Politics of poetry - Culture - commercial
"I wonder what all the conservative or right-wing poets are doing these days?" asks Wanda Coleman, Los Angeles poet and author of the award-winning Bath water Wine and Mercurochrome, who has been writing and performing for 30 years.
Whether poets perform and publish or choose to do one of the two, those who align themselves with the struggles of their communities are continually tested in a capitalist system that commodities what all artists and writers create. A poet who talks generally about conservation may get significantly more attention from larger, whiter audiences than a poet who examines environmental racism and tells stories about the lack of universal health care for victims of intentionally polluted communities. Deciding what stories to tell is a political choice.
"I think what has happened, especially with things such as the recent Def Poetry Jam, is an emphasis on what works commercially by producers who have the connections and the money to mount television programs, films, and Broadway type productions," says Kalamu ya Salaam, writer/publisher of Runagate Press.
McDonald's and Chrysler have already used poets as copywriters and voiceovers for their products. It is an interesting comparison that black poets were asked to write jingles rather than be interviewed on Nightline about poetry like white Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.
"As dictated by those who control the music business, the only time relevant messages get through is when it is felt that they can be exploited for financial gain, or in the effort to capitalize off a fluke or subcultural phenomenon, something that's fad-driven and, like hip-hop, emerges without anyone's control," Coleman said.
Salaam also made note of how black films such as Love Jones and Poetic Justice have utilized poetry. "The point is that those who have done the most to popularize performance poetry are not poets in the main," he says. "As the popularity increases, we will see more and mote non-poets performing poetry, more and more experienced actors for whom performance is their profession."
This professionalization also raises serious questions for the content of the work.
"The more the artists of spoken word receive endorsement deals from designers and beverage manufacturers and car companies, the less likely they will be to ask questions like, 'Were these clothes made with non-sweatshop labor? What are the investment practices of this beverage company? How does this multinational conglomerate affect the way people live around the world?"' says Tyehimba Jess, a longtime Chicago educator and activist against police brutality.
Jess, also a member of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill-Chicago slam reams, is influenced by the persona poems of multiple-slam champ Patricia Smith, but slam poetry's present focus differs from the style favored by Smith and Jess.
"Although performance poets like Pat Smith were successful in slam in their day, it is questionable whether they would win slams today, due to the differing expectations in style and delivery from a younger audience that is steeped in hip-hop," Jess says. "This audience is used to a faster delivery, fewer pauses, and expects more rhyme these days than before."
The mainstreaming of spoken word plays out much like in hip-hop, says poet Walidah Imarisha, a co-editor of the anthology Another World is Possible. "Lots of brown folks getting publicity, but behind the scenes it's still white folks setting the rules," she says. "In hip-hop, you don't see a lot of women. You see more in spoken word because poetry is historically considered a 'woman thang,' but I think since the popular type of spoken word now is so closely tied to hip-hop, it's much more alienating to womens voices.
Despite the pressures of commercialization, many writers still find ways to merge their politics and poetry while documenting the stories of their communities. Luis Rodriguez writes, lectures, and runs Tia Chucha Cafe as an outlet for community artwork in Los Angeles. Walidah Imarisha is working in Philly with the Blackout Arts Collective, where they are planning the Lyrics on Lockdown tour, in which the collective performs in prisons and coordinates political organizing and artistic efforts with other organizations.
"Writing political poems is no substitute for being an active part of a political movement," says Kalamu ya Salaam. "Creating revolutionary art is only part of our struggle."