Saturday, January 27, 2018
Yesterday I was trying to explain to a non-poet friend the difference as I see it between my writing and more traditional, I-based lyrical work and probably failing horrible, maybe only in that my "I" is never stable or reliable or even there. That things are messier, less cut and dried than a lot of more traditional poetry--even when you do not stray into the kind of poetry I find most annoying of all--the I came, I saw, I had an epiphany about it variety. Maybe there's an analogy in the visual arts that would have worked, the difference between an abstract landscape and a perfectly rendered realistic one. In the realist one, you always know where it is and where you are, but who knows in the abstract..is that a tree? A ghost? Is it both?
I was thinking of this again as I perused this article in The Guardian over coffee this morning:
"Poetry is most definitely not a broad church, but nor does it consist of 40 mutually exclusive sects, like the Plymouth Brethren. One can worship at more than one altar. You don’t have to like them all (personally, the strange hymns of the experimental school still remind me too much of my time as a flame-tongued evangelical, even if I enjoy the sermons), but your allegiance to one alone can turn you into a poetic sectarian."
Also thinking that these arguments are all too familiar and I swear we've had this conversation before--in the late 90's and early 00's? Maybe it's a Chicago thing, this being the birthplace of slam (well, "slam" as a label for something that was probably already happening and needed a label, a movement, a way to distinguish it from something else.) As far as I know, one of the most famous competitions still happening at the Green Mill just a dozen or so blocks south of me weekly.
I remember theses same conversations happening in the early 2000's when I was still new to the city. You also had the weird hybrid of a lot of open mic nights that sometimes brought more page oriented poets and some more performance oriented ones , and I read at so many of these, everyone peacefully co-existing. In 2005, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the contenders in the Guild Complex's annual Gwendolyn Brook's Open Mic Contest--also a strange hybrid of these two different modes. (and truthfully, one of the largest, most energetic, and enthusiastic audiences I've ever read for.) There were far better poets on the page than me there, and far better performers, enough to leave me in the dust in terms of the competition, but it was still an awesome event.
Over the years, my time is less available for readings, my obligations much more complicated than they were in those early days, but I imagine they are all still happening all over the city, in every neighborhood--in bars, and coffeeshops, and bookstores. Wherever you can put a mic and a few chairs. I still do readings, but usually only when invited and even then, it takes a bit of schedule jenga to make them happen. But the audiences are usually smaller for these things, quieter, more academic, less rambunctious and I always wish there was the same sort of fervor for more page oriented work as there is for performance, but then maybe a certain amount of accessibility comes into play.
Nevertheless, I've always thought that page poetry and performance poetry are two similar, but distinct beasts with their rules and science. Sometimes they overlap (I can think of a handful of Chicago poets who do both very well.) And sometimes slam can be good writing, and sometimes good writing can be manifested in slam, but that they don't always have to be.
And truthfully, if you swap out "instagram" for "slam" you can say the same things in this new modern world, where poets like Kaur are selling a gazillion books and tapping into audiences that probably had no idea poetry was something they could get into. I always think of these authors as gateway drugs. If I were a 15 year old girl who loved Rupi Kaur, I might turn into a 20 year old who loves Sylvia Plath, a 23 year old who loves Louise Gluck, a 30 year old who loves Anne Carson. My own poetic journey probably started in loving Tori Amos, and then moved further into more complicated work. And this is the way it no doubt moves in ways similar to other arts--a love of blockbusters moves toward a love of obscure, exprimental films. Pop turns into a love of classic jazz. Broadway musicals turn into a love of Samuel Beckett. Not everyone goes that deep. Most non-creatives hover near the surface of the pool forever and the water is fine there. But artists are always looking to swim deeper.
Even if you look at more "literary" work, there are those who are content to love Mary Oliver or Billy Collins (ie that realist landscape), but then others for whom that seems entirely to facile who are always on the lookout for the stranger more complicated work of poetry--where what you see there on the horizon that may be a tree, may be a ghost. But may be both.