Monday, July 25, 2011

Spoken Word Poetry & Black Intellectual Histories

Unlike many of the poets whose 100 or so books are in our collection, spoken word poets are less likely to belong to large academic and formal literary institutions. There are some formal channels for spoken word, but those channels are not generally as well-established as those channels for so-called "professional" or "literary" poetry. There's also no massive award system in spoken word, certainly not to the extent of the ones that include the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the National Poetry Series, etc.

As a result, spoken word poets have received relatively little institutional and scholarly attention, despite the fact that the art form remains popular among so many diverse audiences.

Of course, mainstream, popular success might be a reason that elite sectors of literary cultures overlook spoken word. If it's too accessible, the thinking often goes, then it's too easy and therefore not literary enough. Whatever.

I was recently re-reading an essay "Black Intellectuals: Choosing Sides" by bell hooks and reminded that so much African American intellectual work is often unacknowledged because of the lack of formal ties with the academy. This is not to say that spoken word poetry does not have a presence on university campuses. Student-led spoken word poetry events and cyphas, in fact, are hugely popular at colleges across the country. Yet, there's relatively little discussion about how these spaces nurture intellectual or mind work and encourage folks to build consciousness.

The same goes for those spoken word poetry events organized throughout various cities. No doubt, there's various not-so-good stuff here and there, as it is with all artistic productions, but these public poetry or spoken word events also operate as vital spaces for prompting folks to build knowledge, explore and study black history, question and critique oppressive systems, organize with diverse groups of folks, and re-present, preserve, and extend black expressive traditions.

The intellectual value of the social and cultural activity that takes place at these events so often escapes us. That and the venues themselves are often regularly changing and people are coming and going. So it's hard to account for everything.

A little while back, I was writing about the Mississippi poet and cultural worker C. Liegh McInnis. I'm realizing that the story of his literary and creative life is at the same time a powerful story of mind work and knowledge building. He has benefited and his audiences have benefited -- intellectually among other ways -- from those spoken word events.

The work of some of the more well-known performance and spoken word artists such as Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Tracie Morris, Staceyann Chin, and Patricia Smith to name a few also comes to mind. Quite a bit has been said about the outstanding nature of their performances. But maybe we could say more about how and why they serve as political and intellectual inspirations for folks interested in, for instance, principles associated with black studies.

There's also the matter that modes and methods of performing constitute their own kinds of intellectual histories. Two poets, Treasure Williams and Tyehimba Jess, whom I frequently write about, had careers as performers prior to establishing themselves in literary circles. When they read or perform their poetry, you witness an education and display of knowledge rooted in & routed to cultural spaces and practices that exist well beyond the confines of the academy.

Oh, and there are more. For years and years now, spoken word artists have taken to new media. Many of them have always had their self-published books and CDs, but you can also find them performing their work on myspace and youtube. Or, you can find them exchanging ideas and promoting events on twitter and facebook.

They face challenges, however, that are similar to many of the "literary" poets: finding centralized, visible venues and larger audiences. It's tough though. These markets are filled with talented artists, and one of the key ways to gain recognition is by winning various competitions, which means beating out others.

Still, quite a few folks are out there performing or organizing performances for the sake of community and raising consciousness, which is to say the spoken word events serve to bring folks together and function as platforms for producing knowledge and information. Sure, I don't want to over-romanticize these sites--they're filled with questionable characters and caricatures.

Yet, there's all kinds of empowering and useful work done in these spaces and by the poets as well. I've been a witness.

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