)
No matter how clever the packaging, however, Word Up remains exactly what it is: a book. And there is, of course, an inherent danger in setting down spoken word poems into print, in, as Jill Battson writes, "imprisoning the living word." The action gives rise to an obvious question. Can these poems-severed from the charismatic delivery of their authors-engage and sustain a reader's interest?
Well, as might be expected, some do, and some do not.
The poems are presented according to the alphabetical order of the contributors' last names. The anthology thus begins with "Grandmothers", a poem by Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan, "residing near Penticton, B.C." "Grandmothers", is, in essence, a nature poem (My goodness! Nature! The favoured subject of a bevy of dead, white, men.) In it, the poet links her consciousness with an eternal consciousness of all natural things, animated by the spirits of female ancestors: "I lift my eyes/ and know I am seed/ and shooting green/ and words/ in this hollow/ I am night glittering/ the wind and silence/ I am vastness/ stretching to the sun." Armstrong's relationship with nature is, no doubt, informed by her heritage; it also shows the influence of the English romantics. "Grandmothers" is a good poem, lyrical and passionate. Her last two poems, "Overheard" and "On Mahka Land", deal successfully with a similar theme.
Most spoken word poets, however, are resolutely urban, and the genre has flourished in the Bohemian quarters of big-city centres. It is, perhaps, not surprising then that the natural world is almost absent from Word Up. I had previously thought, however, that the anthology's poets might address issues concerning the destruction of the environment. That subject-matter only appears in the work of the New York poet, John Giorno. In "Berlin & Chernobyl", he writes about the Ukraine's nuclear accident. It's one of the anthology's better poems and appears, line by line, in English and French, spilling down the page like a Rorschach ink-blot design. In "Exiled in Domestic Life", he sets down that "A hundred/ million/ years ago,/ the geophysical/ adjustments/ that made petroleum/ from primordial/ forests,/ maybe 100 million/ years from now,/ will transform/ the plastic/ in our garbage/ into something/ better than/ diamonds." The idea expressed, here, however, is not linked to the rest of the poem, which is absurd and banal.
A representative number of spoken word poets, John Giorno included, identify themselves as members of groups marginalized by "mainstream society", as African, gay, lesbian, or First Nation. Many of the poems in Word Up reflect outright the identities and special concerns of their makers. Courtnay McFarlane, for example, describes himself as "black, gay, Jamaican-born, Canadian-raised, and African-identified." One of his two poems, "Because", is a strong, confessional piece that records his "coming out", both sexually and artistically. "Eaton's Catalogue", from "Growing Up Suite" by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, also chronicles the poets' discovery of their sexuality. It is a good poem: at turns, humorous, irreverent, poignant, and highly evocative of adolescence.
Though what turned me on then,
In 1968, in Scarborough,
Was the Eaton's catalogue:
Ten pages of ladies wearing
Lingerie that resembled architecture
Covered in buckles and zippers and snaps,
Industrial strength underwear
Concealing body parts I did not even have,
Body parts so powerful
They needed hardware to keep them in place.
I don't think the duo's two other contributions to Word Up are as accomplished. "What does a Lesbian Look Like?" is entertaining, but too didactic. The two prose poems from Mermaid in Love are mired in the mundane. They suffer, as do other poems in the anthology, from a paucity of vocabulary.
It's probably difficult for gay and lesbian poets to write about sex in the 1990s without addressing the issue of AIDS, and a number of poets in this anthology indeed do. McFarlane's poem about the disease, taken from "Catharsis", is both angry and elegiac, and employs the rhythms of a rap. Stronger stuff still is the "Diary of a Trademark" by the Montreal-born Ian Stephens. It begins prophetically: "It is an error to attempt to absent oneself from horror/ because the horror swirls around anyway/ even if one isn't in the high-risk group." The triumph of evil and death is symbolized in the Biblical refrain, "The snake sings." Jill Battson's own "In Summer" stands in contrast with these pieces. It is unexpectedly sensuous and ends with an affirmation of life.
Along with a significant number of poems by gays and lesbians, Word Up includes contributions from spoken word poets who identify themselves as African. Several of these poets, including Dasez, of New York City, and Toronto-based Jelani Nias, are "hip hop" artists. Hip hop, according to the journalist Steven Hager, is an inner city subculture, originating in the Bronx, out of which arose interconnecting forms of graphic art, dances, fashions, and musical styles-rap music foremost among them.
Rap dates back to the 70s. During that time, the freelance deejay, "an independent entrepreneur armed with a portable sound system and extensive record collection", emerged as a cultural hero. Deejays like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash acquired their celebrity status by throwing dance parties in the recreation rooms of the projects. They knew how to whip a crowd up into a frenzied peak.
In the late 1970s, the deejays came upon the idea of hiring emcees to talk over the music and (if possible) excite the crowd further. Kool Herc himself (who had come to the Bronx from Jamaica as a child) began reciting rhymes. He had been inspired by a 1973 recording, called "Hustler's Convention", written and performed by Jalal Uridin, the leader of a group of black militant ex-cons, known as the Last Poets. On his record, Uridin performed twelve numbers (including "Four Bitches Is What I Got" and "Sentenced to the Chair") known as "toasts", which, in these cases, glorified the criminal life of the hustler. The toast is an elastic form of folk poetry and poetic story-telling, originally arising from the oral traditions of West Africa. There, the art form is in the purview of the "griot", a nomadic musician-poet-story-teller-historian-shaman.
The rapper (along with the Jamaican dub poet and Trinidadian Calypsonian) is, in essence, one of the many incarnations of the griot. Intrinsic to his poetry is an inventive use of slang, the percussive effect of short words, and unexpected internal rhymes. The classic "gangsta rap" of Public Enemy and Ice T, celebrates the ghetto culture of the braggadoccio. It's masculine, violent, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic. The rap poetry presented in the anthology, Word Up, however, reflects the more socially conscious stream of rap (performed by artists like Kurtis Blow) that arose in reaction to gangsta rap. It opposes violence and salutes black pride. Consider Jelani Nias's protest against consumerism, "Grabbing Onto That Credit Line (Making Me Drown)":
While Consumers consumes and Bloomingdale
And boom boxes boom Black mankind faces doom
You see it's more than a card it's White money
As addictive as crack still sweeter than honey
Step back-and check that product called African
When it really should be called African exploitation
Since it's all run by the Aryan nation-no
The twenty-two-year-old Mansa's poem, "And Look What The Future Has Wrought", is not as traditional a rap as the poems of Jelani Nias. But it is an appealing piece about what women, in general, and black women, in particular, have to suffer through in order to please a man.
Commentators have likened spoken word artists (who integrate poetry and music) to the American Beat poets of the 1950s. The Beats were modern mystics, whose prophetic and apocalyptic visions pointed out the insignificance of wealth and the dehumanization of life in the prosperous post-war years. Many spoken word artists similarly protest against the world in which they live. But the Beats also believed it necessary to embark upon a personal quest. During this quest, they confronted their own demons, as part of a process of psychic transformation. In Word Up, only the three poems by Nancy Dembowski, "Tenor Sax", "Living With Shirley in Georgetown", and "Despite Everything" seem "beatific". All are poems of initiation. Their long, lyrical lines, while not as heightened, are reminiscent of the work of Allen Ginsberg.
Many of the poems collected in Word Up are too ironic, cynical, or nihilistic to have been inspired by The Beats. Take a look at "Cake", the absurd poem by Brooklyn's Todd Colby, for example: "I'm so full of cake/ If I ate anymore cake/ I'd have to vomit first/ I could eat a cake a day..." Or read his "Another Kiss Poem". Or read all of the ironic contributions by the Toronto rocker, Robert Priest, or by Lori Weidenhammer, a performance artist from Cactus Lake Saskatchewan. (Her last poem begins: "You know, I've been thinking, dear. I need a holiday... from misogyny.") None of these poets are seeking to write works that are transformative or transcendent. They are too cool to express passion.
I find a fair number of the poems in Word Up too direct: neither illusive or allusive. They don't make good enough use of a poet's primary tool, metaphor. They don't reward repeated readings. Out of curiosity, I showed the anthology to my seventeen-year-old baby-sitter. I am not sure if Maria can be described as a typical teenager. She is the dutiful daughter of Old World parents and attends a Catholic high school. She likes watching the Toronto Maple Leafs and The Blue Jays on TV. I don't think she has "discovered boys." Maria said she liked Word Up because she could understand what these poets were talking about. She said she would rather be studying it than her current English-course requirement, Wuthering Heights. Perhaps the makers of this anthology do have a good understanding of how to promote literacy in Canada.