Poets' Summit Interview Part II

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I wanna represent the people who don't slam. Cuz I have never slammed. I have never in my life got up there and fuckin' slammed or competed at anything that has to do with poetry...

Aaron Shuman

Thursday, August 23 2001, 4:39 PM


Continued from Part I

Aya: Well, wait a minute. If we're gonna be real, I have an agent. I make about half my money as a poet.

Paul: You just said half.

Marcel: For me, I make all my money being me, Marcel. I make hella money just bein' what I'm doin'. It ain't got nothing to do with presenting myself to people. It's every aspect of who I am and what I do creatively. I'm a self-capitalizing system, I guess. What I would recommend for the poetry scene is, first off, unity. But then once we begin to get money, we circulate it. I hire Bamuthi and break Bamuthi off $400 to come through, Bamuthi break that same $400 off to Aya and so on, until that $400 comes back to me.

It's this type of circulatin' the dollar within the same community that begins to build it up. Cuz you got money coming in to the system, and we're not letting it out. But the only way that's gonna happen is if we communicate and we really start dealing with each other on a more serious level.

Charles: Perhaps this is a good point for slam. I spend up to $400 a night paying talent at my show and paying myself a little bit. That's money going into our community that I'm putting into the poets' pockets. And it's coming from an audience.

Sonia: Financially, I don't have any gain in the Oakland Slam. But from slamming on a team in 1999, I got features, paying features; it started off as $100 for one poem. And I said, ok, I can offer this to other poets. They can get this type of recognition from slammin; they can make some money offa this. And that's why I continue to do it. Because each year, I create a forum where people can see them and say "Oh my god they're good; let me bring them here."

Aya: Many of us play many roles. Some of us are artists; some of us are producing; some of us are promoting.

It's not just about money coming in to us, though. The Second Sunday Slam and the Strictly Slam Slam also bring money to the next generation, because proceeds of those go to support Youth Speaks. It's important to see the way that we are moving money around within the community from an audience that really is varied and diverse.

The good news about slam being hot right now is that those events are able to bring in cash money for Youth Speaks. The pie is expanding now, so we can get featured artists paid. And those of us who may have been artists can start thinking about producing and promoting as a way to make money for ourselves, expose folks coming up, and get them paid as well.

Charles: And then people have to move from slam to formats like what you all have created. A slam cannot exist by itself in isolation. Its community has to be deeper, and the only reason why slams can do so well is because events like yours exist.

Paul: I wanna represent the people who don't slam. Cuz I have never slammed. I have never in my life got up there and fuckin' slammed or competed at anything that has to do with poetry. I've been a writer for a long time. I have made my life off of this. BUT money has always been a question in my life. How am I gonna get artists and live? How am I gonna write and live? I don't know poets who get into slams for the money. They get into it for the ego, for getting that fuckin' appreciation or to be somebody. Fuck a $60 winning fee; that ain't gonna pay you shit. I'm sorry to be rude, but։ don't slam.

But I do wanna say that there are a lot of people who believe that you have to slam in order to get an audience. They believe you have to slam in order to be respected as a poet. To tell you the truth, I never thought that slam people were real poets. I thought the real poets were the people who hung out in their rooms and wrote serious shit, who almost didn't wanna share their stuff. But then I realized that was institutionalized: be the academic poet, and write all this shit that nobody is ever gonna hear.

I went to school for poetry, and I saw all these people, writing this supposedly political stuff. Political, but no one...

Sonia: Is ever gonna hear it.

Paul: Is ever gonna hear it. That's when I realized there was a difference between those poets, and the democratic poetry that you have to get up and share in front of people and actually show your ideas. There are people who preach this revolution on the page, and those who actually try to get out there and share it. So I tried to find my way to do that. But I didn't want to compete. I just said, "Look, you gonna give me a chance to spit on the mike, I'll go up there and read a poem. If you don't like what I do, then don't invite me back.nd that's fine.

What I do to make money is that I work. Just like Marcel said about sharing people's $400, I try to create that environment where people who come to my events are gonna get paid. I want the artists to feel like they are valued. Whether they get a million people applauding them or not; whether they come with some brand new shit that nobody knows or understands; or they come through and do everybody's favorites, they're gonna get paid.

When I [was] at [SF] State, they would ask me, "Paul, you're about to graduate from the creative writing program; go talk to these young people about what to do with your creative writing degree after you're done." I'm like "I don't know what to do with it after I'm done!" [Laughter] What are you gonna do? Well, you gotta hustle. You got to find out what you wanna do and who you really are. Then you go out and do it.

I can't be who I am without these folks. I can't have good events unless these people participate, unless these people keep writing, unless these people keep performing. And I think that unity is already built inside this scene, with or without the fucking slam. It was there before slam got big.

Sonia: That's what I was talking about. Slam just brought a bigger audience, but there was a great scene here before slam. Maybe it didn't get the same amount of people, but the work was great. I think the work isn't as great as it used to be.

Bad: Why?

Sonia: I would say the competitive spirit. It takes a lot of people away from dealing with the true emotions, the things that people are really dealing with inside. Most of the slam poems that I don't like are comedy. There's a lot of stand-up comedians posing as poets. [Hmmm]

Bamuthi: It's the same concept at work on the stage in that there's an audience that is just turning off one sitcom and turning on another, and the stage for them means an escape. That really speaks to a particular worldview. I'm not one, probably to a fault, to categorize. I feel like I fit in to many different categories that others impose, but I don't sit on the fence; I know where I am. And I also know what my worldview is.

For many of us, there is no separation between what you speak and what you are and how you live, and there's a different kind of urgency in the work. You can construe some kind of context in which your work is a political manifesto, but ultimately the shit might be comedy. At the end of your poem, if the world isn't different, it's not gonna move you right or left. If these words aren't spoken, if I don't connect to you, if I don't physically move you, then I'm not doing my job and there really isn't a purpose to the work. Even though the words might mean something to you, you really don't give a fuck about what they might mean to me. At that point, it's clearly an act of masturbation, and you have wasted my time, as opposed to "These words mean a lot to me, and I need them to mean something to you, and that's why I'm here." That's when you construct community.

The kids and I talked today about what the artist's responsibility is. The concepts that kept coming up were truth, integrity, enacting social change, social commentary, et cetera. They understand at this young age what the responsibility is: the artist is essentially a community servant, which is why the artist needs to get paid.

BS: How would you define that responsibility to the community? Many of you have a very specific concept of what it means to be a poet and why that requires you to fill a particular role. A lot of you get involved in journalism, and there's the famous quote about rap being "the black CNN." To what extent do you see poetry serving a truth telling function like journalism? Do you see poetry as an alternative CNN?

Bamuthi: I think that's too broad, and too idealistic. It would be not only the responsibility but the manifestation of most artists if we'd accept it. But I believe that most artists don't accept it, so that's too grand of a title. At this point, hip-hop is not the CNN of the black community. I think that Chuck D's comment, ten, fifteen years ago...

BS: 1989.

Bamuthi: "Nineteen eighty nine! The number! Another summer!" And boom! I felt like that was it.

I don't know what happened between '89 and '90. I don't know what happened after Do the Right Thing. And Do the Right Thingmight have happened, you know what I'm sayin'? And we all got stuck on Oprah between Martin's quotation and Malcolm X's quotation. And it's like, "Man, did you see two hours of brilliant-ass film? Do you see all that heat? Did you feel that shit?" No, we got stuck on the quotations. And, "Would you have thrown it if you were Mookie?" It became a hypothetical question.

When anything becomes hypothetical, it becomes a head game. It's philosophy, and it's no longer a matter of reality; it's not changing ideology. Most importantly, it's not changing the way we move, and the way we operate. I applaud the people in this room, because not only are we all artists, but we're all organizers, and I think that's it. It's not going to be what's said on the stage. It's going to be in the actions of the folks that create these forums. But the question is whether the organizers are providing forums in which change can happen. Are the organizers the agents of social change? I just don't feel like I can depend on most poets to do that. Who I can rely on is the youth.

Cuz the shit that kids are speaking, I know changes older people's minds about how they livin'. I know folks walk outta there, and go into work, and shit is just different after that; they contemplate things differently. And if anything's gonna move, it starts with young people. That's our primary responsibility: to create forums and environments that are safe enough for them to thrive, and for folks to relate back to them. Its much less "Are we the CNN?" Its "Are we the accurate classroom, the safe classroom for all types of thinking?" I want the safe environment to think.

Aya: CNN as a metaphor is about watching television, which is the ultimate passivity. I've been sitting with this Howard Zinn quote, something like "The purpose of political art is to move people to action." And I just want to put the period sooner and say the purpose of political art is to move people.

I come to being a poet after being an activist for almost twenty years and being a healer and a counselor, and working with people in trouble. Politically, people are very numb, and I think folks can spit a lot of loud, angry, political poetry, and people kind of nod in a dazed way with their eyes glassed over. Part of what I'm working with in my poems is how to create messages that through humor or metaphor, penetrate beyond that, so people can feel awake and connected to the world, and hopefully, are moved to action.

I heard somebody say that in art, people are either trying to heal themselves or to heal other people. And I try to do that with my work. Either I'm expressing something about myself that I hope people will resonate with, or I'm making an offering to the audience of something they need. Cuz people come to poetry events needing something. They may not always be aware of what they're needing. But people need some connectedness; people need some level of validation; people need some affirmation. And I try and do that in a way that people get what they need. Not necessarily what they always wanted, but what they needed.

Paul: I'll speak from a very Chicano perspective, because Chicanos aren't represented in the mainstream. We don't even have no fuckin' CNN; man, we ain't got nothing about no news. We don't see each other in the media; we don't hear each other on the radio; they don't even have a salsa station on the motherfucker. [Laughter]

We are our only source of information. We don't have any other person to look at except for ourselves. So when I work with my group, Los Delicados, we see it as a job, to have to go and tell stories about what's happened around us to the folks who don't hear it. That means telling about what's happening in our neighborhoods. If we don't tell our folks what's happening, either they're not gonna know, or they're gonna get lied to about it.

I see it as a duty to a certain extent, to create some sort of dialogue around these issues. Now I'm not tryin' to go out there and say, "I'm the one who knows the truth." But I do know the story, and I do know this has happened over and over and over again. I do know that nobody's writin' shit about it in the paper; nobody's putting it on TV; who's gonna talk about it?

With Delicados, we go everywhere to spread the word. What people do about it is something different. What I have seen lately is that they start feeling these young people with a lot of energy to change things, and they start their own shit. They get their own open mikes goin'; they get their own political organizations goin'. So if that's happenin', and it happens from the influence that my group brings to some community, then I am doing my job. If it doesn't happen, at least there's one or two people that walk away sayin' "Fuck, we gotta do something."

Even though I write from who I am and what I feel first, my duty is to talk about my fuckin' community. That's all I fuckin' know.

Sonia: That's what I feel too. That's why I got upset because I have a duty to express what I see and why it bothers me, and [to] attack it. I try to attack it from just saying what it is. I don't necessarily say what the solution is. Sometimes I don't know the solution. But saying what is, that's my job. I have my one poem/piece that took me a long time to perform. It deals with a certain type of brother, and that's the piece I had the most issues with. I felt like I could never do the piece in Dorsey's Locker, because I'm talking about the people in the audience.

Marcel: They the ones that should be hearin' it.

Sonia: And I thought I couldn't perform it in front of white people, cuz I'm talking about black people in front of white people. So I had this poem, that people from either side consider brilliant now. And it was just funny.

Aya: A lot of times, our best work is the work that we feel most uncomfortable about. [Laughter] When we break out of our own boxes 󠬩ke I'm the political poet! I'm the funny poet! I'm the down poet! I'm the I'm-so-black poet! And then you read some piece that's out of character for you, sometimes that can be really deep.

It's also really important for us to fucking play. We have to be able to be playful with our art, to avoid getting burnt out. Without necessarily selling out to the cheap laugh or the stand up act to amuse people. There's a freedom when I'm familiar enough with a piece that I can put it down and play with it. Like I have a playpen. I can bounce around within it and not worry about whether I am gonna fall out. It's limiting me, but also containing me.

Sonia: I do know I have the most fun and I'm freest when I'm at the Black Dot, when nobody's looking at you, like "What you gonna create?" And everybody just creating. Or when we're on the corner, and we start cipherin', and everybody just feelin' it with you. People aren't looking at you, like an audience around you at a slam.

You do become transformed, and you go to a place where you didn't even know you could be. There's a certain freedom that I love, about just bein' comfortable, and not tryin' to perform for people.

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.
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