Anticipating: breaking poems by Suheir Hammad

It’s been a great month of poetry books and reading events for me with different voices and styles all coming together to help me try to make more sense out of my own poetics. Surprisingly, two roads that have been intersecting quite a bit is the path between hip-hop lit and political poetry.

For starters, I think all hip-hop is political. It’s born of a desire to prove that a culture can emerge from near-nothingness and leave behind a standing testament to celebrate that survival. And, since I can never find an authoritative dictionary meaning for the term poetry, I will say that is one of my personal definitions for poetry as well. I’ll also add that all the poems I am attracted to are political.

In logic terms, if hip-hop is to political what political is to poetry, then hip-hop is poetry. At least it is for me.

The only problem is that a logic equation doesn’t always hold water in the real world; sometimes it only works out in theory, which isn’t good enough. For art to succeed, for poems to be effective, they have to work in practice as well as concept.

This brings me back to the VONA Faculty Reading this past July and my first introduction to Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems. From the get go, these poems resonated with familiar pull and push of the classic hip-hop break, the spot in the song the DJ knows will get the crowd even more amped and up for the party. Suheir started off with “break is this” and images of myrrh and smoke, the intermingling of the holy spice with the clearing of rubble, a slow prayer that reminds the listener of a past horror (the pull) and the hope for more as her speaker’s people enacts the “we” and “still looking for our.”

Since I’m going by my notes from the night, I’m not sure if the speaker is looking for what is “ours” or for more “hours” but that quick wordplay, the cutting and scratching of language, was repeated deftly throughout Suheir’s reading.

The hip-hop break was present again in another poem where “someone is drumming//to accompany the dead” as the rhythms and beats we know from the dance club and blaring car speakers are transformed into measured intonation and consistent meter in Suheir’s breaking poems set.

Then again, these poems don’t all take place in the familiar Bronx of my youth, or Downtown Oakland of my present, they are happening in the present of the speaker’s Palestine. Where the break is not just a musical/poetic concept but the daily real. Suheir’s last poem brought that alive in “break (clustered)” where the shape of the spoken poem took the form of a slow ticking bomb, as it started with an introspective deliverance, as the speaker contemplates on where the break will happen next. “Whose son will it be?” “We mourn women complicated.” This reflective mood is shattered as the language becomes more pointed, the lines more jagged, and the tension builds out to a point even past the poem (“Language can’t math me”) and then settles with the internal image (“One woman//One woman//One woman gives birth”) that is ready to set the break off again and “harvest witness.”

Barb has already started reading breaking poems and is citing some of the bombardment and brokenness I was feeling from the live reading. She is also seeing another layer of code-switching that I didn’t pick up from Suheir’s set. And that’s all good. A reading shouldn’t be the whole book, it can never be since it is only the aural aspect of the poem, but a reading should be about possibility, excitement, and daring. Can the text match the sound? Can a fantastic reader deliver a fantastic book? Can the two aspects of poetry, the orature and the literature, fight to maintain their own space in the speaker’s message?

Anticipating that the answer to all those questions will be a resounding Yes I can’t wait to get a read at Suheir Hammad’s new book and to try to follow along as her book release party is webcast live from the Bowery Poetry Club tomorrow.

More breaking poems:
• Video: Suheir reads “break word”