Yo mama…

I’m helping a couple of friends in their creative writing lesson plans–the goal is to show the kids some poetry form, a little urban history lesson, and defuse the cappin’ that frequently breaks out in that age group from time to time.

I say cappin’ because that’s what they call it here in Oakland, but I’ve always known it as snappin’–a street contest of quick verbal one-line jabs that can start real personal then quickly escalate to the deeply personal and end up in the land beyond personal (read: talking smack about somebody’s moms). Usually, it is all in fun and everyone walks away entertained and even the loser can feel they’ve gained a lil something out of it (Damn, that last snap was real good; I can’t wait to use it on someone else). In my circle of friends, the ultimate victory was getting your opposing for to just say, “Man…fuck you.” As in, I got no replay for what you just laid on me. This allows the loser to have the last word and throw in the towel while still getting one last barb in.

A fine example of this kind of good-natured ribbing can be found in Willie Perdomo’s “Crazy Bunch Barbecue.” Where even the most serious joke (he said that my family was so poor/that on Thanksgiving/they had to buy turkey-flavored Now & Laters) can be shaken off and laughed at.

But some jokes can cut real deep, deeper than any knife, especially when neighborhood snappin’ can escalate into a serious case of the Dozens. On the real, I’ve never heard it called this until I was all grown and partly out of the Bronx but if this Wiki article is correct (and if you believe every single Wiki entry out there, you probable have already been a victim of the Dozens) then the history of the Dozens in Afro-American culture is long and varied.

To see the Dozens in poetic action, peep Amiri Baraka’s “Jungle Jim Flunks his Screen Test” and notice that there is nothing good natured about the speaker’s tone. He is looking to pick a bar fight and he lays down the gauntlet in the first few lines (You is, you know, James/Veddy ugly) , then drives the point even further (You ugly because you know you ugly and say you ain’t) and brings it to a place beyond reproach (You ugly as the brain emptiness of a cracker lynch mob).

This reminds me of one contest I witnessed where one dude talked about one dude’s moms and the other dude retorted by talking about dude’s mom, her semi-public alcohol problem, and her very public multiple boyfriends. In street terms, he went there and the other guy (in the light of harsh truths) just walked away and took the party with him. Cuz even in our messed up teen boy silliness, we recognized and sympathized with his hurt.

So to keep it all friendly but still push the kids in their ELA skills, the teachers are going to try to teach them “El Trovo del Café y el Atole” (The Contest of Coffee and Corn Gruel), a poem I found in the excellent Herencia: The Anthology Of Hispanic Literature Of The United States. In this poem the trovadores not only poetically duel but also do it as the persona of other objects. I will also be pointing them to the text and comic version of “The Oldest Game,”–a form of persona one-upmanship between Morpheus and Chorozon from Sandman #4: A Hope in Hell— but I hope that the trovo is enough to generate some good writing.

Should be good times and I hope I can post some responses later in the year.

El Trovo del Café y el Atole (excerpto)
Por mi gracia y por mi nombre
Yo me llamo don Café.

En las tiendas más hermosas
Allí me hallará usted.

A la América he venido
Y es claro y evidente

Desde mi país he venido
A conquistar a tu gente.

Verdad yo soy el Atole
Y a Dios le pido la paz.

Café que recio vas.
También yo te dire

Que muchos en el estribo
Se suelen quedar apie.

The Contest of Coffee and Corn Gruel (excerpt)
By my grace and by my name
I am called Mr. Coffee.

In the most luxurious stores
There you will find me.

To America I have come
And it is clear and evident

From my land I have come
To conquer your people.

True I am Corn Gruel
And God I ask for peace.

Coffee don’t go so fast.
I will also tell you

That many in the stirrup
End up having to walk.

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  1. aha, so that’s why you were reading that amiri stuff out loud last nite – that part about the devil being mad that people think you are him. or something.

    harryette mullen discuses the dozens in an interview, where she’s talking about some of the influences for muse and drudge. here.

  2. PS i should have also mentioned the philippine poetic tradition of balagtasan which is also poetic debate/verbal jousting in form: virgilio almario’s paper here.

  3. yep, i love reading those lines out loud. another fave: “Ghouls say you ugly behind yr back/Vampire scared a you”

    (fun side story: roger bonair-agard tells this story where he is at calabash with staceyann chin and amiri is talking to them about how black folk have to step it up and work twice as hard to get even a fraction of the recognition a white writer gets. at this point a white male writer jumps in and agrees with amiri. amiri ignores him and reflects on some personal history to highlight his point. white male writer jumps in again and shares his plight and how he has helped out black writers. this time amiri pauses and asks “who let stupid back in the conversation?” then continues (uniterrupted) with his story.)

    i am SO diggin the links to harryette mullen and balagtasan. i also need to look up some more on decima and look over victor hernández cruz’s essays in Red Beans where he links the decima and his victory at the taos poetry circus.

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