Verse, Chorus, Verse
WHAT IF MUSICIANS actually wanted their audiences to respect them as poets? Maybe Jewel wouldn't have embarrassed herself by misspelling Charles Bukowski in the introduction to her A Night Without Armor volume of verse. Perhaps R&B divas would find themselves singing Shakespeare's "Hey nonny, nonny" instead of "Shoop, shoop, shoop/Shoo be doop." Maybe high school English classes would be asked to write essays contemplating Heidegger's notion of poetry as the root of the self by interpreting the line "Won't the real Slim Shady please stand up?"
If that old saw about musicians being frustrated poets is apt, then its reverse is also true. Local performers e.g. bailey and Shá Cage are spoken-word poets whose attachment to the sounds of speech leads them to identify themselves as musicians. In this mode, Cage and bailey have recently compiled a CD of spoken-word artists and music entitled Words Will Heal the Wound (Speakeasy Records) that aspires to trace the origin of poetry back to its musical roots.
(Were you now sitting nearby, you might have heard the phlegmy melody of my throat being cleared--though have no fear: This is not the part of the column in which your narrator becomes Samuel Taylor Coleridge, passes you an opium pipe, and launches into a longwinded diatribe about the history of poetry. This is the part where she realizes that poetry is concise, that readers have short attention spans, and that she can jump, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure-style, through four continents and 2,500 years in only 150 words!)
In ancient Greece, poets like Sappho performed their lyric poetry to the music of the lyre. The griots of Africa included oral histories along with drum recitals. Tenth-century Japanese court poet Fujiwara no Kinto wrote Sanjurokunin sen about poets who performed their works competitively while paying particular attention to sound. (Behold: the original slam champions!)
As in these other traditions, many spoken-word poets combine music and poetry with commentary about identity politics: New York City's the Last Poets (who were considered--along with Gil Scott-Heron and Iceberg Slim--to be the progenitors of rap) and members of the Black Arts Movement (Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, etc.) performed charged commentaries about institutional racism. When Miguel Algarín helped to open the Nuyorican Poets Café in the early Nineties, he did so in order to create a forum for New York Puerto Ricans and other marginalized groups to detail their experiences.
Though the sound of rhythmic speech and the literal meaning of the words would seem to be complementary, the two have often clashed in a competition as fierce as the rowdiest slam. Maggie Estep once reigned as queen of the slam with her "I Want to Be a Flight Attendant" soliloquy, but she ended up performing in a nasal whine on MTV, reciting works that would have been far less annoying in written form. Soon, Mike Myers was parodying spoken word in So I Married an Axe Murderer (chanting "Woman. Wo-Man. Whoa, Man!" to a café filled with mug-hugging beatniks). And every coffee shop seemed to have some Ani Difranco or Michael Franti look-alike Talking. Like. This: breaking up his or her words melodramatically and overemphasizing all of the wrong syllables just for cheap effect.
With all of this obsessing over sound, spoken word seems to have been degraded as a meaningful art form. bailey worries that because of spoken word's recent downturn in popularity, people will discount it as a bygone trend. "A lot of people think that spoken word got accepted as a legitimate art form when slam poetry started to get popular. But the truth is that it is still a marginalized form of poetry," he says. bailey--who started performing spoken word with Sirius B., a black poetry collective that performed in the same arenas as Jim Carroll and Lydia Lunch--believes that releasing a spoken-word compilation on CD rather than in a book like Aloud!: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Café is also important: "You can't present something in a written document and still consider it an oral art form," he says.
Cage agrees. "Can you imagine [local spoken word artist] Truth Maze writing down his poetry?" she laughs. "It would look something like Clack doong, bah shaow."
While spoken-word events still buzz at isolated venues like Sursumcorda and the Artists' Quarter, Cage and bailey have compiled Words Will Heal the Wound to help put spoken-word artists in contact with one another. The CD includes performances by artists such as Desdamona, Sister Mimi, and ANIKA, and sets many compositions to music. Thien-Bao Phi speaks about Vietnamese families with a little help from Truth Maze's beatbox performance. Meena Natarajan reads traditional Tamil poetry while Nirmala Rajasekar sings an Indian ballad in the background. Slug raps nakedly, without the aid of a hip-hop beat.
Perhaps, at the upcoming release party this Monday, your novice self can participate with these local spoken-word masters. Bring this article along and read it aloud IN the...MoST unusual...caDENCE POSSible! I'll be right there behind you sticking pushpins into a tiny Henry Rollins doll.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.