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.