Def Poetry: June 17 2005

Mos Def kicked off the second episode of HBO’s Def Poetry with a few rhyming verses set to a backing track. Since the previous episode of this show was a bit of a snoozer, I didn’t think it was a good idea for the host to show up his guests by demonstrating his hiphop skills. Luckily, the poets for episode #2 had much more to offer than the previous set, and easily held up their side.

Al Letson was first up with a physical performance piece about a kid discovering his basketball skills. “One boy one ball one dream one hoop … listen”. It was an earnest, affecting Def Poetry set piece. I’ve heard that LitKicks correspondent Billectric is familiar with this poet, and I’m looking forward to hearing Bill’s take on the performance.

Def Poetry, and the poetry-slam scene from which the show emerges, has always been about representing voices of the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed. But this can easily slip into preachy cliche, and a good sense of humor is needed to prevent that from happening. Oppression can take many shapes in this world, and I like Def Poetry best when it presents a protest poem by a truly forgotten minority. In an earlier season, a poet named Shappy shouted out for nerd pride, yelling the names of his Star Wars action figures with revolutionary passion. Dan Sully and Tim Stafford, two short pasty-skinned guys who vaguely resembled members of Barenaked Ladies, followed in Shappy’s footsteps with a funny but powerful piece about short-people anger.

Next up was Georgia Me, a big woman in a gold lame dress. I liked her raw style, but I didn’t love her subject matter, which was about needing guys to wear condoms before they get busy with her. It’s a good message, sure, but Def Poetry should try to avoid sounding like a public service announcement. I’d like to hear more from this performer, though.

After three performers, I wasn’t too unhappy. One performance piece, one satire, and one public-service announcement, all of it well done. What I hadn’t really heard yet, though — not really — was poetry.

John Legend, batting cleanup, didn’t help. He’s a hot new singer, and he’ll probably win a few Grammys this year, but I don’t love John Legend’s music when it comes on the radio. Too much moaning and groaning, no hook, no beat — who needs it? Yeah, I know he’s talented as hell and they sell his CD at Starbucks, but he reminds me of Lionel Richie. I don’t want to hear Lionel Richie impersonating a slam poet, and I don’t want to hear John Legend doing so either. The first celebrity appearance was the first dud of the night.

Caroline Harvey, on the other hand, contributed a strong set piece about a horrible bout with heroin addiction. It was a brave spot, more prose than poetry, recalling the work of Lou Reed or Herbert Huncke.

Next up, Bounty Killer changed up the style with a musically pleasing, dance-hall flavored rap. I think Elephant Man has better dance-hall flow and Russell Simmons must know this, but maybe Elephant Man didn’t want to be on Def Poetry Jam, and this was pretty good too.

Bassey Ikpi kept the show moving with a slim but effective bit of rhyming erotica, a meditation upon what was obviously one very memorable kiss.

Batting eighth was Will Da Real One Bill, a laid-back performer with a down-south still-tippin’ style. With a great name like that, who even needs a poem? I liked his performance a lot, and at this point I was already very happy with this episode of Def Poetry.

But I was prepared to dislike the final performer and the second celebrity drop-in of the night, the almost sickeningly acclaimed R&B singer Alicia Keys, who showed up in a ripped-up Jim Morrison t-shirt and faded jeans. Well, I love to be surprised, and Alicia Keys’ performance surprised me. She sat in a chair and channeled the anger and self-hatred of a person imprisoned by … government? society? herself? It was a concentrated performance of a killer piece. It was poetry, and for the first time in my life I have liked something Alicia Keys did.

As the second episode of Def Poetry concluded, I could only wonder why they ran that turkey as the season premiere last week, if they had an episode like this one ready to go.

If you watched the show, or if you catch repeat viewings this week, I’d love to hear your reactions as well.

16 Responses

  1. silly”Def Poetry, and the

    “Def Poetry, and the poetry-slam scene from which the show emerges, has always been about representing voices of the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed …”

    that’s just ridiculous.

  2. Orpheus — I know you’re not
    Orpheus — I know you’re not the only one who feels this way, but I still would like to understand … why? I think I’m simply stating fact — at least 1/3 of the performances on the show are about some form of oppression, prejudice, etc. I’m not saying they’re always good performances. But that is often the subject. So why is this show disliked by so many?

  3. Al Letson, Def PoetAl Letson:
    Al Letson, Def Poet

    Al Letson: Penumbra
    Live at Henrietta’s @ 9th & Main
    Jacksonville, FL

    For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of “consummate professional.” I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise; the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.

    Penumbra, Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.

    My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice”. It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.

    Al Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Followed by an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone, had seen it.

    When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand from fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly.

    “Who did your videos?” I asked him.

    “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”

    I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”

    I asked him, “If you could travel to the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?”

    As he was thinking of an answer for that, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.”

    Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”

    We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece with his Essential Personnel partners, Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh. It was our gain and cable TV’s loss, because Lord knows it couldn’t have hurt their ratings to give people a sneak preview which might prompt some of us to subscribe to HBO.
    I asked Al, when he came off stage, “Do you ever run out of good material?”
    Slightly out of breath but still full of energy, he smiled and said, “Yes.”
    “Well, you haven’t so far,” I told him.

    Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on LitKicks. I stayed long enough to watch a very funny rant by two short poets against tall people and then, because the TV show started later than expected, I decided to cut out due to an early appointment the next morning.

    Levi Asher has been touting the Def Poetry Jam on LitKicks for some time now. I don’t have HBO yet, but having watched the 2nd episode at Henriatta’s that night, I am now making arrangements for someone to record it for me each week.

    To see pictures of the event, click here.

  4. Oppressed?”Def Poetry, and

    “Def Poetry, and the poetry-slam scene from which the show emerges, has always been about representing voices of the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed.”

    That sounds straight out of the “SLAM Marketing Manual”, something that could well be published here in the Twin Cities, where I am located. Its a schtick, Levi: Oppressed

  5. Correction: Larry Knight and
    Correction: Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh did not appear in Essential Personnel, which was a one man show. They starred with Al Letson in Griot.

    The following is a quote from the Theatre Project web site:

    Griot – he who brings the sweet word
    Theatre Project fans will remember Letson’s critically acclaimed 2003 performance in Essential Personnel. He returned in 2004 for the premiere of a new three-man work, commissioned by Theatre Project, that weaves the story of the Griot from Western Africa to the urban streets of America. During his 2-week residency, Letson also worked with students from the Baltimore School for the Arts workshopping his new play Chalk, written especially for the student theater ensemble. The students performed the play at the school in spring of 2004 under the direction of Donald Hicken.”

  6. Okay, now we’re getting
    Okay, now we’re getting somewhere!

    The truth is, I’m not as innocent as I look, and when I started reviewing Def Poetry Jam I knew nine out of ten people would hate the idea of LitKicks giving so much attention to a half-hour of corporate pseudo-poetry schlock. But, what if it’s not a half-hour of corporate pseudo-poetry schlock? How will you know if you don’t watch it?

    I think it’s clear that I have to try hard to love this show myself. My main complaint is that it’s boring. They keep playing on the same formula: attitude with rhymes, one flavor after another but always the same sentiment. But, on the other hand, I dare anybody out there to watch an entire episode without being really affected by at least one performance. Really. Try it once.

    I’d like to get past the idea that anything corporate must be phony, that any cries of “oppression” that make it all the way to cable TV must be fake. I know DPJ equals HBO equals Time Warner AOL equals “the man”. But the truth is, this show is produced by an independent company. DPJ is not HBO, and I feel pretty sure the people who put this show together are good people, and that they’re doing it for the right reasons.

    Maybe it’s because I live ten minutes away from the humble town where Russell Simmons grew up that I feel more affinity with him than others do (he seems about as popular as Hilary Clinton with a lot of America). I know he is not doing this show to get rich (he’s already rich). He’s doing it because he believes the work is good. And I’ve liked enough of his records over the years that I’m going to put aside my skepticism for a half hour a week and check out his show. Hate it or love it. It’s poetry, and it’s on.

    I definitely don’t mean to be preachy about the show, and I would really like to hear more about why it is so offensive to so many people. I’d rather hear backtalk than silence.

  7. The subject matter is all too
    The subject matter is all too often the words of the oppressed – true. It has become a format for people to put themselves in the victim role because Def Jam thrives on the victim role. In most cases it is unwarranted. Def Jam is ridiculous for the very reason of the facades and the senseless whining it entails. That and the fact that it believes it is a format of poetry – WHICH IT IS NOT. It misunderstands what poetry is and bastardizes it.

  8. I think it has always been
    I think it has always been that a child or young person can see someone on TV or hear someone on the the radio, and think, “I could do that. I can write. I can speak. I can create art.” Doesn’t that give people hope?

  9. Firstly, you are correct in
    Firstly, you are correct in that I will not know what I think of the actual pieces unless I watch it. However, as I stated, I do not have cable.

    “I think it’s clear that I have to try hard to love this show myself. My main complaint is that it’s boring.”

    See, for me there is so much good poetry lurking beneath the surface that deserves my attention, that I don’t have the time or energy to sit through something I “have to try hard to love” or “is boring.” If you have to try hard to love it, why love it? If something is not worthy of your time and attention, then it isn’t.

    Note that I never said it was phony because it was corporate. However, how are you supposed to buy into someone making millions channeling the oppressed? You want to really help the oppressed? Find the struggling writer in the low-income housing complex and get HIM up there on stage to speak his words, and give him the money you are handing over to Alicia Keys, and all the other big names who don’t need it. I’m sorry but paying lumps of cash to mega-stars to get on stage to try their hand at poetry-of-the-oppressed is just insulting. Like I said before, how does that serve the struggling kid with the pen in his hand.

    Now I have no idea about the character of anyone involved with the show, so I can’t know their reasons for doing it. I just think that there is a better (read: more authentic) way of doing what it seems they are trying to do.

    “Hate it or love it. It’s poetry, and it’s on.”

    I’ll have to judge that for myself. Just because something calls itself poetry, doesn’t mean I have to agree it is.

    Not that I need to say this, Levi, but none of my reaction is personal. Its all about the subject. In our hyper-PC culture these days, I feel compelled to say that so my replies are not taken (by anyone) as a personal attack.

    I appreciate the dialogue.

  10. Billectric,To be honest, I

    To be honest, I think that kid watching on TV actually says,

    “Shit, I can do that.”

    and sits there jealous that the stars are up there making the g’s and he/she is eating Mac and Cheese for dinner for the fourth night in a row.

  11. InterestingI just went to the

    I just went to the Def Jam Poetry web site to see if I could read any of the pieces read on the show.

    1. I didn’t see anywhere to do that.

    2. To view a number of the site’s pages one must register…and pay a one-time setup fee of ONLY $15.00!

    That this project of the voice of the oppressed by run by those who “don’t need the money” would charge a $15.00 fee strikes me as odd.

  12. Hi dayonfire — yes, I really
    Hi dayonfire — yes, I really enjoy discussing this too, and you don’t have to worry about offending me. I agree that we are discussing the objective worth of a literary production, and that we should be able to do so without feeling insulted or defensive about each other’s opinions.

    With that said, I have to say that your strong words about this show strike me as “over the top”. I hear you, and I understand your points, but I have trouble understanding why you feel such passionate dislike of this show, or perhaps of the whole poetry slam scene (I’m not exactly sure if it’s this show or the whole scene that you object to).

    A couple of specific points:

    1. Why do you think poets are getting rich off of this show? I really don’t think they are. I bet they get a respectable one-time payment of maybe a couple of thousand dollars — ONCE — for a performance, and no residuals or other benefits. That’s great, but it’s also probably the most many of these poets will ever get paid, ever, for their poetry. As a fairly impoverished New York City poet and sometime spoken-word-performer myself, I can promise you that poetry slams are NOT the road to riches for anybody. And if a few of these people are lucky enough to get a nice one-time handout by appearing on this show, how can you begrudge them that good luck? I bet you they need the money — BAD.

    2. Yeah, I said the poems on the show are often boring. But so are the poems I read in the New Yorker, and other top journals. In calling attention to this show, I’m trying to suggest that maybe these poets deserve the same kind of respect that poets published in “highly respected literary journals” get. Not all of them deserve it. But some of them do. And not all of the poets who get published in “highly respected literary journals” deserve the respect either.

  13. Wow, I have to say I’m
    Wow, I have to say I’m beaming with pride! A humble Tennessee boy turned Minnesotan just merited “over the top” status by a New Yorker! I should get a golden coney or something.

    I realize that I should watch one of the episodes before commenting further than I have, but with that said…

    What exactly do you find over the top about my response(s)? Just calling it like I see it. As a denizen of Brooklyn, I figured my ranting wouldn’t even register on your radar.

    I dislike SLAM immensely because I find it a noveltization of a serious art form. Yeah, I can see the eyes rolling now. I think it loves cliche, is too often predictable, and with the way it is set up, is about the performance and not the writing.

    See, for me its all about the writing (regardless of what qualifiers you want to stick in front of it). If it doesn’t hold up on paper, I like to say, its just for show. So much SLAM poetry is attitude, shock and guilt. When the text is evaluated, much is downright repetitive and boring.

    Now I am only going by my own experience with it (that’s what we all do, right, judge things by our own experience with it?) With what I have seen, the whole SLAM format simply does not foster good writing (yes, I hear all of you: “‘Good writing'” what does that mean, etc. etc.”), but a very particular kind of performance art. Its too much about the passive entertainment value, and while there is nothing wrong with good poetry being entertaining (indeed it should be), I feel so much of our culture is about passive entertainment anyway that I would like to see a better stewardship with something as powerful and vital as the word.

    As for your first question:

    I don’t know who all performs on Def Jam, but when stars pop in and make cameos, I know they’re gettin’ paid, and that money could be spent paying complete unknown. That would, for me, add a spark of validity, not to mention social stewardship, on the part of the creators/producers. If this is happening in part, then I applaud them.

    For question #2:
    Who on these shows (as in the journals you mention) deserves respect should come directly from what they write, not how many albums they have put out, not how well they look in a Jim Morrisson T-Shirt, not how much attitude they brandish, and not how many MFA courses they have taught. It should be about the writing, and from what I see around me, too often its about clever marketing or money or something else.

    With all that said, I feel I really need to watch one of these shows, Levi, before saying any more. I feel solid behind what I have said so far, but I don’t believe in going on about something I haven’t fullly experienced. If I am able to watch one of these shows in full, I will pipe back in with an informed opinion.

    Good haggling with you, though. Makes everyone involved think about their opinions and why they have them. I appreciate it.

  14. I speak of what I’ve seen
    I speak of what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

    Oh, and by the way, yes, it’s ok to disagree, I’m with you on that point; screw the PC shit.

    But like I was saying, sure there will be some people who think, “Shit, I could do that,” and some of those people will try it, and you know what? It’s harder than it looks sometimes. To really come up with the right words and the right delivery – there are some people who just do it better than others. Maybe it’s natural talent but I suspect also a lot of work is involved. When I saw Al Letson live, and I can’t prove this but I have no reason to lie…everybody was listening with rapt attention, and when he got done, we knew we had seen someone who was intelligent and skilled with words, plus physically well-rehearsed. I know because I talked to people. However he got picked to be on HBO, he deserved it, so I’m glad the show exists.

  15. Well, dayonfire, one day
    Well, dayonfire, one day while you’re on your way from Tennessee to Minnesota or back again, you’ll have to stop over in NY City and do an open mic with us. I get what you’re saying, but I really do think the slam scene has good points, but it’s usually around the time you start participating in slams that you start to get into it. It’s not really a spectator sport, and maybe that’s the biggest problem with Def Poetry Jam (even though I still say it’s better than the other shit on TV).

    I’m glad to have Billectric to back me up on this topic. Bill and I have done a few poetry shows together, and nobody can tell either of us we weren’t having a good time. Anyway, I hope you’ll give the whole routine a chance, dumbness and all, and see if your opinion changes. And, watch the damn show and tell us what you think.

  16. “you’ll have to stop over in
    “you’ll have to stop over in NY City and do an open mic with us.”

    That sounds good, Levi. Thanks for the invitation. I’ll read, but I won’t SLAM. My stuff just isn’t the right ilk.

    And I’ll make a point to going to another slam in the near future, so I can put my opinions to the test.

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