Def Poetry usually saves its guest stars for the closing spots, but Wyclef Jean opened up the July 15 episode. He got the half hour off to a good start with a pounding tribute to his much-misunderstood native country, Haiti. Wyclef spoke well, somehow managing to fit a backwards somersault into his piece, and proved that he can do spoken word a hell of a lot better than his fellow Fugee Lauryn Hill, who’d appeared to little effect on an earlier show this season.
Nayeli Adorador-Knudsen followed with a fast riff on fashion commercialism, delivered in a Twista-like speed patter that was pleasing to listen to. Spoken word is often about vocal texture, and one of my biggest complaints about this show is that it sometimes slips into a deadening monotony of tone. This piece was a nice departure from that syndrome.
I’m not sure about Michael Cirelli’s paean to Kelis, Nas’s wife, who he compared to every great female vocalist from Sarah Vaughan on. I know Nas must think a lot of Kelis and I know her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, but it seemed an odd choice for a Def Poetry poem, and it didn’t bring me to the yard.
I liked M’reld’s proud, loud voice better — good rhymes, solid spoken word.
Red Storm took us back to the presidential election of 2000 with his angry piece, a litany of everything he doesn’t like that’s happened since then.
Kelly Tsai delivered a really memorable piece about last winter’s tsunami. For some reason, one of the most effective devices for a spoken word poem is the “conversation with god”. Tsai’s message was distinct and heartfelt. This, I think, is the kind of powerful piece that makes this show work.
Paul Mabon read a conflicted piece about his anger at/love for his live-in girlfriend, and a young guy named Kevin Derrig talked about a friend who went to Iraq with the Marines and came back on a stretcher.
Mike McGee was probably the best performer of the show. A fat guy with a freaky beard, he began his piece with an imitation of a blue whale, and it stayed weird from there. The theme was “I like you”, and he took the theme into some strange places. He seemed like more of a “compleat spoken word poet” than the others, displaying poetic dexterity, originality of idea and strong use of body language. I’d love to see this guy do a full performance in a club.
Mike McGee had to be hard to follow, but Narubi Selah and Ise Lyfe did their best.
When I committed to reviewing each episode of this season’s Def Poetry, early this summer, I didn’t realize how much my own ability to appreciate the show would evolve over time. I naturally tend to review each poet as an individual, but in fact the whole show works best as a sort of mixtape. This episode gave us a few good poets and a few mediocre ones, but I felt it moved fast and never dragged. Either the show is getting better, or I’m getting better at liking it, or maybe both.