Def Poetry: June 24 2005

I’m glad we got into a small debate about this show last week. Some people like Def Poetry a lot, some people hate it, and you can’t get very far into a discussion of this topic without revealing surprisingly vast rifts between what each of us believe the word “poetry” to mean.

There’s one important point I’d like to emphasize here, though. Def Poetry is the only poetry series on any major television outlet. You can flip through every one of your twenty thousand tv channels (if you have digital cable or satellite), or your hundred tv channels (if you have regular cable) or your 13 channels (if you’ve got an antenna and a rusty old black-and-white). Flip all you want, but you’re not going to find “New Yorker Poetry Live” on PBS, nor will you find “Paris Review Presents” on Ovation, nor will you find “Who Wants To Be A United States Poet Laureate?” on Fox or NBC. There is one, I repeat, ONE major poetry show on television in the year 2005, and this show is Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO.

I hated the way this week’s episode began. Reg E. Gaines is a well-known spoken word poet, and I’ve respected his work every time I’ve seen him perform live. I wish he’d done any of the pieces I’d seen live — anything but an earnest poem about Malcolm X punctuated by taps and shouts from dancer Savion Glover. I can’t take it seriously when I see a poet get emotional about a historical figure who died forty years ago. I want immediacy from my Def Poets. I want to hear stories from real life, not tributes to symbolic figures none of us have ever met. Reg E. Gaines’s performance was well-intentioned but it struck me as contrived, and as for Savion Glover, his duet with Snuffleupagus on “Sesame Street” was better.

I hated the second performance too. Tommy Chunn delivered a funny bit of computer-oriented sexual innuendo (“I interfaced with her floppy disk”, etc.). He got a lot of laughs, which proves my perennial point: poetry audience always loves a comedian, but that doesn’t mean standup comedy is poetry. More likely it means the previous poets have bored the audience into a dull stupor and they’re happy for a chance to laugh. Not poetry. Case closed.

Scorpio Blues has a good name (though not as good as Will Da Real One Bell, who I misidentified as Will Da Real One Bill last week). She’s a fast talking young woman whose innocent face belies her amusing story in which she finds herself stalking an ex-lover.

Gemineye, a tough looking guy in a denim jacket, read a good, original poem about his desire to break past the natural boundaries of sexual relationship in order to truly love his woman in the deepest possible sense. The words were good and the flow was too.

Emanuel Xavier’s manifesto to Hispanic identity was okay. Like Reg E. Gaines, I felt sure this poet had notebooks full of better pieces he could have delivered instead.

Mayda Del Valle took the stage and, finally, we heard the kind of complete performance that makes this show come alive. There are a few ways a poet can approach spoken-word, and one way is to work up a really good, really angry yell. You know a poet has hit their yelling stride when their gasps for air sound like words at the end of every line. Del Valle was screaming about the anguish of misdirected love, and as far as I’m concerned she can scream all she wants.

It’s about time Rev. Run of Run-DMC showed up on Def Poetry Jam. It’s all in the family, of course — Run is Russell Simmons’ brother, and in fact Russell Simmons began his career as Run-DMC’s manager and impromptu record producer. Run is now a preacher, but this hasn’t harmed his lyrical authority at all. He recited slowly from his own songs, starting with this one: “Peter Piper picked peppers, but Run rocked rhymes”. I don’t like it when comedians impersonate poets, but I do like it when a hiphop legend tries out the spoken word form. The show was only half over at this point, but I was already declaring Run the best poet of the night. It’s like that. And that’s the way it is.

Aulelei Love delivered an existential prison metaphor. It seemed to be coming from the heart, unfiltered, and it worked.

Mike Booker showed up in a Bob Marley t-shirt — why do so many poets show up on this show wearing hokey t-shirts? — and performed a boyz-from-the-hood story. Not incredibly original, but I’d listen to him some more.

The legendary 60’s soul singer Smokey Robinson closed the show with a passionate appeal for an end to gang violence and street warfare. Smokey looked good for his age, braided and physically fit, and it’s great that this footage will be available for the video memory banks of the future. His words were strong as well. He was talking about street violence, but he could have been talking about world politics just as well.

8 Responses

  1. and in the naked light I
    and in the naked light I saw

    … ten thousand people maybe more”

    What does this Simon & Garfunkel quote have to do with Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam?

    Because it cracks me up, Levi, that most of the time you bring it up, people reply with “the sound of silence.” hehehe. Well, not everyone. We did have a good discussion about it last week.

    Now, I have to confess…I said I was going to watch it this week and I haven’t yet, but maybe there is still time. I know they show each episode more than once.

    Now that I have googled the lyrics to the Sound of Silence, I’m really in awe of those words.

    “And the signs said, the words of the prophets
    Are written on the subway walls
    And tenement halls.”

    Hey, that relates to street poets and the like.

    Well, I’ve gone this far…why not…if anyone cares to read the lyrics, here they are:

    Hello darkness, my old friend,
    I’ve come to talk with you again,
    Because a vision softly creeping,
    Left it’s seeds while I was sleeping,
    And the vision that was planted in my brain
    Still remains
    Within the sound of silence.

    In restless dreams I walked alone
    Narrow streets of cobblestone,
    ‘neath the halo of a street lamp,
    I turned my collar to the cold and damp
    When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of
    A neon light
    That split the night
    And touched the sound of silence.

    And in the naked light I saw
    Ten thousand people, maybe more.
    People talking without speaking,
    People hearing without listening,
    People writing songs that voices never share
    And no one deared
    Disturb the sound of silence.

    Fools said i,you do not know
    Silence like a cancer grows.
    Hear my words that I might teach you,
    Take my arms that I might reach you.
    But my words like silent raindrops fell,
    And echoed
    In the wells of silence

    And the people bowed and prayed
    To the neon God they made.
    And the sign flashed out it’s warning,
    In the words that it was forming.
    And the signs said, the words of the prophets
    Are written on the subway walls
    And tenement halls.
    And whisper’d in the sounds of silence.

    – Simon & Garfunkel

  2. I don’t think I’d like itIt
    I don’t think I’d like it

    It sounds kind of lame really…

  3. well, i don’t watch def
    well, i don’t watch def poetry jam

    although I’m sure it’s fab. But you know, if “Who Wants To Be A United States Poet Laureate?” were ever to become a reality, I’d be all about that. As I think we all would be.


    Anyway, despite the fact that I’ve never actually seen the show of which you write, I still have some opinions. Because if you know me, you know that I’m never in short supply of those. My first thought is that having poetry on television (albeit cable), is pretty damn cool — it’s nice to know that somewhere in the world, there are studio executives who are willing to televise poetry. Even so, I also think that it would be interesting to see a Def Poetry anthology or something, mainly because I often find a pretty big chasm between quality spoken word and quality written poetry. Sometimes, when I hear a really good performance of a poem, it turns out to be the worst damn fucking poem in the world when I read the words, which is too bad.

    Of course, I know that written vs. spoken word is often like apples vs. oranges, and I guess I wonder why that is. Do you have any thoughts?

  4. Mmmmm…apples &
    Mmmmm…apples & oranges…

    Jamelah, I do have a thought about this actually. I’ve noticed that every poetry jam, slam, or scam has mostly the same ingredients: Some of the poets are good, some not so good, some are there to champion a cause, others are escoteric, others are all about sex and/or love, and like you said, hearing a poem spoken is often quite different from reading it. At worst, a poetry reading is a group of people who each have one agenda, to be heard, and they can’t afford my book and I can’t afford their book, and when that happens, it’s an exercise in futility. ON the other hand, these things can be fun, entertaining, educational, and all the other good words I usually trot out when I like something. Russell Simmons Def Poetry is no different just because it’s on TV; not everybody will like every poet but taken as a whole, it’s better than watching Sean Hannity, who sucks.

  5. I’m curious. Do you go to
    I’m curious. Do you go to many spoken word events? Naturally, some of the participants are better than others, so it’s just a matter of chance whether it’s lame or not. Unless you just don’t like that kind of thing at all, which, most of my friends don’t.

  6. I agree with Bill that each
    I agree with Bill that each of these performer/poets has to be taken as an individual, when considering this question. I know some spoken word poets, like say Todd Colby or Nicole Blackman, are widely read (as widely read as any spoken word poet ever is, anyway) and anthologized, and clearly their work stands up on the page. Three out of four spoken word poets, in my opinion … their words don’t even stand up on stage, forget about on paper. And others are great on stage but do nothing in print. And there sure are a lot of poets out there with a lot to say who just can’t deliver into a microphone.

  7. Anything is better than the
    Anything is better than the horrible “P.O.W.” performance by Alicia Keys on Def Poetry two weeks ago. At least the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s song have meaning. When Alicia gave us the definition of her ‘call letters’, I was bored to tears. “P.O.W.” she shouts, “Prisoner of Words”. Puh-leeze. Simon & Garfunkel’s lyrics are at least moving and filled with meaning. I wish that Ms. Keys would pay heed to the song’s advice and echo the sound of silence.

  8. MeMa, I thought that was the
    MeMa, I thought that was the best performance of the show! What exactly did you dislike so much about it …?

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