I Got Questions – Who Are We?

“Question. Who, what, when, where and why? Who is gonna continue the battle after all our soldiers are gone.” – Tish Jones
I don’t think that poetry should be about competition and I think it’s unfortunate that the younger generation is being brought up in an ultra competitive realm. It seems like we’re being surrounded by the idea of competition. We are inundated by “reality shows”, almost every one based in some sort of competition; at the same time, poetry slams are becoming evermore present. I’m not saying that poetry slams are bad. I have myself been a slam champion. But when it becomes the primary reason for writing, or even one of the reasons for writing, I believe that the intention becomes tainted. Call me a purist. I’ve always thought of poets as revolutionary thinkers, not people who go with the flow and conform to the fads of the moment. So, where are the revolutionaries? Really? 

Why are we as artists creating systems that are based in our current social system and still saying that we go against the grain? Why are we creating mentors and apprentices and continuing the dominant/submissive roles that have already been set up for us in society? Why do we have to see each other as superior or inferior, and why do we pit ourselves against each other as if claiming our superiority gives us some kind of upper hand in the world? Why do we claim ownership over others simply because we have “taught” them some of the tools of poetry? Why do we claim ownership of the poetry itself? Why are we more interested in the product than the process? Why are people regurgitating what they heard on CNN at open mics and adding no personal perspective on the matter? What happened to self expression – Self being the operative word? It’s always noble to talk about the struggles and triumphs of the world, but what good is it if it’s not coming through your own unique self perspective?

Why aren’t we challenging the system by creating a community where all ideas are equally valuable or at least equally respected? Why aren’t we creating learning circles instead of creating the separation of audience and performer, teacher and student? The circle is constant. The teacher is the student is the teacher. If you have come to a place in your art where you truly believe that no one has any knowledge to offer you, then you have missed the whole point of what sharing is and should maybe stop for a moment and ask yourself what your intention is when you get up to speak.

I have actually had a conversation with Mark Smith, the founder of the first poetry slams and he told me that when they started the slams, the intention was not to create competition between the poets, but instead to encourage the audience to become actively engaged with the poets and their words. I’m not blaming the mediocre cliché “yelling poetry” on slams, but I’m not convinced that coaching people to write poetry or mentoring them in the art of slam is nurturing their natural talents. I do believe in giving people the necessary tools so they can empower themselves to write and find their own unique expression of their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

I know this isn’t cut and dry. But I feel we all need to think about our role in the creation process, and ask ourselves what are we doing to perpetuate the things that keep us stagnant? And what are we doing to relieve ourselves from the restraints of our current state?

Now the question has been asked maybe we should use some of our “revolutionary” thoughts to come up with some answers.

§ 12 Responses to I Got Questions – Who Are We?

  • Jess says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I was really in a creative rut for the past few days and I couldn’t figure out why it was the I felt so stuck. I felt that part of it had to do with figuring out who I was as a developing artist.

    Now I realize I was on the right track with that thought but I forgot to consider my environment. I’m interested in the slam poetry scene but I think the idea of competition threw me off track to the point that it made me question why it was I wanted to write in the first place. I forgot that the reason I write is because I feel a burning need to create and this is my current best way of answering that need for creation. Your post helped remind me of that and it’s given me a new lease on my creative life. It’s given me the permission to believe in myself and the fact that my voice is important too.

    I think for some (like me) the idea of competition paralyzes me. Because of that I believe it is valid to question the way that the artistic community presents poetry and spoken word to the world. Will the competition aspect frighten otherwise gifted artists away from ever trying to express themselves? Does competition leave room for collaboration, cooperation, and general support for fellow artists? Does it create an “untouchable” poetic elite instead of an integrated artistic community?

    I really admire your outlook on art and community and hope you continue to redirect our attention to important questions like these. We all have a voice, a vision, and a light to share and it’s important that we foster an environment where everyone feels capable of doing so.

    • Desdamona says:

      I’m glad we could build a dialog on this. It brings some clarity and I appreciate your thoguhts as well. Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

      I do feel like something gets lost when we focus on competition.

  • IBé says:

    Ah our love and beef with this thing we do. Des, it’s the questions that matter. You don’t need answers when you ask the right questions. And you my dear is asking the right ones.

    How about few of my own?

    Do slams bring new audiences to poetry? Are slams sometimes refreshing? Sometimes boring? Sometime inspiring? Sometime mind numbing? Can slams take a good writer and turn him/her into a bad one? Take a bad writer and turn him/her into something amazing? Should every poet slam at least once in their live? Do slams sometime provide stage for mediocre writing? Attention seeking “poets”? Budding poets on their way to being one of the greatest voices the world has ever heard? Is competition good for poetry? Is competition bad for poetry? Is it okay to prefer (and therefore rate it higher) one poem over another? Can poetry survive slam? Could slam change poetry? Might this be good? Do you have wannabe poets with nothing new to say? Are some “mentors” only interested in making you in their image? Can you learn from them anyway? Do we need teachers and students? Mentors and mentees? Should the roles be in constant flux? Is the journey down poetry lane mostly personal? Can everyone set their own course, stumble, get up, make a detour, change course and still find their way to their poetry? Is that destination often beautiful? Do I get tired of confessional poems? Lecture poems? Spiritual poems? Political poems? Do I like all these type of poems? Do I sometimes feel like if I have to listen to one more poet scream their poem at me I would seriously go postal at a slam? Do I hate academic poets that always read like they have something stuck in their backside; take a simple matter and make it overly complicated with metaphors only they understand? Okay enough with the questions already?

    Though like I said an answer is not the answer, in case you are wondering, mine is YES!

  • stinkmusic says:

    Thanks Des, I really like what both you and Guante have to say here. Here are some of my RANDOM thoughts.
    The function of competition as a learning tool has always been lost on me. There are a lot of different learning styles and writing circles are a great way to connect with multiple styles in one place.
    As far as mentoring goes, i think it’s cool to lay down the basics for somebody and help them find their own voice. A good teacher is going to nurture an exchange of ideas and not make it a hierarchical relationship.
    As an artist I always have to ask myself what my intention is when I get up to speak. I think it’s really healthy for a community of artists to examine this stuff publicly.

    • Desdamona says:

      I think people can be afraid to bring it up because they don’t want to condemn it but they have issues with it. Thanks for your insight. I love a well rounded perspective. I appreciate you coming and reading/commenting.

  • karla says:

    Lots of questions. Thanks for sharing. I love reading! So far my thoughts are still young, but I may come back through with a revolutionary thought. My thoughts on people regurgitating cnn on the mic is this: you got your revolutionary minded poets, and sometimes even those poets transform to reactionary minded poets. Or you have the visionaries, enthused with the stage and the mic and have absolutely no substance and are souless and competitive. …T.S. Eliot said “genuine poetry can communicate before its understood”. when I have some more time, I would love to really dig into this blog. Absolutely love what u put out….brain food for me

    • Desdamona says:

      Thanks Karla – I’m glad to know it’s interesting. Sometimes I’m thinking that maybe no one else feels the same or even understands but of course that’s not true. I hope to post many more things in the future and i hope you will leave more comments and perspectives! Hope to see you soon!

  • Guante says:

    It’s a really important conversation to be having, and something I tangle with all the time. I don’t have answers, but a few thoughts:

    1. The thing to remember about slam is that it challenges artists to create art that is more about communication (with a general rather than specific audience) and less about “look how brilliant I am.” Implicitly, it becomes more about building community and less about that “audience-performer” dynamic you deconstruct above. I think that this positive outweighs a lot of the negatives.

    Does slam sometimes encourage hacky, pandering, bullshit poetry? Of course. But I would argue that that stuff would exist with or without slam. Slam takes the competitiveness that is pretty much inherent in artists and blows it up, makes it a joke, makes it okay to acknowledge and hopefully destroy.

    I know some of this might come off as revisionist, especially to people who don’t like slam, but this is my genuine experience with it. I know VERY few people who are really competitive– the adult slams, college slams and youth slams are some of the most positive spaces where challenging, engaging art is being shared, at least right now (obviously, communities shift and change over the years). The scores just help ensure that there’s an audience. It’s imperfect, but I’d defend it.

    2. I think your thoughts about workshops and classes are spot on. The idea of a writing circle rather than a writing class, with a facilitator (if even) rather than a teacher, is very powerful and something we should all be utilizing more.

    3. The larger question here, I would argue, is why aren’t we creating more challenging, personal, revolutionary art? And I think that that question exists both inside and outside of slam. It also probably relates back to point #2– the traditional way of “teaching” spoken-word maybe doesn’t nurture these impulses like it should.

    For me, it comes down to content more than form. I don’t care if it’s screamed or whispered, slammed or open mic’ed, poetically simple or complex– I’m interested in poetry that is saying something new, that is pushing me out of my comfort zone, that is opening up new lanes of communication and thought. The “is slam good or bad” debate seems like a distraction from these larger issues.

    Thanks for posting– it’s stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    • Desdamona says:

      I love how thorough you are. I wish I could be that thorough but my attention often wavers. Thanks so much for your perspective. Balance is what I’m always looking for and you have a nice way of talking about things without the dramatics. :) thanks for the link to your site as well. Hope to keep connecting with you.

      Building. Building.

  • Lamont Thompson says:

    Healthy competition is good, is cause one to focus and train to overcome the opponent. That makes us better under the Iron Sharpen’s Iron rule. However there’s an evil waiting in the wing if one does not learn how the become humble It’s called EGO.

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