After reading my piece on 3 trends in contemporary African American poetry, the poet and literary scholar Tony Bolden was rightly nudging me to say something about spoken word poetry. A challenge for writing regularly about spoken word relates to the fact that words on the page stand still in ways that words out in the world at the open mic sets and such don't. But more on that challenge later. For now, here are the solid questions that Bolden raised: "How do we expand critical concepts to include variations of spoken word? And how do we create new spaces for such discussions?
I'm not yet sure about the critical concepts, but after listening to key works by a few talented poets--Tyehimba Jess, Saul Williams, Tracie Morris, Patricia Smith, and jessica Care moore--for several years now, I've started to identify some preliminary positions. For now, just a few comments on geography and spoken word.
It's notable in my mind that artists from the Midwest such as Jess, Smith, and Moore have a sound that's not as deeply influenced by the sound of hip hop as say Saul Williams and Tracie Morris. Smith and Jess, in particular, have styles of presentation that are closely aligned with theater; they have styles of delivery that put you in the mind of dramatic monologues. The fast pace and electronic, beat-driven sounds of hip hop do not permeate their performances in the ways that such elements arise in performances by Williams and Morris.
jessica Care moore produces an interesting blend though. She's from Detroit and relocated to NYC early in her career, so you hear a mix in her more recent performances. She has a quick-fire pace and offers emphatic deliveries in the vein of hip hop. Still, there's a word-over-beat privileging that remains at the core of her work that gives her, in my mind, a distinctly Midwest sound.
You want to hear hip hop inflected strands of spoken word then check out Saul Williams's "Ohm" and Tracie Morris's "Project Princess." Sure, Williams has that drama flavor down (he studied theater at Morehouse and starred in Slam), but with "Ohm" and aspects of "Sha-Clack-Clack," you hear something else too. It's a Northeastern style of delivery that's linked to rap and a pre-rap sermonic tradition--a tradition more Malcolm than King, more street-corner preacher than pulpit one. Still hard to pin it down in technical terms. Williams raises his voice and intensity, though, in ways you rarely hear from folks located on the MFA maps.
Whatever the case, Saul Williams is a New Yorker. Influenced by hip hop. So is Tracie Morris, who in performances of "Project Princess," takes on the instrumental sounds of the music, including most notably the turntable. In the world of poetry, some of what Morris does is considered "experimental." In the world of hip hop though, folks would link her to human beatboxers such as Doug E. Fresh, Rahzel, Scratch.
Today, because of the availability of recordings and youtube, it's possible to hear the same kinds of sounds all over the country. So in addition to geography, generational issues are key too. Aside from their significance as outstanding poets then, Tyehimba Jess, jessica Care moore, Tracie Morris, Patricia Smith, and Saul Williams are, I firmly believe, treasures because their distinct sounds capture important moments, migrations, and distinct locales in black cultural history.