From the Mouths of Poets
Poetry, as a literary form, is a relatively recent idea, yet weaving stories and thoughts in a concise structure that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time. Today spoken word is a popular, more democratic way for poets to get their work and words out.
- Things I tell myself about my skin:
I like it this way.
Remember that time I questioned
Why God molded me out of tar and sky?
Remember that time I met that girl
Who thought bleach would lighten
All the burdens off her back?
- [Jim] Most of us were probably first exposed to poetry
on the page in a classroom.
But over the past few decades,
spoken word poetry has grown in popularity,
bringing verse from page to stage.
Today, performance poetry takes place in over 1000 cities,
large and small around the world.
And YouTube gives anyone with a camera
and an internet connection,
the potential for a global audience.
But this isn't just an evolution of written poetry
for the digital age.
It's really a return to the fundamentals of poetry,
the intense expression of ideas and emotions.
- Once they see poetry and experience, they're like,
"Oh, I didn't know poetry could be this."
And it's like,
"Yeah, 'cause you had the wrong introduction."
- It's an amazing art form.
And it comes down to every detail;
to line breaks,
to how you look at somebody in your eyes,
to the specific word that you decided to use at that moment.
- We feel poetry all the time.
You know, we feel it in music.
We feel it, sometimes, in language.
Yeah, we have an instinct.
- But to me, poetry is a live phenomenon.
It's something you really need to see to experience fully.
So I remained an only child,
In a house of cards that I'm waiting to be crushed by,
Or paper-cut to a slow death with.
The fear of living in a house of cards
is knowing the right gust of wind
can paper-cut you to death.
- [Jim] Shihan Van Clief has been writing and performing
poems for three decades.
He's one of the founders of Da Poetry Lounge,
the largest and longest running open mic
in the United States.
- So you introduce people to poetry
most of the time in middle school,
seventh, eighth, ninth grade,
you know, for...
You know, they read Shakespeare or Walt Whitman.
And so when you start reading,
and you don't care about what you're reading,
you read it in a disinterested voice.
And so it doesn't make you want
to know anything else about it.
Because I think Shakespeare is dope,
I think Walt Whitman was dope,
I think they're all dope.
But there's something from this
that you get when you see it live.
I thought it was cool.
Some spoken word allows young people to get in touch
with their story and who they are
a lot earlier than some other traditional means,
- [Jim] Alyesha Wise is the co-founder
of the Spoken Literature Art Movement
and the former head coach of the Poetry Lounge's Slam team.
Like many people,
her love for spoken word began when she was young.
- Homecoming happened.
It was the homecoming pageant in high school.
And I entered it and I decided
to write a poem called "Homecoming".
And I don't know why, I was just like,
"You know what? I'm feeling different about my life now.
I think I'm gonna switch things up."
I said, "I'm gonna write a poem about that."
About, you know, changing my life and being a better person.
And I wrote that poem.
And I cried up there, you know, after the poem was done.
Some of my family members were in the audience
and that was the beginning.
I wasn't perfect,
right after that poem.
But that was the beginning of a new me.
Tell me my voice is an ocean of violence.
I wanna know what it feels like to bloom,
To have the stage salute you.
Or don't tell me at all.
Remain a secret I yearn to break,
A vinyl leaning against my living room wall.
I will grow old,
And you will always look the exact age
You've looked since 1958.
My name is Wise,
I am an owl.
Your name is Prince,
You are a dove.
We can just hang out on the weekends.
- [Jim] Spoken word poetry
didn't originate in one place or time in history.
Humans have used rhythmic, poetic utterances
for thousands of years all over the world.
Across Africa, tribes used performance poetry for education,
entertainment, and ceremonial purposes.
The Greeks had a sort of spoken word competition
in their ancient Olympic games.
In Arabic, the word "Koran" means "recitation."
It's based on the belief
that the holy text was revealed by an angel
who recited it years before it was ultimately written down.
The modern interest in written poetry
that we read rather than recite or hear is relatively new.
- Poetry predates the printed text.
That's just it, right?
And that tells us a lot, right?
This idea that people have been speaking poems,
i.e spoken word,
for quite a long time.
- [Jim] Javon Johnson is a poet and director
of African-American and African Diaspora Studies
at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
His book, "Killing Poetry;
Blackness and the Making of Slam
and Spoken Word Communities"
examines the relationship
of contemporary spoken word poetry
to written and academic poetic institutions.
- We build our schools, our publishing houses.
We build awards for each other.
We build our own structures that if...
That has the possibility to be the things
that we want them to be.
You should know that daddy only knows two options:
He knows go hard or go home.
He knows 200 miles per hour or burnt rubber stop.
He knows nothing in between.
You will soon learn that your daddy also loves this way.
You'll have a hard time understanding
How anyone in this world could ever call me mean
"Not my daddy," you'll say.
"He's the kindest man in the world."
- [Jim] Nowhere is the relationship
between poetry and power clearer than in the United States.
Around the turn of the 20th century,
singing poets emerged in the U.S.,
traveling and trading poems for food and lodging.
But the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s
is one of the key inflection points
in U.S. oral poetry tradition.
Writers and thinkers like Langston Hughes
and Zora Neale Hurston
planted the seeds of jazz-infused cadences,
and socially conscious subject matter
that grew to be the foundation of modern spoken word.
Like most artistic evolutions,
that history grew out of necessity.
For the generations of African-Americans
building lives after slavery,
poetry and broader artistic expression
became a means of survival.
- In a moment when black people were newly free,
and the country was asking,
"What do we do with," the so-called, "Negro problem?"
Art becomes a way to answer that,
to push back,
to say, "There is not a Negro problem.
There's a U.S problem."
But also to say that,
"We're fine if we're given access to...
But also on some level, we can prove to you
that we can do just as many creative things,
we can prove to you that we are just as human."
Learn how to scream, "No," and mean it.
Be as loud as the day you were (muted) born and mean it.
I cannot wait to sing the first song to you.
- [Jim] If art is a way
to prove power and worth in a society,
spoken word communities have evolved
to try to democratize that ability.
While literary poetry
became a hierarchical guarded academic pursuit,
oral poetry became a decentralized response.
A tool for the disenfranchised to express themselves
on a level playing field.
That's why one of the core tenets of spoken word
is that writers perform their own poems.
Authenticity is essential.
- See your body...
And that's one of the great things about spoken word;
Is the vulnerability,
is the connection.
Even if somebody doesn't connect to your exact story,
they feel it in some kind of way.
The look somebody gives you after a poem is done
They go, "Wow, thank you."
And we're from like opposite sides of the city,
or country, or world.
And they're like, "Thank you. I get it."
It's like we're all connected in some way.
- [Jim] Today, spoken word
is a close cousin to one of the most widespread,
most popular musical styles in the world;
The two art forms have a common ancestry.
In the late 1960s,
a group of black writers, musicians and activists
formed The Last Poets and began releasing albums
blending musical, poetic, and political stylings.
In the early 70s,
one of the last poets contemporaries,
poet and jazz musician, Gil Scott-Heron,
recorded "The Revolution will not be televised".
A track that likewise mixed jazz, blues,
spoken word and activism.
♪ You will not be able to stay home, brotha ♪
♪ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. ♪
♪ You will not be able to lose yourself on skag ♪
♪ And skip out for beer during commercials ♪
♪ Because the revolution will not be televised. ♪
- [Jim] Both Scott-Heron and The Last Poets
are credited as the godfathers of Hip hop and rap.
A lot of early Hip hop has much in common with spoken word.
But the main difference
is that hip hop focuses more on rhythm and rhyme.
- Hip hop;
You know how it's gonna sound the next line.
You know how the rhyme scheme is set up,
for the most part.
In poetry it's like,
especially in spoken word,
you can pretty much do what you want with the flow.
You can start rhyming then all of a sudden
you can switch it up and not rhyme anymore.
- With hip hop and poetry,
I think they all come down to story.
When they're told...
When they're done right,
it's story, it's a dope story.
And, you know, rap just basically...
And basically, rap comes from the word...
which means someone who's good with words.
So I think it's clear where that is.
You know what I mean? Wording is important, so.
- You don't have to be a fan of hip hop
to write spoken word.
Most of my favorite spoken word artists grasp onto Hip hop
and are fans of Hip hop.
The word play that they choose,
the way they move up there...
You see how I just moved my head?
It's something that happens. It...
There's such a parallel between the two art forms.
♪ We don't do them split decisions ♪
♪ Nor do we split the pie with people who don't recognize ♪
♪ This is something special--
- [Jim] But as the poet and rapper Sugar Tongue Slim,
or STS, would put it,
it's difficult to be both at the same time.
- I tell people all the time,
"Just because you do poetry, don't mean you can rap.
And just 'cause you rap, don't mean you do poetry."
It's just two different worlds.
It's like, you know, with the beat constraining you
as a rapper,
and then you having to use couplets all the time.
Poetry you're free.
You can go wherever.
If you wanna obey the margins, you can.
But most people don't.
And so, you know, it allows you to do more.
But to understand how to do each of 'em perfectly,
you have to really focus in on it.
Like, when I'm focusing on rapping,
like, if I'm working on an album or something,
then don't bother me about poetry
'cause I need to stay rap.
But if I write poetry, then everything's gonna change.
Like, my whole mood is gonna change.
Shooting at the stars, almost hit mars.
Tag the sun on the side, trying to the Lord.
Give me 2, 3 or 12 and I'm gon' see hell,
7 or 11 I might just reach heaven.
And I can work a 9-5 or a 4-10,
But then I'm betting straight money
- [Jim] Because spoken word
is so much about a very personal expression
of personal experiences,
it's odd that one of the most popular forms of spoken word,
is judged and scored;
it's a competition.
Well, that competitiveness is also what keeps it open
- Slam is an oral poetry competition
judged by five random people selected in the audience
using Olympic style scoring from 0.0 to 10.0,
encouraging decimals so as to discourage ties.
Those five judges after hearing a poem
would throw up their score,
you drop the high and the low,
you add up the three,
thus your score from 0.0 to 30.0.
- The people decide what is and what isn't
in regards to the art form, right?
'Cause they support what they support.
There are certain people who will be supported,
others who don't.
And so that kind of becomes the...
How it maintains its relevancy
as the audience, kind of, does what it does.
- [Jim] Slam began in 1980 in Chicago when Marc Smith,
a construction worker,
decided to spice up poetry readings he was hosting
by matching up poets against one another, like a fight.
Since then the form has spread around the world.
But the competitive framing still tends to reward
the authenticity that's foundational to spoken word.
- The one thing Slam seemingly asks for
is a perceived truth.
And I use perceived truth
because it doesn't have to be truthful by any definition.
It just has to appear truthful, right?
That's a really important thing;
that Slam wants a truth, right?
Whatever the truth is, how...
You know, it's like, "Ah, that's that person's story?
Who am I to argue against that?"
And I think that's important, right?
- For the most part,
with my more vulnerable poems,
they've done very well,
especially when I was true to myself.
When I went up there really, you know,
not thinking about the performance per se,
but thinking about, "I need to get this out."
What I always remind myself,
"Be honest on a stage because people see that."
And I'm not always happy
when horribly written poems do well,
but I do understand why an audience connects to that
because they're like,
"Whoa, look at her, getting free up there."
- She wants to let me know
What's going to happen when she passes.
And I don't wanna think about the future,
But I anticipate its destruction.
See, in all my years on this planet,
I've never witnessed someone in a box
Lowered into the ground and then dedicated to the sky.
So when I die,
I wanna be cremated,
Burning up all of my imperfections,
And then have someone sprinkle what's left over,
Over someplace I've never been to
In hopes of inspiring someone
I will never know anything about.
- [Jim] Some people are uncomfortable
with the competitive environment of Slam.
The literary critic, Harold bloom went so far as to call it,
"The death of art."
But for the poets investing their time, energy and passion
into their work,
Slam and the broader spoken word ecosystem
that has taken root around the world,
are the opposite of that.
- So we started Da Poetry Lounge for us to hear each other,
and to support each other,
and to get us through what we were going through.
I think that lounge is important
because the consistency of what lounge is
and what it represents,
gives people the feeling that
even if they disappear and they leave,
they can come back and know it's still there.
- Many of us are coming to the conclusion that it is...
Or that there's a large place,
a place large enough to contain
all of these different impulses.
When I was a student,
like 25 years ago,
there was a big divide between academic poetry,
and performance poetry.
Now there are so many poets who do both
that that anxiety,
is diminished greatly.
- (indistinct) so much of, like, early poets
were trying to get into this sort of poetry literary world
to prove our merit,
to prove our value,
to prove our worth.
"We too are real writers,
not just people who rant on a stage."
And I said to myself,
"Why are we doing that?
Why are we trying to prove our worth to those structures?"
What I've found to be most valuable
and most brilliant about Slam and spoken word poets,
which is the radical potential,
does not lie in our abilities to prove our worth
or our merit to these sort of frustrating structures.
The radical potential is really in our ability
to build new structures altogether.
- Yeah, I think this art form still has a long way to go.
I agree with that.
But at the same time,
I believe that it's in a very special place right now.
It's definitely changing the world.
I am not here for the non-believers.
I am not here for those who cringe
When they see me seeing all of myself.
This bodily prayer is strictly between my sight and the sun
And all the good folk
Who answered the presence of this church
With no other words on their tongue
(bright classical music)
- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.