Thursday, October 8, 2009

St. Paul slams hard

It's a truism among reporters that journalism is the first draft of history. But it's not always the most vivid one. In fact, as all reporters know, often the best stories stay in your notebook.

I went to the first poetry slam of the season at the Artists' Quarter and saw two seriously talented poets -- Sierra DeMulder and Khary Jackson -- who had just gotten back from winning nationals with the 2009 St. Paul team. I'd seen a clip of Khary Jackson performing his "Jimi Christ" poem, which I still think is one of his best pieces. The clip starts with a song intro by Jasper Lepack, who describes Jackson as a "hip-hop mystic/clever cynic/with voice and rhythm," the pithiest description I've heard of him:

Then Sierra DeMulder got up and performed the poem "Apocalypse" and followed it up with the even more stunning "Static," a piece about the Columbine Massacre from the point of view of the shooters:

And my poetry circuits were blown out. Later I wrote this first draft of my own poetic history: "Sierra DeMulder standing short before the mic with a Tiny-Fey-does-Sarah-Palin lisp. Words explode out of her like hammers tender and powerful, like land mines, like poetic destruction, the body parts in the wake of her apocalyptic vision are tenderness, are myth-making, are monsters contained, she is grappling with her deepest fears, harnessing tornadoes, wrestling them down to earth with nasal punctuation of her verse and when she steps off the stage there is a cone of stunned emotion and the room erupts. These are not expected poems. Not easy poems. Precise from beginning to end, she hits the room like a smart bomb, like a bunker buster drilling down, taking sharp right angles/honing in on the soul."

And later still, I interviewed Khary and Sierra for the Pioneer Press. The final story published in the paper had only a hint of the poetry that inspired it in this brief exchange:

Q: How have you influenced each other as teammates?

Sierra: I won't go into theatrics — everyone knows his stage presence is unbeatable. Khary has an amazing way to crescendo his poems and drop it to the most soft and intimate voice, and we're still with him 100 percent. Not everyone can hold an audience by speaking softly. That is something I'm totally trying to acquire.

Khary: Sierra makes me feel less alone in terms of being a dark poet. To go there and do it well.

Sierra: And to not exploit things.

Khary: I really love her literary approach to slam. That is a reinforcer for me to feel comfortable that even though this particular poem might be poet-y or literary, it won't go over people's heads. Like, when she was first telling us this idea about a poem from the point of view of Jeffrey Dahmer's mother.

Sierra: You all laughed at me!

Khary: She made it work.

Both of them will be slamming all year at the Artists' Quarter and Kieran's Pub. And, this coming August, the 2010 nationals are coming to St. Paul -- bringing 400 of the country's top slam poets along with it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rereading, reinventing: Michael Chabon and Maxine Hong Kingston

A stray comment by the teacher of my pedagogy class nudged me to pick up Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" for the first time since my undergrad days. Back then, I found the book baffling and nonlinear. This time, I was immediately struck by the ferociousness of the narrative, from the very first story of a woman who throws herself down a well after becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

These are not easy stories to tell, or easy to hear. Kingston is excavating a painful legacy. I picked up the book to reread the story of Fa Mulan, the woman warrior, the kind of hero I sought in my own foundational texts (ironically, I read today in an interview that two of Kingston's own favorites are Walt Whitman's poetry and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"). But the deeper I reread into the narrative, the more I'm drawn by the narrative of ghosts, the conversation between past and present, the contained explosion Kingston gets in the text from the ferocious humor in stories about her mother. Like this encounter between her mother at medical school and a Sitting Ghost in a haunted dorm room:

"I do not give in," she said. "There is no pain you can inflict that I cannot endure. You're wrong if you think I'm afraid of you. You're not mystery to me. I've heard of you Sitting Ghosts before. Yes, people have lived to tell about you. You kill babies, you cowards. You have no power over a strong woman. You are no more dangerous than a nesting cat. My dog sits on my feet more heavily than you can. You think this is suffering? I can make my ears ring louder by taking aspirin. Are these all the tricks you have, Ghost? Sitting and ringing? That is nothing. A Broom Ghost can do better. You cannot even assume an interesting shape. Merely a boulder. A hairy butt boulder. ... Yes, when I get my oil, I will fry you for breakfast."

And I loved this quote, on the power of words: "The idioms for revenge are "report a crime" and "report to five families." The reporting of the vengeance--not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words."

Also this week, I heard this excellent interview on Fresh Air with author Michael Chabon. The whole hour is packed with chewy quotes about writing. But he would agree with Kingston on the need to dig into the painful parts of the soul:

"That's the stuff you make writing out of, whether you fictionalize it or whether you present it as nonfiction ... the stuff that you know for sure is working, is gonna connect, is going to make somebody want to keep reading, (is) the stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable in your writing. Always. The ultimate sign to me that I’m onto something is if I’m squirming a little bit and feeling uncomfortable. I feel like I’m verging on things that make me nervous."

On the role of fiction as an escape from the prison of the self, he quotes David Foster Wallace: "I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves."


Friday, October 2, 2009

Sonnets to Ebonics

Finally got my hands on Alex Hinton's homohop documentary Pick Up the Mic. The performers are a mix, from in-your-face outrageous egos to serious poets. Two of the most wide-ranging interviews are with Juba Kalamka and Tim'm T. West of the now-defunct San Francisco hip-hop group DDC. Kalamka and West use socially progressive hip-hop, filtered through the gospel/Black Arts/ jazzoetry/blues/Langston Hughes tradition, to create a complex critique of race, queerness, masculinity and hip-hop.

The result is fantastic poetry and performance. A sample:

"I am
I am a blackman
I am a blackman you scared to clap for
I am a blackman who likes metaphor
I am a blackman who's antiwar
I am I
and the blackman that I am is quite sure
I am not pure
African fruits mixed with Cherokee juice
I am a black man with red clay roots
Arkansas I am
blackman speaking my I am truth
I am not trying to recruit
youth for nothing but revolution
solutions to overstand the I am
they be, unlike me
I am a man, and I am as unique
as you
I am the I who will stand for my truth
I am a blackman educating our youth
Sonnets to Ebonics
Othello in the East O
I am, the sum total of your hope
I am a blackman who sometime can't cope
with haters who hate on knowledge
I am a blackman who says go to college
ignorance should be abolished
but the greatest teacher is a preacher
whose mirror smiles and says to him ..."

Read the rest of the poem here. And see a video of the DD song "For Colored Boys," which brings together their musical and poetic style, here.