Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Notes on Tony Medina's Sound

The 100-plus poets who contributed to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut offer a wide range of poetic styles and modes of delivery in a common setting. Wonderful to witness.

One of the many outstanding productions comes courtesy of poet Tony Medina reading his poem "Questions on the Police Officer's Exam." Among the many contributors, his sound is particularly distinguishing. It's like this poetic political voice, or is it a political poetic voice?

It would be a mistake to categorize Medina's sound as "spoken word poetry," at least in the ways that phrase is conventionally deployed. In some respects, Medina projects in a way that is akin to what you might encounter at a political rally. It's not the sound you'd expect at a formal poetry "reading" or even the performance set.

And Medina's sound has histories--one of which is routed to the Black Arts Movement. Remember Larry Neal noting in the late 1960s that "the artist and the political activist are one"? Neal was witnessing and maybe predicting the emergence of poets with a sound like Medina's.

But then, I don't want to situate him only in the realm of the political, not in only the serious street protester kind of way. If you come to this reading having heard and read Medina in multiple other contexts then you know there's some serious playfulness in his work, which is to say he delves in satirical modes and humor.

So my initial observation could be off. Medina's not reading in a just a strictly so-called political way; he could also be reading in a pronounced, emphatic way for this poem because he's assuming the role of test proctor for a group of police cadets who are, hmmm, hard of hearing.   
Early on, he goes "How many bullets does it take to kill an unarmed black man? Is excessive force an oxymoron? Do you know what an oxymoron means? Do you know what an ox is? Are you a moron?" Throughout the poem, he takes you between tears and laughter, which is to say, he's repping a blues tradition, which is to say, if you're locating him along literary trajectories, he's getting at you like Dunbar, or Hughes and Hurston, or Ellison and Baraka.   

Medina's letting you hear a potential scenario: this is obviously what the questions sound like for a police officer's exam. Where do you think we some of our current policing results?  
But one more way that I heard Medina's sound was in the context of those other 100 or so poets contributing to #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. Medina is not old enough to be an elder in the sense of Sonia Sanchez, Eugene B. Redmond, and others. Yet, with 17 books, he's far more experienced than the majority of poets who contributed to the speak out project.

For those reasons, we can think of Medina's sound as a bridge of sorts, a sonic connector between and among generations of poets. I was listening to him read and thinking about where the sounds of the poet have been and where the sounds of the poetry are going.

• A Notebook on #BlackPoetsSpeakOut 

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