Rich Villar goes buckwild on his blog with his manifesto A Defining Line: Plato, Performance, Poems, and Points (Ten of ’em).
I dig it. Every artist should examine, plot out and articulate their personal relationship to their art at various points in their progression and extra props if you put it out in print.
Back to Rich’s ten defining points; some I agree with and some I don’t jive with. Because I know Mr Villar loves a good debate, I’m about to expand and challenge a couple of his points.
4) Academia, for our purposes here, is the system of professors, professionals, and institutions that gives (some) poets a voice at the university level.
This category should also include any poems taught at any part of the education spectrum–grade school, after-school programs, high school, community workshops, et al. I bring this up because I keep hearing a lot of poets who consider themselves “spoken word” or “grassroots” complain about “academic poetry” but have no problems teaching canonical text in their own workshops and have even less beef when their own poems are taught. They also seem to have no problem with university academic culture when they get offered money to recite poetry for such institutions. I’m also wary of limiting the definition of “academia” to just the university level because it just adds more height to the Ivory Tower.
5) The “Poetry Business,” or “Po-Biz” for short, is a somewhat oxymoronic term for the system of publishing houses, journals, editors, industry professionals, endowed institutions, etc. that by and large determine which poems get published in the United States.
This should also includes the college performance circuits, Def Poetry and the National Poetry Slam. If there is no such thing as “spoken word” poetry (which I agree with to a certain extent) then why limit the power brokers to only published works. If we want to dismantle the Po-Biz, the best way to do it is to parse out the ability to determine what gets published into as many hands who are willing to do it. Of course, this will lead to a lot more poetry being published which means some will be bad, some will be good and some will be genius. I’ll play the role of optimist and look forward to reading the genius work.
And let’s not forget about internet and print-on-demand publishing when talking about “Po-Biz.” Today’s self-published art is tomorrow’s classic text.
6) The manner in which Academia and the Po-Biz conspire with each other, consciously or unconsciously, determines what kind of poetry is remembered and written about. This system has existed for quite a while, but like any monolith, it also inspires movements against it.
Slam started this way, but it has gradually been pacified through scholarly study.
To blend my previous points together, let us include how institutions like Youth Speaks get together with HBO to produce a canon of what youth poetry is supposed to be. Let’s also state that entropy is the natural state of things and thus most of the public will get their poetry from the most attractive and easily accessible package available. Note: Def Poetry Jam, Norton Anthologies, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Best American Poetry, the National Poetry Slam.
9) No poetry is an offshoot of hip-hop, no matter what Def Jam tells you. Please refer to number 1: there is no such thing as spoken word poetry. Hip-hop influences poems, profoundly so, but it does not birth them.
Oh yes, there is hip-hop poetry. Please refer to Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Amiri Baraka, the Last Poets and Mikey Piñero for pre-Def Jam examples.
Now do I consider every poem completely populated by rhyming couplets with the introduction/metaphor/non-sequitur/hook formula a hip-hop poem? No.
Do I consider every poem, regardless of form, seeking to define the poet’s personal definition of hip-hop poem? Yes.
The fact that hip-hop is not a strict definition or an easily located place on a map makes the work of creating a hip-hop poem an incredibly challenging prospect full of failures and occasional triumphs. Will I disavow hip-hop poetry because of a few bad poems? No way, it would would be along the same lines of dismissing Nuyorican Poetry because of some poor practitioners.
I combine hip-hop and Nuyorican poetry because I consider the two born out of the same undefinable atlas that befuddles proponents of a “pure mainstream poetic.” (Q: How can there be poems about a place that’s not found on a map? A: Easy, we change the map!)
Hip-hop influences, births, nurtures and (hopefully) chastises mainstream poetry in the same way other cultural movement such as jazz, Feminism and Ethnic Studies to name but a few origin/destination points of poetry.
10) Performance poetry does not exist either…but if it did, I’d be willing to bet that Sekou Sundiata is its daddy.
Performance poetry does exist but I like to call it orality. In my personal history, my father is its inventor but for the purposes of this discussion it can start with Homer, if ya like. Or García Lorca, or Pedro Pietri, or Anne Waldman, or Al Robles, or Jorge Brandon, or Joy Harjo. Take your pick.
And, in the personal two cents department, I’ll include my own 11th Commandment.
11) Poetry’s roots are in storytelling and audience. Any medium or institution that tries to create a gulf between poet and audience is unnatural. Any medium or institution that strives to unite poet and audience is adaptive. Darwin’s law takes over after that.