In Defense of Performance Poetry

While roaming the Internet the other day (a dangerous habit as many well know), I came across an essay titled "Poetry is not a Performance Art" written by Miles Mathis. The essay was a response to the announcement that the White House would host its very first "Poetry Jam" back in 2009, featuring a wide range of performers from musician and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, to actor James Earl Jones, to poets Jamaica Osorio, Joshua Bennett, and the poet that Mathis decided to use as his primary target in his piece: Mayda Del Valle.

First, some background: An artist, poet, and (according to the bio on his website) an extremely educated individual, Mathis has published various novels and articles covering a wide range of subjects, from mathematics and astronomy to art criticism. He has displayed his paintings in galleries around the world and has received numerous awards for his various artistic creations. Though a polarizing figure at times (by his own bio's admission), Mathis is certainly accomplished, and I don't doubt that his extensive education and experience are at work in forming the attitudes expressed in his essay.

Now I am a strong supporter of "slam" or "performance poetry," but I do think Mathis' piece -- unwarranted presumptions aside -- is somewhat relevant. I realize the essay is now a bit dated, however it nonetheless communicates longstanding objections many "poetry purists" and academics have about this new form (genre?), namely that much of it is sloppy, unoriginal and without substance (I touched on this issue in a previous article, but Mathis' essay allows me to confront it more directly). These highbrow assumptions often lead to renaming it "hip-hop poetry," and though there are sometimes similarities between the two cultures, this title is a gross generalization (again, Mathis is not the only one to make this connection. Check out the video below, which includes Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson, Anis Mojgani, and Derrick Brown -- all extremely accomplished performance poets and certainly not rappers on the days when they don't feel like pretending. Yet somehow the interviewer made the connection anyway. Oh, and 75 percent of them are white. You'll see why this is relevant in a moment).

These assumptions about the poetry also lead to hasty conclusions about the clientele, who according to Mathis are "a mainly female hip-hop audience...80% female and 90% non-white." Mathis goes on to twist this into a sort of reverse racism, noting that "even in the 21st century, white guys should be fairly included and fairly represented in poetry. A poetry contest, written or spoken, should be about poetry, not racial or sexual identification." He believes that by being white, he is actually "implicitly and explicitly excluded by all competitions."

(Wait... what?)

In light of these generalizations, Mathis' choice to target Mayda Del Valle, a non-white female influenced by hip-hop, becomes clear. It really isn't about the actual poetry for him, but rather the appropriation of "poetry" as an art from by a people and culture he deems unfit to partake in its creation. It is less about the inclusion of individuals who help push the boundaries of what poetry "should be" and more about how Mathis feels like he doesn't fit into this growing phenomenon. His lamentations about the supposed lack of diversity among slam audiences, for example, are completely misguided (and exaggerations on his part, I hope). He claims to have taken part in a slam back in the '90s, yet attributes his inability to "get a single vote" to this lack of diversity and the shallow minds of his listeners. Again, these objections seem to reveal a disdain for a culture rather than a legitimate concern for quality (in order to prove he is not acting on the impulse of some "deep-seated racism or sexism," Mathis also chooses to critique Dante Basco, another poet of non-white descent. Now I'm in no way labeling him a racist, but this helps Mathis' case how?)

But in an effort to look past any of the prejudice Mathis seems to be communicating and curb my urge for any more personal affronts, let us suppose that sex and race has nothing to do with his argument, that Mathis did not attribute Del Valle's success, in part, to her being "fairly attractive," and keep it strictly about the poetry.

Mathis' biggest gripe about Del Valle's work, and slam poetry in general, is that it is commonplace, that it relies on cliché and does not attempt to rise above the banality of everyday speech. "Real poetry is intended words with unintended consequences," Mathis writes. "Slam poetry is intended consequences with unintended words." Had he even thought to watch Del Valle's performance at the White House (shown below), the very appearance he so adamantly opposed, he very may well have thought to revise his essay (I have searched his website, but so far I cannot find a second visit to the subject).

Del Valle's homage to her grandmother is anything but commonplace. She spins together strands of extremely personal images to conjure a portrait of her grandmother, evoking emotion through actual words rather than through her performance alone. Her poem actively defies commonplace as a result of its intensely personal subject matter, so it clearly does not use cliché to form a relationship with its audience. Rather, her poem works in the way a poem should: by allowing the audience to draw what it can from her words and react individually based on how those words hit them. Is this not what "poetry" should be, according to Mathis? How could it not be?

Like Del Valle's performance, there is so much more to be found in slam poetry than cliché and poorly planned delivery. There is substance, there is innovation, and there is individuality. And while it is important to note that I do not doubt there are cases in which Mathis' conclusions ring true, might not that be the case for poetry as a whole? Cliché and banality surely don't manifest themselves solely in performance poetry.

And this is exactly what I find troubling about Mathis' essay, and why I feel the need to address it. Again, it echoes assumptions about slam poetry that are commonplace among the "educated," and these assumptions are often manifested in a similarly accusatory and prejudiced manner. Mathis, for example, likes to point to the fact that slam poetry has been incorporated in school curricula as a sign of rising illiteracy, and he is not alone in this sentiment.

But how, exactly, is this the case? Doesn't incorporating slam poetry in schools actually increase interest in poetry and self-expression? Aren't literary programs like Youth Speaks, programs that champion performance poetry, actually uniting children from different walks of life in a shared interest in things poetic?

These assumptions necessarily create alienation, a disconnect between academics and a counter-culture they seemingly do not wish to be included in even if they feign interest, like Mathis' attempt at slamming. And whether or not this disconnect is indicative of any other underlying sources of tension or prejudice, the fact remains that this disconnect unfairly hinders performance poetry in being validated as a serious poetic form (what are the chances you'd see a performance poet become poet laureate today? Exactly).

And that is not to say I believe validation is something needed in order to thrive. Indeed, performance poetry is clearly on the rise, and with a distinct inclination for inclusion rather than alienation. Which, I think, is what I am most fond of concerning this particular type of poetry -- the sense of community in the majority of its circles is almost overwhelming. Perhaps ironically, given the judgment inherent in a poetry slam, there is actually very little judgment outside of the numbers. Poets brave enough to undress themselves on stage (metaphorically, of course) are met with none of the outward disdain in Mathis' essay -- they are embraced, not shot down, and in this way performance poets will potentially share their work with more people than Mathis could ever dream of. The culture of critique is surely present -- competition is an integral element, after all -- but it is not at the forefront. Indeed, it is found absent more often than not.

Perhaps this culture of inclusion does somehow "dilute" the talent pool, and gives Mathis' concerns about quality some weight. And perhaps this supposed pool could even benefit from Mathis' contributions, if he were bold enough to take part. But his absence is surely not a result of "implicit exclusion" -- it is the result of fearing a culture's rise above obsolete standards so many like Mathis desperately cling to in order to preserve some semblance of stability or assurance of what is "good" and "bad" poetry. Change is good, especially in this art form, and in perhaps the greatest display of poetic irony, I am sure it would welcome poets like Mathis with open arms were they brave enough to step up to the mic.