Literary Apartheid by jessica Care moore
Essays on one poets struggle for definition.
(An excerpt from her upcoming book…visit www.moreblackpress.com for more info)
“If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I’d have had my audience at once,” –Walt Whitman
I am not a slam poet.
I’ve been planning to write this essay for months now. I needed to wait. To unclench my teeth and unfold my yellow/black fists and step away. I had to breathe, so I could form my fingers into the shape of a writer and hold my pen steady when I finally decided to fire back.
The text I will make reference to makes me want to write my first “slam” poem since 1996 and beat the ideas of this book down in 3 minutes or less. But, I gave up battling with art so long ago. Battling, which is from the “dozens,” which was put on the map by Emcees, not Slam Poetry, as this book asserts, so this space on the page is where I will challenge the text.
Writing about something, in some ways, gives something off center, validation. Even speaks it into existence. I struggled with that idea the same way Mari Evans did when she was asked many years ago to contribute to a group repudiation volume against Shahrazad Ali’s book. At first she declined, thinking it would just go away. But I know, like Mari, the power of books in print.
“Whether created in her own porcelain tower or by committee, or rooted in her own personal gripes with the “slam scene,” the “book” exists. This piece of writing is a response to Susan Somers-Willett’s book, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. The title is a cover-up the very essence of what this book suggests and attempts to support by using failed references and easy targets like media mogul, Russell Simmons.
I suggest this new title: Disgruntled European Slam Poet Dehumanizes Black Poets, comparing them to “black face” minstrels and “commercial niggas like us.”
The smartest thing Willett did with this collection, was write around my history in the world of poetry. I find it interesting that a self proclaimed, “slam scholar” would not put the fact that I was the lone feminine voice of the quite popular Nuyorican Poetry Slam Team of 1996, into any proper context or analysis. Still, this omission helps to further validate my response in this text. Another omission is the credit for Saul Williams’s poetry she used from his first book I published, The Seventh Octave on Moore Black Press. I find this a constant oversight for most “other stream” publishing houses or writers that don’t acknowledge the work he published with me (even though those poems are still very much signature and classic to his fan base), prior to MTV Pocketbooks.
Nothing new there.
I want to state for the record that I am not a “slam poet.” I am a blue-collar poet and writer, I make rock and roll music, I’m a mommy and I’m from Detroit. I wear every hat a writer could wear, including sometime a hardhat like my construction worker daddy. Publisher, poet, scholar, teacher, performer, musician, activist and producer. When I was becoming a true poet, there were no TV shows, slams or cool ways to market what I do. There were books, limited open mic nights in Detroit, mixed in with some disenfranchised students and working class people in search of a way to be heard in my city. A space on the planet to simply be human. I’ve been writing since I was 9-years old. In high school I studied the segregated curriculum that celebrated European male poets of the Canon, and I loved them because I wasn’t given much of a choice. My favorite poets were Alice Walker and Emily Dickinson. I only knew Walker, Angelou and Lorraine Hansberry because of my mother, who “ate” books my entire childhood. In 11th grade my life would change when my drama coach brought Ntozake’s play “For Colored Girls” into the classroom. I was an honors English student, mastering Sonnets and Iambic Pentameter, and devouring Frost, Eliot and Shakespeare.
I didn’t realize the deep cultural politics and institutionalized racism of the education system until I became a more recognized poet and writer. When I began to write my own work, I did what Dickinson or Eliot did, I pulled from my experiences, my environment, my dreams. Eliot pulled words from his wife’s mouth. She had an interesting mouth, so why not?
I went to catholic private schools, spent four years at public high schools, and did undergraduate work at Michigan State University and Wayne State University. I find it strange that Willett’s book blatantly implies that The Black Arts Movement was anti-academic. This is the furthest from the truth. Dudley Randall? Larry Neal? Leroi Jones? Don L. Lee? Sonia Sanchez? They fought against the indoctrinating power of institutionalized racism. They are/were teachers, scholars, and institution builders.
They fought against segregated classrooms. They were against segregated curriculums, which is exactly what students are still offered today. Hence, we continue to graduate a bunch of Masters of Nothing who are proficient and well versed in only a glimpse of the vast writing in American Literature.
Willett examines race and the politics of an art form with no historical references of how our (our meaning writers of color) work evolved. No mention on the influence of dislocation and how that affects language and the people who speak and write in it.
She argues that “black poets” often use their “authentic” race experience to influence or entertain white liberal guilt. This accretion is racist at its core. When I began writing, I was a young nationalist thinker. I was student organizer. My work was and has never been “art for arts sake.” I wrote from my heart, but I also knew the importance of studying the craft. What place to write from first, if not the mirror?
You cannot criticize poets of color, Native, Asian, African, American, Indian, Chicano or otherwise, for writing about their particular experience. It’s the same as criticizing Jordan for taking over the NBA in his prime. It seems some of the slam culture committee looks at us as a coup of sorts! Black poets conspiring and writing poems to take over an art form that claims a humble beginning in Chicago by a blue-collar construction worker and poet, Marc Smith. ???
The author generalizes black poets, even those who are well versed in craft, and then gets permission to use their own work to make her case. Wow!
If we “use” our authentic experience to get higher scores at slams, then Willett uses her own authentic white privilege to get her book deal and validation for her ideas from a University Press. This is very difficult for a young writer or poet of color with strong opinion to accomplish. What is the difference?
The book notes that black poets have concurrently won slams. Well, who was the first Nuyorican Poets Slam Champion? My longtime associate and amazing writer, Paul Beatty. A six foot tall black man who is a now an incredible novelist.
What I really want to know is what exactly is the role of poetry and why doesn’t Willett see black poets, slamming or otherwise as a relevant voice in the spectrum of human experience?
When I write about my life, about my skin, my bones, being a girl, and how the world sees me and me it, that isn’t because I’m trying to pacify a white liberal audience. It’s my story. I’m a writer and I’m just as relevant as Dickinson or Whitman who wrote about his perspective on life and nature in the monumental work, “Leaves of Grass.”
And why can’t those Canon writers be my models? The same way Walker and Shange are models for my work, I, like many other writers of color, have studied the inclusive Canon.
Witllett doesn’t mention me, nor does Dana Gioia, who wrote an incredibly interesting book, Disappearing Ink. I did not come from “out of nowhere.” Where is asha bandele, Willie Perdomo, London’s Malika B, Tony Medina, Samir Bashir, Sandra Cisneros? Where are the black poets who write books, and have a balance of performance, activism and literature?
When Willett is tearing into Def Poetry Jam, she notes that some “icon” poets made appearances on the show. She uses quotes on the word “icons.” Are Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti and The Last Poets icons in quotes??!! Two of the founders of The Blacks Arts Movement?! A movement, which celebrates some of our genius, and the struggle for voice and freedom in our own country.
Willett also makes reference to Hip Hop and misogyny, and accuses Amiri Baraka of being anti-Semitic. So, the “white” slam community isn’t misogynistic and male dominated. Are you serious? My first experience with a white boy network in the form of poetry was in Portland Oregon in 1996. My first and last slam. Highlights of that moment in time, was meeting and hearing Patricia Smith perform for the first time. She was and still is an amazing writer. Still, Willett finds a way to strategically box in this talented writers work, by comparing her work to fellow Slam poet Taylor Mali. Mali attempted a “character” driven piece that didn’t come off as strong (he was portraying a racist) and Willett argues it’s because people actually believed it could be him. Smith is a master of this form of performance. Could it be that her writing and performance was stronger?
The idea of writing to appease a white audience is quite hilarious to me. I know Taylor Mali. I did a few performances with him after the Slam experience, and I found him funny and cooler outside of Portland. In Portland, however, he reminded me of the network. Of why I didn’t feel like this genre of performance was meant for me. I remember being in that beautiful theater in Portland and performing a strong political piece called “box this” about the multi-cultural category on the census forms. Contrary to what Somers-Willett’s writes, my work usually makes people, sometimes my “own,” uncomfortable. An Asian writer friend told me afterward, a European woman in the audience asked him, (referring to me) “why does sound like that.” She wanted to know why I was so angry.
My unapologetic political poems scored quite low at The National Slam of 1996. They weren’t even highlighted in the documentary in Paul Devlin and Tom Poole’s film, Slamnation! Slamnation! helped to shape me in one of the icons of the 90’s Slam Scene, when I was a reluctant slammer and completely unhappy with my very limited voice in the film. Only my poems, “How can you fuck without kissing,” (I actually read this one at the slam), and the second poem, “black girl juice,” were referenced in a clip from my historical win on the Apollo Stage in 1995. Though political and celebratory of woman in their own right, the poems have obvious sexual themes. “Box this and “The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth” were not shown at all.
I’ve made a living on the campuses in the classrooms of an academic world that fights to keep women and writers of color out of the Canon. They will use me to learn from, even in some instances, teach my work and the work of my peers, but the underlying reason is usually that they think I’m “hip.” I examined the way Black Student Unions or Women’s Departments would promote my readings on campus with little or no support from the English Departments. I struggled with young students or advisors, for that matter, labeling me a “Hip Hop Poet, Spoken Word Artist (something I’ve never called myself), or dancing money nigga poet who jumps wrote while reading poems in black face.”
I remember one English professor asking me, “what happened to the Hip Hop?” after one of my readings. I answered, “You didn’t pay for the band!” (Smile). He meant well, and we had an interesting dinner conversation that gave him more perspective on my work later.
I know I’ve changed the perspective of English and Creative Writing students with limited time and space in someone else’s classroom and in prison programs. I know I’ve taught teachers how to teach. I’ve seen young writers transform, and watched them become frustrated when I left, realizing how much they aren’t taught inside the segregated curriculums of our education system.
We have a long way to go with definition and this beautiful form of writing called poetry. I founded my press in 1997 so that they couldn’t write all of us off. So, that our work could be studied and deconstructed. So that academic writers couldn’t turn their nose down to our work and literary journals would actually consider our books for review.
I understand that I’m relevant and so are so many writers of my generation beyond race or gender. My writing is rooted in craft and balanced by magic, and no one can compete or score that personal truth. Still, in the spirit of Slam, and the importance of tradition, I’ll happily give myself a row of sharpie-marker 10’s, with smiley faces.
More to Come..
jessica Care moore