Def Poetry: July 1 2005

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.

4 Responses

  1. *Sigh*I have to agree.

    I have to agree.
    “Racial relevance” – that’s good. What I keep seeing from Def Poetry is the unwillingness to break from the same stereotypes that bind us in our day-to-day lives. It’s funny to me how these poets miss the mark and go back to what they know works (i.e. poems about broken-loves and betrayals). Where’s the racial experimentation, the spoken-word anthem, the angry call-to-arms about injustice that plagues each race? What I’m looking for is unity in the poetry. A We-Are-The-World, We’re-Here-And-Won’t-Disappear-So-Get-Used-To-It chant, rant, canto that will move the audience to cheer! Omit the Smokey Robinson “Gang Bangin'” song and re-work it into something more current, more relevant. Racial relevant.

  2. Exactly. I want this show to
    Exactly. I want this show to hit on ethnic issues, but I wish the poets would speak from personal experience instead of the same old stuff. If Spike Lee already made a movie about it, it’s probably NOT fresh.

    I do like it, though, that Def Poetry tries to represent a lot of different population groups, from blacks to jews to hispanics to old people to short people to science-fiction nerds. They get big points for diversity. Now I’d like to see them get big points for originality.

  3. Joaquin MurietaMurieta is the
    Joaquin Murieta

    Murieta is the surname of the legendary Joaquin in Joaquin Zihuatanejo’s poem. He is both an actual historical figure and a legend almost the Chicano Robin Hood. What was said in the poem is more or less accurate and is probably the story he heard as a child most likely from his grandfather. As far as I know he was a bandit and was violent, vengeful even towards the white settlers. The reason given in the poem for this is the murder and rape of his wife and children this differs depending on who you hear it from some say that it was his brother who was killed and his sister who was raped. I don’t know if that part of the story has any basis in reality or is just legend. Concerning the execution of anyone who was named Joaquin it’s more or less true however it’s more complicated. There where believed to be multiple bandits named Joaqin a bounty was put on five different Joaquins. I’m sure more than one innocent man was killed who happened to be named Joaquin. I am by no means an expert on Joaquin Murieta if you want to learn more a google search will probably tell you all you need to know. In the time of Joaquin Murieta Mexicans were having there land and life as they knew it taken from them. While Joaquin might not have suffered the loss of his loved ones many other mexicans certainly did and in the story of Joaquin they found someone taking what was taken from him back. Someone who took his revenge on those who took that which meant the most to him, his family. He was someone who fought back a hero in legend anyway.

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