Cookie Cutter Poets

I have been frequenting the Twin Cities open mic scene since 1997 and I have had the opportunity to hear some great work by both local and national poets, theater artists and musicians over the years. Some of it, in my opinion, could even be labeled as ground breaking. I think it was around 2000 when I started to hear a more formulaic poetry form at open mics and slams. I would hear this familiar formula when I traveled out of town to other states and here at home, in Minneapolis and St. Paul. At first, I dismissed it as a trend among new poets but then saw the formula spread to the work of more seasoned poets.

It wasn’t necessarily that the poetry was bad, but it seemed to be more cliché, and the themes in the work seemed to have less dimension than I had remembered from years past. I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening.

To be more specific, I started to hear the singular theme of ‘anger’ as the dominant topic in many poets’ work. I admit it even became a theme of my work for a moment. Of course, there is nothing wrong with angry poetry. That’s not the issue. The problem is – why is everyone writing angry poetry? Is it because that’s what’s hip? Is it because there is passion in anger and it’s easier to express than the delirious bliss of happiness? Perhaps…or perhaps it’s something else.

I have worked with thousands of students over the years and in all this time I have never had a student deliver poetry or writing that resembled my personal work. I have always been amazed at each student’s ability to create their own form of written expression. And young students tend to be the most creative because they have not yet been introduced to the influence of other poets.

I walk into classrooms with a bag full of ideas and no firm direction as to where we might go. It is always determined by the climate in the classroom and students to lead the work in the direction that suits them. I give a guide and starting point but I cannot force them to go down the path. I cannot make them write the way I want them to write. As a teacher, I encourage them to find their own genuine voice and that voice may change from day to day. The themes may vary from moment to moment; the mood may change at every line. This is where I found freedom as a young person. I was not good with rules and regulations. Poetry was a place where I could do whatever I wanted and I could actually make my own rules if I chose to. It’s only natural that this is how I work with my students.

Last year I got the chance to sit with some students outside of their regular class and I thought I’d ask them about the people who have helped them with their poetry. I was disappointed to find out that these particular students were actually told that their poetry wasn’t angry enough…and that they needed to make people mad or make people cry.

I talked to some of my peers about this and I was furious. Why would a poet who is teaching young people tell them anything like this? Then I jumped to many conclusions:

1. They don’t know what they’re doing
2. They shouldn’t be teaching poetry if they are not allowing the student’s voice to come through
3. They want to “create” poets who sound just like them because we poets come to narcissism naturally
4. They’re preparing them for slams so they are giving them the formula to base their work around

But these are all assumptions. Maybe none of them are correct. I’m still trying to decipher what is going on, but I can’t help but to think that there is some kind of corruption behind the whole thing. Yes, I’m being dramatic.

Maybe this seems unimportant and you’re wondering why I even care. Poets have mimicked each other for centuries. It’s nothing new. But the truth is, with the commercial viability that spoken word has right now it creates more poets (just like hip hop) which in turn creates more cookie cutter artists, more of the ‘same old same old poetry’, a lack or variation in the poetry, and more people jumping on the bandwagon because it’s the “in” thing to do. And I personally, need some inspiration.

I don’t want to hear the same poem coming out of three different poets’ mouths. I don’t want to only hear angry poetry.
I don’t want to hear people who sound like they had the same teacher (to the point where I can actually tell you who their teacher was). I want the genuine voice of the poet to come through, and while some people might think that you can’t determine whether someone’s voice is genuine or not, I firmly disagree. It’s all in the poetry. Listen carefully.



§ 15 Responses to Cookie Cutter Poets

  • Guante says:

    Oh also, as for anger being a dominant emotion expressed at slam, I definitely think there’s some truth in that, though again, possibly overstated (I’ve been to a ton of events over the past few months, and even though my gut agrees with that statement, the empirical evidence of the poems I’ve actually been seeing lately disagree).

    As a performer, anger is easier to express in a condensed period of time than many other emotions, and therefore well-suited for slam. Is this a bad thing? Probably, but not necessarily. To me, it comes down to content– if you’re saying something meaningful or beautiful or original in an angry way, I’m cool with it. If you’re just shouting about how the world sucks, I’ll pass. But that’s just me, and I’m probably not very objective since a good portion of my work is genuinely angry, haha.

    Finally, thanks for starting more conversations that the scene desperately needs to have.

  • Guante says:

    I don’t know anyone who teaches/facilitates regularly and would give anything even close to that advice. Who would ever say that? You? Me? Tou Saik? Khary? Sierra? Jan? Tish? None of us would. Who else does school stuff regularly? The community isn’t *that* big. I hope you’ve at least had the chance to talk to that person.

    As to the bigger issue, you can say the same thing for every art form there is– rapping, novel-writing, ballet, whatever. Styles become popular, styles become dominant, new styles crop up and replace them. And let’s not romanticize the late 90s spoken-word scene– I wasn’t in the TC, but I am old enough to know that there was plenty of formulaic or just unoriginal stuff back then too.

    I’m usually the first person to criticize the slam scene and the first person to defend it, so forgive me if I sound kind of all-over-the-place, but the Twin Cities are producing some really stellar work right now. And sure, there’s a lot of copycatting and all that, but if you look at the most active poets in the scene right now (and the whole scene, not just slam), there’s a ton of diversity, innovation and just plain good writing out there.

    All in all, I think you’re right about the dangers of many styles coalescing into one dominant style, and the dangers of certain limitations being put on young writers. Of course. But let’s not oversell the crisis. From Soap-Boxing to Equilibrium to POP to the Quest series to the Canvas open mic, I still find at least some inspiration, some beautiful surprises, at every event I attend. It’s not perfect, but I’m proud of this scene.

  • Marie Chanté says:

    Des, I agree! No poet should teach a student (rather peer or not) to sound like them. As poet we come to an understanding (should at best) that poetry is an individuals voice of expression. When I write in anger it’s because I’m angry about the subject I’m writing about, not because I want to follow the bandwagon. We write what our hearts are led to write and we should teach students to write the same.

  • L says:

    I stumbled across this writing through a friend and just want to say that I highly agree with your ponders on this topic. I’m even more horrified when I visit open mics and find artists performing whose style is labeled “outdated”.

    Your article brought to mind a night I watched a man get up on stage and recite some of his own poetry which, based on theory and a deep classical influence, was wonderful! However, it was later referenced by the host that he was a few hundred years behind what “would have been a better time” for him. (I.E. his style was quite Shakespearean and although he was clearly talented his voice is just “not the scene” right now).

    To me this is tragic. I have a love of slam poetry, but it seems that now a days you are suppose to sculpt your style to be slam, and often, as you have said, angry – or sad – heightened in any other way enough to move the audience but often with those two core emotions.

    As a student of creative writing I also came across teachers who didn’t like certain works by my peers because they weren’t “Slam-like” – these teachers, as you have also mentioned, happened to be slam artists or former slam artist themselves.

    How disheartening that these students, who are being evaluated in school, are being told their work is not good enough because it takes on a more classical tone!

    If it was about nature, it wasn’t good enough.
    If it was about an elderly couple in love, it wasn’t good enough.
    If you took cues from Walt Whitman, Cummings, or Dickson it was amazing, but not right for today.

    Yes, a former teacher actually told a classmate that last one, it wasn’t right for today.

    Forgive my tangent, but I suppose my overall thought may extend beyond just the emotion behind the writing.

    I think it was your last listed point that was incredibly important. A teacher preparing a student with their own voice/formula is not only what stifles an artist, but it stifles the evolution of all types of poetry and performance.

    I truly hope that as a teacher you maintain that ability to encourage the voices of your students and not have their writing resembling your own work. I applaud that for so many reasons, especially since students look up to teachers!

    My classmate did until she was told her work wasn’t “right”, then she switched her major.

    Thank you for posting this, it’s good to see there are some very positive influences holding out in the world of writing and spoken word!

  • Kash says:

    I think there are many reasons one of which I think everyone is a little angry. The situation of our world, government and country is crumbling during these times there is always an increase in “angry” pieces. Perhaps people have forgotten there are different ways to be angry and as there are many ways to be angry there are many ways to be happy. If there is an imbalance, perhaps theme nights might be the answer especially when it comes to slam. I have to say the most memorable poems for me are the funny ones. if someone writes a funny poem I can usually recite most of it to my friends the next day or week cause it such a lasting impression.

  • When I hear young people speaking THE word these days it seems like a lot of it mimics rap. I’ve gotten to where I’m not as interested in hearing it anymore. It is either 1) monotone or 2) the “standard” with emphasis one the first syllable that sort of trails until a final emphasis (“I”… have a dream… and did you know… MY DREAM IS GOOD?). Is it teachers who really influence them the most? Can it also be what they hear in music as well?

  • Meredith says:

    My comment fits in but is also slightly off track. I write poetry/song lyrics and would like to perform it live. I call it “spoken word” cuz its words, not music. And I speak them. Dramatize them. But someone once told me “spoken word” is a very specific technique or way of performing the poetry. So then I thought I shouldn’t call it that. I have watched some poetry slams on youtube, and a few live, and found that often to be true. There is a forceful way of delivering, and somewhat monotone. I don’t really get it why that is standard (and it does sound angry a lot of the time), as some of the poetry is so full 0f a range of emotions, I hear music in the words, but not in the performance/voice. Maybe its cuz I come from a background of “forensics” and speech performance. I just have a hard time with those kind of rules. Hope that made sense.

    • Desdamona says:

      I am sure that you can call what you do spoken word. Check this out:

      The definition seems to be changing because of the popularity of slam.

      The Grammy’s have a spoken word category and it includes speeches, storytelling, poetry, etc.

      For me, spoken word is the performance of words taken from the page whether it’s song lyrics, poetry, stories, a speech, reading the bible or Quran. It is THE word, spoken. Spoken word.

  • Loren Niemi says:

    So when I was active in the 1st generation Slam scene in ’95-’98 there was quit a bit of diversity in subject matter, tone, pacing, etc. Look at my fellow poets on the ’98 Minnesota National Slam Team – Diego Vazquez, Boa Phi, Patrick McKinnon – and you’d see our styles were anything but alike. But in the decade that followed, it was as if the 2nd generation heard what kinds of poems “won” the local/national slams and swallowed it whole. morphing into a stylistic redundancy that is as dull as the academic poetry the slam scene was rejecting in the beginning. And if that form is now being institutionalized in schools, we are in dire need of a complete rethinking of what 3 minutes of glorious spoken word can and should be. Bring on the silence and let the specific potent image stand naked and unafraid.

  • Rush Merchant III says:

    Thanks for posting this, Des. It bothers me as well when artists feel they have to be pretentious or a clone of someone else to get through with their work – especially with young people who are still trying to find their voice. I hope we, your fellow artists, begin to/continue to follow your example of encouraging ourselves to seek out inspriation, especially when we have the opportunity to guide young artists.

  • Becky says:

    I agree, totally. Art should be artistic, which in my mind that means creative and different, not the same as everyone else. We are all different with different and individual hopes, dreams and ideas so each one of us should create our own art with those things in mind. I also don’t think art should be “taught” but the student should be stimulated and given the opportunity to create.

    Keep leading your students to be their own artistic selves!

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