An Article by Regie Gibson
Gertrude Stein is attributed with having said ’The particular challenge of 20th century American poetics is that it is occurring in a time of late language’. By this I take her to mean that the 20th century was a time when language, after extended periods of use and abuse had declined in significance and influence and was in the twilight of its power, its ability to magic. Furthermore, poets would have to reinvent language and in so doing reinvent themselves. Perhaps she observed how (partly because of increased industrialization and immigration) language was being reduced to serving only utilitarian purposes; that the symbolic resonance of language i.e. its ability to encompass inner meaning- was too ’inefficient’ and thus had to give way to the language of the signpost - i.e. - an instructional vocabulary used to point toward a specific direction or task.
Perhaps she feared (no doubt because of the manufacturing juggernaut this country had become) words and language would also be mass-produced, much the same way as automobiles and other gadgets and widgets, and this would result in a usage of words devoid of originality and craftsmanship. There are those who would argue this early 20th c. fear is being realized in the 21st.
Poets, as in times past are again confronted with the perennial dilemma: To either become products of one's time playing with the same images and archetypes inherited from our predecessors, or, become adventurers and alchemists conjuring something else. This is one of the challenges of Slam.
Since becoming involved in Slam in 1996, I've learned and unlearned many things. Through late night conversations about art, and correspondences with people of the word, over the years I have grown personally and professionally. It hurts to remember the ignorant swaggering, shit talker I was before Dan Ferri put the mirror to me. And I am grateful for that, and to those who continue to do so. So, it is with a trembling hand that I write this. Not from fear of reprisal or gossip or of being shunned but, because as I write I remember.
Through years of being involved in Slam I have observed some things, which are disconcerting. However, what has been the most disturbing is how easily so many of us fall into categories, and how these categories tend to run along cultural lines. So much so they've become as predictable and clich’ as a triple X porn flick. Here are some examples:
Black Male Categories:
The Preacher: (’I have been sent by God to give you this message, and this is what you must do!’)
The Pimp: (’Watch how I pass a sex poem off as a love poem and confuse the pornographic for the erotic!’)
The Politician: (An attempt at being Malcolm X, winds up sounding like Malcolm ’why’ ex: ’Why do white folks keep messing with my people?’ ’Why do cops keep beating on me?’ Why don't you white folks give me more points?’)
The No Contract-Having M.C.: (No need to elaborate)
Black Female Categories:
The Sass Poet: (The rubber-necking/ gum popper only Ricki Lake could love.)
The Sex Poet: (’If you want my body /and you think I'm sexy/ step to me I'll tell you: No!’ Or, ’What's between these thighs will tantalize and terrorize your eyes like french fries!’)
The Black Male Excoriator: (’My daddy is no good, my man is no good I am The Color Purple just Waiting to Exhale and therefore you should give me all the Alice Walker/Terry McMillan points!’)
The Singing Poet: (’Perhaps this will make up for my woeful lack of poetic craft and originality!’)
White Female Categories:
The Male Basher: (Usually angry at white men but will cowardly universalize as ’men’)
The Sexual Politica: (Pseudo-feminist ranting about men, sex with men and/or why I prefer women over men)
The Wet T-shirt Feminist: (’I will use my sexuality if you’ll give me points! But if you don't, then you are just another automaton of the patriarchy!’)
The Quirky Girl: (I've got unresolved issues and enough residual teenage angst to make a John Hughes film.)
White Male Categories:
The Poser: (’I'm down with feminism...really!’)
The Fronter: (’I'm down with people of color...really!’)
The Quasi Hip Hop Heretic: (EMEN-AINT)
The Misplaced Comedian (Either a quasi-humorous finger-pointing panderer, or a self effacing schmuck who has figured out white men (though advantaged everywhere else in our society except possibly sports and entertainment) are disadvantaged in Slam.)
I understand there are other ethnicities in Slam- however; I haven't observed enough of their work in order to discern any typical patterns. But if I had, and had determined them to be as egregious an assault on my sensibilities as the aforementioned- I would have wasted no tick tocks in tossing them into the pot as well. And, certainly for every one of these categories I've named I can think of at least 5 poets in Slam who get beyond these representations. I respect these poets and many, many others because their works demand I question my self as person and poet. They remind me of the need to get beyond the predictable bag of words, imagery and subjects I've inherited.
I have no problem with the new blood-no matter what age, which are just coming into Slam. Some, after overcoming many hardships are just now able to express themselves for the first time. The way we learn most things is through some form of imitation. You can be forgiven for, even expected to use these stereotypes as your prototype. But get past them as soon as you can and stand apart from them. We must all get out of the cookie cutters path and find the shape belonging to us, rather than aspiring to be quintessential examples of mediocrity imitating anyone everyone is imitating just because the crowd will accept us better if we give them what they’re used to. This is not what great artists do. Great artists challenge us all to look at ourselves in new light and with new eyes. Let's stop walking the well-worn path of the provincial and move beyond the Slamotype in search of what we're not saying - for that part of the song we're not singing- for the language which creates the self anew.
National Poetry Slam Results