Poets' Summit Interview Part I

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Another year, and another National Poetry Slam is complete, with Team Dallas taking the 2001 crown from host city Seattle last week. Bad Subjects marked the occasion by convening the following group discussion to talk about slam, an art form in transition from underground sensation to corporate sponsorship.

Aaron Shuman

Thursday, August 23 2001, 6:36 PM

Another year, and another National Poetry Slam is complete, with Team Dallas taking the 2001 crown from host city Seattle last week. Bad Subjects marked the occasion by convening the following group discussion to talk about slam, an art form in transition from underground sensation to corporate sponsorship. Since Berkeley is Bad's production hub, and some of us are Oakland nationalists, this poets' summit focuses on East Bay performance poetry, a more inclusive term which allows ritual theater and neo-griot polemics into the mix, along with the tighter confines of three-minutes-and-you re-off-the-mike slamming.

Such distinctions of geography and genre are far from academic, since one of the first things to confront in writing about performance poetry is its internal diversity. The night Bad met five of the scene's leading lights at La Pena, there were poetry events in the concert room, the cafe and the bar next door, each with its own flavor, its own rituals, its own favored and frowned-upon styles. Performance poetry draws crowds large enough to merit coverage as a phenomenon, to move from the backpages of event listings to the front of the newspaper, yet too often, critical analysis telescopes an art form into a single night's gathering, hailing or condemning a popular practice on the basis of singular successes or failings.

This poets' summit doesn't claim to represent such a divergent phenomenon. One of the things East Bay performance poetry does is chuck the notion of representation in art and substitute hip-hop's value of representing of manifesting, testifying, breaking it down, telling it, letting the spirit move you, or any other of the myriad phrases people have devised to refer to the power of individually borne and conveyed experience. In place of an epic poet's grand scale and sweeping pronouncements, performance poetry often substitutes a first-person voice that is at once individually specific and culturally rooted, able to locate the epic qualities in everyday life. While the I, I, I, at poetry slams often gets satirized as me first self-indulgence, or essentialist identity politicking, more often poets use it as a tool, digging into personal pasts in a Herculean effort to clean out the stables of imperialist culture, root out the foulnesses there, and create new ways of identifying and relating to themselves and other people.

The poets featured here have all done their I-work. They have all performed in groups that create new arrangements of "I"s, to foster a collective sense of what these "I"s have in common. They have all produced and promoted poetry events, and most of them have brought their creative, analytical, and professional skills to the next generation of poets, as artists working in Bay Area public schools. They are all in their late twenties (to be charitable in some cases) and they see themselves as a generation in-between between the elders of their arts movements, who could not study people's history in public school, and the youth who take this for granted, along with the presence of poets in schools and the slam at the cultural center next week. The following discussion represents five Gen-X intellectuals, responding to some of the issues and transformations on the scene they've been making for quite some time.

Poets' Summit Interview Part I

This is the text of an interview with several East Bay poets conducted in early August by Aaron Shuman. The poets are:

AYA DE LEON spits verse on the San Francisco Slam Team, graces the mike as emcee of numerous East Bay events, and hustles the legendary Blu magazine wherever she goes. She's not a Power Puff Girl; she's an Afro Puff Girl, and she'll sell you a t-shirt with the same design. With publishing credits in every genre of writing (and a few genres she invented herself), she will be an artist in residence at Stanford next year.

MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH fuses formal training in dance, oratorical capabilities honed in student government, and an ability to bust polysyllabics and turn any concept inside out, in performances that use words as constantly renewable resources. Since winning the National Poetry Slam in 1999 with Team San Francisco, he is known as founder of the Living Word Project, host of Second Sunday word events at the Justice League, and program director for Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization for teenagers.

PAUL FLORES spans the Bay from San Francisco to San Jose. In addition to his work with poetry troupe Los Delicados, he serves as artistic coordinator at Intersection for the Arts, educational director of Youth Speaks, and the staff member responsible for youth audience development at La Pena. Recurring La Pena events, such as Hecho en Califas, Collective Soul, and Word & Sing, have brought out new Chicano soul on the East side of the Bay.

MARCEL DIALLO has held together the Black Dot Artists Collective since its founding in the mid-1990s. Black Dot's Rhyme Rituals helped develop the distinctive blend of Black Arts poetics, beat science, and spirituality that marks the East Bay. After running a storefront cafe and cultural center on International Boulevard, Black Dot now runs with the East Side Arts Alliance, a multicultural collaborative providing arts education to Oakland's San Antonio/ Fruitvale community.

SONIA WHITTLE has been keeping it real in the East Bay poetry scene since 1996, as founder of the Elements of a Whole collective, and co-founder of Slam on It!, Oakland's weekly slam. In 1999, her verbal breakdancing helped Oakland bring home the bronze, as the 3rd best slam team at nationals.

CHARLES ELLIK, slam poet with more than a decade's work put in, ran in and out of the room, when not attending to his duties next door as Berkeley Slam-master at the Starry Plough. We regret the conflict with his schedule.

BS: A lot of you work on both sides of the Bay. Do you see any differences between what's going on in San Francisco versus the East Bay?

Paul: I've been working [in the East Bay] only for a year, but once you start doing things in the East Bay, you realize that the Bay Area is huge, and that expands your understanding of what a Bay Area aesthetic is. Living in San Francisco, you can get caught up in provincialism. But coming over here, the first difference I see is that people are more political. There's a bigger sense of political struggle in the East Bay, and that has a lot to do with the hip-hop movement and its influence over here. In SF, you have a more diverse poetry audience, a bigger audience. More people come, probably because it's really fashionable, especially for slam, because SF is the biggest slam in the nation.

Marcel: Everything I do in SF always has at least 60-70% more white people, and Oakland is Oakland. That's the major difference I see, and that can affect the subject matter, the way in which poetry is developed, and what type of poetry function prospers over there. The overwhelming presence of a white audience can take us out of that politics, that more political edge. That directly affects the poetry, because instead of taking it to the level how we do when we amongst each other, folks start addressing other types of things or insecurities that white people looking at you up on the auction block brings forth.

I don't think a lot of people think of the stage as similar to an auction block. When we step up there, consciously or subconsciously, sometimes people begin to act the part. Especially if a whole bunch of white eyes is out there. They used to be the ones bidding for you, saying, "Let me check your teeth."

I think that's an underlying force that drives the way the poetry is different. That's just from my own experience. I have performed on both sides of the bridge just as much, and I always feel the difference. It's a good response on both sides, but they're different landscapes to navigate.

BS: You mentioned a "Bay Area" aesthetic, Paul. What defines the Bay Area as unique, regionally and nationally?

Paul: It definitely has a little bit to do with the Beat legacy. This political presence inside the poetry is also very Bay Area. My first time in New York, I went there as a poet, and I went down to the Nuyorican [Poets' Cafȝ. And I started talking about English Only laws and being Chicano, and some people just didn't want to hear that shit. But you know who did feel it? The Puerto Ricans. Because they deal with this linguistic difference daily, and the poetry scene, as we know, is dominated by English.

Some people don't have patience and don't wanna hear politics in your poetry. It depends on where your politics comes from. You could be up there talking, "Oh darn that George Bush." Or you could come straight up like, "Yo we on the auction block," and that's a whole different type of politic. It depends on how you come and who you come with and who you coming to. But because we're in the Bay Area, we're inundated with political media and political consciousness at all levels, whether it's real or fake or dudes just trying to rock Che Guevara shirts. It becomes part of our everyday experience, so it does come out in the poetry, and it's one way to feel out your audience.

Aya: I was outside of the Bay Area recently, performing in other regions of the country, and you know, the Bay Area has plenty of segregation. You go to different poetry scenes, and some are very Black, some are very white, Latino, Asian. But I didn't think of myself so much as a hip-hop poet until I went to other regions of the country, where people don't speak hip-hop. [Laughter]

You have to go to the hardcore black environment in order for people to understand the hip-hop references in my work. Whereas in the Bay Area, everyone tends to get it, because there is more mixing here. Despite our segregation and despite strong racism in the Bay Area, that is a big difference.

Marcel: The fact that we are in the West, I think it's more of a sophisticated "haterism." [Paul laughs.] People out here have learned to be relaxed in their disdain for others, cuz it's really not going to affect you eatin' tonight. In other places, people may view they art as the way to come up out of some nasty-ass, dirty tenement.

Coming out of hip-hop, coming out of how fools rock ice, the bravado -- back east, it's real. Me and my first Puerto Rican girlfriend, when I was telling her I lived in some projects and I showed her, she was like, "These is condos, fool!" [Laughter] "Go to East Harlem!"

Aya: Yeah, but I think it's a qualitative difference. I just came back from New York, and there's not the same level of cross-pollination between different scenes, and there's out and out hostility; people in a room don't speak to each other. For a lot of the folks I'm talking about, it's not about survival; it's about just having an attitude. It's not like "You're keeping me from getting my rent paid." It's just, "I don't like you, and I'm gonna disrespect you," and the culture of those environments says that's okay.

I hear you about sophisticated haterism, but I also think the culture [in the Bay Area] keeps people in check. Like, "Be civil. Try and see the good. Be friendly." For better and for worse, I think there's more of a value placed in the Bay Area on, "Oh, can't we all just get along?" Sometimes that does cover up real stuff. But people also keep themselves in check to a greater degree.

Paul: The way that people look at politics also affects how they represent it in their work. There is a level of political rhetoric and critique, and there is straight up, telling it like it is.

I go into the high schools with Youth Speaks to work with some of these kids. When we go up there and we talk about gentrification, we talk about machismo or sexism in the barrio or the hood, they understand that to a certain extent. But when you start saying "let's talk about politics," they don't wanna talk about politics. They think that's a waste of time. Let's talk about money, sex, love, drugs, weed, and depression. [That is politics.] What about you, Sonia? You came out from New York.

Sonia: Upon my arrival here, I found a very open community of people who were doing things. Yet people had the idea here that it isn't a good thing to make money off your art. [Laughter]

I don't agree with that at all; I think you should get paid for what you do. That's where eventually a lot of separations started to form. A couple of years ago, everybody was performing at each other's shows, doing a whole bunch of things. And then the slam beast came around. There was a big draw of audience towards slam, and the spoken word community as I knew it changed. Some people focused more on teaching and building with the younger community, went into schools and did their thing, and disappeared from the moneymaking aspect of slam as the thing that draws audiences.

Before slam, the first big thing that I remember us doin', was Diesel Word at the Calvin J. Simmons Theatre. We got 250 people there, and that's when we realized we could have a great audience. But slam has evolved beyond that and has audiences of 4 to 600 people.

Aya: It's hard to generalize about the community as a whole, because people are coming from very different places, with different agendas, and different buy-ins. Some people are trying to be full-time artists getting paid; some people are working as some kind of information technology specialist in Silicon Valley and doing this on the weekends; some folks are just really, really broke and scraping by. There are a lot of race differences, class differences, cultural differences, and age differences.

Marcel: Yet it's called the same thing, and we're calling it the same thing, so that's where the confusion comes in. Cuz we ain't all really doing the same thing; we ain't the same people; we have different concerns, different underlying motives as to why we wanna do this. That's what causes people to say, what is this thing?

Bamuthi: When I came to the Bay Area, I started writing and performing as a means of accessing the students that I was teaching. I saw Slam Nation, started coming to the Berkeley Slam, and went to the SF Slam, Rhyme Rituals. I went along with whatever was there. Coming into it, I was just like, "This is poetry, right?" I didn't understand this separation, and a lot of the distinctions that we're talking about now.

They must be there, because we're discussing them. But a lot of me doesn't understand why those distinctions are there other than what we choose to feed to our audience, and how we mistake our audiences for having a complete lack of intelligence. I feel like if folks are open to the word, they're going to be open to the word. And the second that we start packaging the words for a particular kind of audience, a lot of integrity gets lost. And that's what I question.

Paul: That's happening in slam, though, dude. Ever since slam has become what it is now -- and I think that split we're talkin' about is the major one to occur in our generation of poetry -- you got adults who have never read before, and they're over here in the corner, practicing their poem, and they're gonna scream on the microphone and sound like every other poet that night. I don't know if that has to do with the [3 minute] time limit on it, where people have to hurry and get their poems done. I don't know if that's just everybody hearing other people be successful with that type of voice and repeating it. I do know that when you get outside the slam, and you're able to perform outside the slam, and have an audience outside the slam, then it's different. The slam creates its own aesthetic.

Charles: Paul, you're right; the slam does create its aesthetic. It bothers me when people buy into the competition and are going for that ten bucks. Cuz ten dollars shouldn't be worth compromising yourself.

Sonia: Anybody who knows me knows that I haven't really written anything new in the last year, and most of the work that I wrote, I did not write for slam. After slamming in 1999, I didn't think I could live up to what I had done before. Because you get a certain kind of praise from an audience, you walk down a street and people scream your name like you were just on TV. Then suddenly you go to write something, and all of a sudden the work isn't the same. I found myself trying to write in my mind what would be a good slam poem, when I didn't write the pieces I had in the first place for a slam.

Aya: I don't think that slam is creating what we're saying we don't like. I think slam is a dynamic that intensifies the dynamic that we're talking about, good and bad.

What we're dealing with is that we are living in capitalism, and capitalism is about competition. When you mix competition and poetry in a capitalistic context, something sparks. You see something that works in a poem; people respond to that, so you copy that, and it's not being authentic. Competition also can burn away certain things. And I see the way that it's helped me, as a performer. I also see the way that it wears on me, and that I start to sift and file stuff as I'm writing it: slammable, non-slammable. [Laughter] That can be problematic for me as a writer.

Bamuthi: It's interesting, because there's much more competition in submitting your work to poetry journals or getting your novel published. That's greater than 15 or 20 people trying to win a slam. In the world of literature, it's not like competition is new. And even in the oral tradition, we built our shit by capping on each other. And MC battles.

But the difference is 󠡮d this is really the attitude that I bring to slam -- you can give me a 5, you can give me a 3, it doesn't matter what score you gave me. In my heart, I know I busted your ass. [Laughter]

When I say I busted your ass, I don't mean one person's word is better than another. What I really mean is I felt your work deeper, viscerally, in a way that I didn't feel this other work. And that's why we say what we say. Beyond the political commentary, beyond the social commentary, beyond whatever context we happen to be in, ultimately it's a means of connection. And if you did not connect with me and you got your 9.3,great. But you still don't connect with me. [Laughs] That's the ultimate measurement.

Marcel: The loophole is that people can still get they 10.0 or whatever, and be weak. I'm not even talking about scores per se, just what scores induce in the mind of a person that's getting juiced up by this scene. They're walkin' around like, "Oh, I'm a dope-ass slam poet, so that mean now I get to have my picture all over the place, and I get to be on TV," but I'm still weak. It's not just "I can kick your ass." It's that I'm a balanced spirit. And that's the only thing I say when you pump up people with false pride. If somebody pumpin' you up, then they can bring you down. You gotta pump yourself up, and that's by doing your own groundwork and your own root-work.

Charles: People find out really quick that the $10 doesn't mean much. That's the hope and the point.

BS: So Aya brought up capitalism, and Charles brought up the $10 not going very far. Sonia, you said some people don't think they should be making money off their art. There's a variety of perspectives here about how to build a self-supporting scene. Self-supporting, meaning a poet can make a living doing it. How can that be done? Should that be done?

Paul: There are people [back East] who are making money offa being a slam poet. They got agents; they got managers; quite a few of 'em. We have not experienced that out here yet.

The Poets' Summit Interview is continued over the course of the following two review sections.

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.

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