Def Poetry’s fourth episode got off to a fast start with an a cappella rap duet by two guys who call themselves Poem-cees. The theme of this piece was “you’re cheating on me” — a theme as classic as country blues, Shakespeare and Homer — and this duo’s treatment was fresh enough.
Geoff Tranchard, a tall guy with a Kramer haircut and a skinny tie, was also fresh enough with a prose piece about teaching poetry workshops to kids. It wasn’t poetry but it was about poetry, and Tranchard had something to say. Def Poetry’s batting two for two at this point, which meant there had to be some bad stuff coming up.
Marty McConnell’s praise-poem for the human body, unlike the first two pieces, was actually structured as a poem, and might have worked on paper. On stage, though, it was overly earnest and pretentious. Walt Whitman sang the body electric 150 years ago. This poem seemed to be going for the same effect, but I wasn’t persuaded.
Next up was a spoken word legend, Nikki Giovanni, who has the same exalted status in the African-American poetry community that, say, Diane DiPrima has among Beat aficianados. I’ve seen her knock out crowds in clubs, and I was expecting this elder stateswoman to show the young’uns how it’s done. Instead, she tossed off a few short sentences, told us that white people aren’t qualified to understand her poetry, and booked off the stage like she had to catch a cab. Well, Nikki, this white guy is qualified to do whatever the hell he wants, including telling you to reach a little deeper next time. Big disappointment from the most well-known poet of the night.
Roger Boniard-Agard picked the pace back up with a piece about losing his virginity to calypso. With a strong Trini-accented voice, he dominated the stage and got the show back on its feet.
Chicano poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo dominated the stage some more with a powerful, loud tribute to a revolutionary figure from Chicano history, also named Joaquin. I have to admit that I have no idea who this legendary Joaquin is, and whether or not he is a historical figure or a figment of the poet’s imagination — but this excellent piece made me want to learn more. If anybody can help explain the historical meaning of this poem, I’d love to know — either way, the poet told a convincing tale.
Next up — Queens is in the house! Ishle Park is a young Korean woman who recently became the poet laureate of my own hometown, Queens, New York (which happens to be where Def Poetry creators Russell Simmons and Danny Simmons are also from). I was psyched to see her show up, but with all the Queens energy in the air I was disappointed that she read a piece about Rodney King, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the conflicts between Koreans and African-Americans in South Central. I don’t want to complain, but why can’t Def Poetry reach for racial relevance — if that’s what it wants to do — without resorting to well-worn cliches? This is 2005, and there’s gotta be something newer in the air for us to talk about than Los Angeles in 1992. Hey, cops beat people up in Queens too …
Willie Perdomo is a skillful and experienced spoken-word performer, and his “Nigger-Reecan Blues” was a humorous rant about life as a black Puerto-Rican, and the annoyance of having to constantly explain the simple fact of his mixed heritage to others.
The show ended with a musically rich piece by a duo called Floetry. One recited, one hummed and sang, and it worked.
The fourth episode of the fifth season of Def Poetry Jam left me half-satisfied, wishing for greater diversity of texture and greater richness of word. But it was an enjoyable word-packed half hour, and time will tell if it was memorable or not.