Tonight at 7:30 PM I’ll be a guest on Poets Pause, a televised poetry series sponsored by BCTV in Reading, Pennsylvania. The broadcast will be live on the 14th and replayed on the 15th at 5:30 PM, on the 16th at 10:30 AM, and on the 17th at 6:30 PM. Video of the performance will also be accessible on the BCTV site.
Louder Than A Bomb is the name of a scholastic slam poetry competition in Chicago. It’s also the title of a new movie from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, a documentary focusing on teens from four different high schools as they prepare for the annual competition.
The strategy of filming the run up to an academic contest and coupling the building intensity with an up close and personal focus on one or more participants is a well tried motif (e.g. Spellbound, The Great Debaters).
Moreover, slam poetry is not new. First manifest as a phenomenon back in the 1980s, slam rediscovered poetry as living art and simultaneously diverged from nearly all literary conventions. Slam is primarily oral not written. It’s raw and undisciplined, relies on performance, personal charisma and presence more than felicitous language. It arises from youth culture, not the academy, owes more to rap than to Shakespeare. Twenty years later, however, these contrasts no longer have the same shock value.
But despite the familiarities, in fact maybe because of them, Louder Than A Bomb comes off as fresh, vibrant and relevant. Having had time as a “traditional” poet to come to terms with slam’s radical approach, I felt better prepared to accept and consider it as a legitimate form of poetic expression. And having brought to the theater certain expectations with respect to the concept of the “academic contest as film” I found myself all the more surprised at the non-competitive elements that stood out so eloquently in Louder Than A Bomb. That these kids compete not as spellers or debaters but as poets uniquely facilitates their ability to discover each other as human beings. Throughout the film there is an out-loud dimension of enthusiastic a-ha comprehension and support. In a city known for turf battles and gangs, color and class barriers, poetry as a means of drawing children together is amazing stuff.
Just as poignantly, the richly detailed often troubled situations in which many of these teens are growing up directly influences and is interpreted by the poems. When Lamar Jorden, leader of the Steinmenauts team from the West Side of Chicago, in a voiceover at the beginning of the film says, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, and I did some things I regret. I would like damage a lot of things in my house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. First time I made my father cry, was the first time he heard me perform poetry,” one understands the poverty of communication in his life, and the r0le poetry plays in addressing it.
Even for Adam Gottlieb, progeny of nearly perfect circumstances, matriculating at Northside College Prep, one of the nation’s top schools, encouraged by his still married, affectionate middle-class parents, poetry has clearly deepened his sense of himself and of the world. Charismatic in his delivery, he channels the Beats, and his genuine feelings of fraternity for his “opponents” wows them and us. Nova Venerable, half-Indian, half-African American, representing Oak Park/River Forest, is more direct but just as mesmerizing, her voice edgy and wounded as she reveals her pain over an estranged and abusive father, and the threatened loss of a chronically ill brother. Nate Marshall, who represents Whitney Young, lives with his mother, both his parents having struggled with drug addiction, and early on points out for the camera where in the South Side neighborhood park he was “jumped” by assailants. Of all the works we hear, his come closest to rap in their pacing, rhyme-laced, upbeat and full of humor.
Despite the slam slogan, “the point is not the point, it’s the poetry,” I found the interactions outside of the performances complementary and compelling. Here’s verse that functions as a catalyst for understanding between children, and also between children and their parents (and teachers as well) at a critical juncture in their lives. When was the last time “serious” poetry could claim to be this essential? Could the literati be missing something?
Dana Gioia in a recent essay in the Hudson Review writes:
While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study.
As Gioia, who favors formal prosody, points out, in contemporary poetics, it’s mostly with rap and slam poetry that formal elements like meter and rhyme find unabashed celebration.
The students’ poetry itself provides the best evidence for both the vitality and sincerity of their interest. Was every poem declaimed worthy of publication in the Norton Anthology? No, of course not. But they did consistently surprise me with their coherence and power, their willingness to tackle thorny subjects. Perhaps given the overdose levels of reality TV currently being injected into our culture, the celebrity contests like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars dominating the small screen, the existence of poetry as a purer ambition for American teens represents desperately welcome iconoclasm. For anyone with an interest in the true wealth and breadth of American poetry, this is a must see film.*
*(In keeping with Louder Than A Bomb’s 10 point system for evaluating its declaimers, I award a score of 9.0).
On Sunday, May 22nd, I will have the privilege of again reading in a poetry series hosted by Jim Mancinelli. Jim is a poet himself, and in fact that afternoon he will also be reading some of his work.
The Series operates out of the Slingluff Gallery in Fishtown, a wonderful artsy space.
If your travels around the planet bring you anywhere near Philadelphia the fourth weekend in May, stop by:
David Moolten & Jim Mancinelli
Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 4:00 PM
11 West Girard Avenue
Subway: Girard Station: (Turn left at bottom of stairs, walk 1 block east to gallery)
Here is a recent podcast interview I did in anticipation of the screening of “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” at the WILDsound TORONTO Film Festival this Saturday, May 1st.
I’m happy for the publicity, both for the film and hopefully the compassionate, coherent side of the immigration issue, given the current experiment with codified racism and a Geheime Staatspolize version of the American Dream in Arizona.
Sadly, hatred and ignorance remain omnipresent and galvanizing forces despite the sublime milestone of a black president and our unique history as a nation of immigrants.
From the Associated Press: “Key provisions of Arizona’s immigration legislation, signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Friday:
Makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally by specifically requiring immigrants to have proof of their immigration status. Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Repeat offenses would be a felony.
Requires police officers to “make a reasonable attempt” to determine the immigration status of a person if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is an illegal immigrant. Race, color or national origin may not be the only things considered in implementation. Exceptions can be made if the attempt would hinder an investigation.
Allow lawsuits against local or state government agencies that have policies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws. Would impose daily civil fines of $1,000-$5,000. There is pending follow-up legislation to halve the minimum to $500.
Targets hiring of illegal immigrants as day laborers by prohibiting people from stopping a vehicle on a road to offer employment and by prohibiting a person from getting into a stopped vehicle on a street to be hired for work if it impedes traffic.
The law will take effect by late July or early August.”
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
–Emma Lazarus, 1883 (Inscribed on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty)
I recently received more good news concerning my film, “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” which has now also been selected for screening at both the SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival in Pawtucket and Providence, Rhode Island (April 7-11, 2010), and the Imago Film Festival in Elgin, Illinois (April 5-9, 2010).
So based on this latest information, the film will actually premier at the SENE Festival’s Opening Night kickoff in Pawtucket on April 7th, rather than on the 10th in Delaware.
I’m excited about the recent selection of my short film “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” for inclusion in the Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Delaware next month. This will be the film’s premier screening at a festival, and is in fact the first film that I have submitted for consideration.
Here is a synopsis/director’s statement:
“In the U.S., immigration is both proud and tragic legacy. Except for the original people from whom a continent was stolen, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Yet each new wave that arrives with few possessions and many dreams find they survive, not because of, but in spite of, what they find: the least rewarding and most dangerous work, and the contempt of those already here.
As a child, Jose M. Hernandez trekked from Mexico to the fields of California where he picked strawberries with his family under the tense and squalid conditions migrant laborers still experience. In the summer of 2009, he traveled into space as an astronaut on the Discovery space shuttle.
His story honors both the desperate struggle of immigrants and the greatness of which they are capable.
As a filmmaker and a poet, and someone of Latino descent, I feel I must contribute in some way to the search for justice. Because as an issue, immigration is so contentious and sensitive, I have also been striving to find a perspective that rises above the standard arguments, that is positive as well as principled, in the hopes that I might reach those on all sides. In making a film about the astronaut Jose Hernandez, I believe I have found this point of view.”
Here are some details about the Hearts and Minds Festival and its artistic mission:
5th Annual Hearts & Minds Film Festival
Friday, April 9th, 2010 – Delaware State University Campus
Saturday, April 10th, 2010 – Schwartz Center for the Arts
Our festival showcases “super-independent” films from around the world – things you won’t see screening at just any movie theater or on TV.
Each entry was selected not only for its excellence, but for its focus on social issues and the human condition: from faith to homelessness to race and identity to disability culture. In an era of increasing social and economic challenges, these films herald a timely call to awareness and service. There will be something for everyone who enjoys media that features remarkable characters from many walks of life, fiction and non-fiction films of all kinds.”
“If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, multiply that image by 24 or 30 frames per second and imagine the impact on an audience that a well crafted, issue-oriented film can have! In the best tradition of documentary film-making, independent artists today are lifting their “voices” by pointing their lenses at subjects critical to the health and sustainability of communities around the world. They draw attention. They celebrate. They rage. They entertain. And always, they create conversation.
People the world over love movies. Perhaps like no other art form, good films bring people from disparate backgrounds together, in one room, to share the entertainment experience. By selecting films that focus on topical subjects such as economics, crime, literacy, the environment, and themes that address the human condition like relationships, health, survival, legacy, Hearts and Minds Film seeks to acknowledge new works and to inform, inspire and empower diverse audiences in community-based settings.”
This is my first blog post, but I’ll begin in medias res–on the road, as it were, into new artistic terrain…
A few days ago, I uploaded my first video to Youtube, a simple slideshow movie** utilizing mostly public domain images, either as found or after I’d manipulated them. The provocation for this was a poem of mine called ‘Cuda, slang for Barracuda, a late ’60s-early ’70s American “muscle” car. The poem isn’t new, but it’s readily accessible, even has a pop-music-ballad-quatrain kind of feel to it. I speak of this as a strength even as I’m dubious, or maybe better, wary of such strengths. This is the kind of poem that the overwhelming majority of people who don’t read poetry maybe just maybe might read. On the other hand, this bridge of salvation between poetry’s rarified world and “pop” culture might also [in the manner of Groucho Marx, or Sigmund Freud] signify becoming a member of a very large and indiscriminate club, maybe thus cheapening the art. Or so I mused as I browsed the incredible volume and range of video art on the internet.
At this point, the whole enterprise was still cold water and I was the guy standing on the pier praying with my hands pointed down. But as I listened to the mp3 recording I’d made over and over, trying to cue up the images in the sequence with the reading of the poem, I was also driving back into it, into the place I was in my life when I wrote it, and what part of a still further-back-self I had then dredged up. Or maybe it was driving back into me.
You see the poem is about someone with an older brother who works in a steel mill and owns a hot rod and is thus one of the hoi polloi I have just disparaged. Yet at the same time he’s the hero of the speaker in the poem, a narrator who refers to his brother as you, and to himself as I. The villains in the poem are “hated college boys” and the narrator and his worshipped sibling find themselves, as they begin their drag race, excluded by the “black iron gates of the university.” But hold the phone, how could I, a Harvard grad and a physician, say anything honest from that perspective?
The answer is–I don’t know, but I think I know. Until high school, I was the stereotypical geek (sans eyeglasses), the encylopedic introvert who wouldn’t know a wrench if one hit him in the head. Then adolescence took me for a ride. I got myself adopted by some of the toughs and “motor heads” who thought I was “funny” in a good way. I wore a leather jacket. I became well versed in headers and horsepower. Then I broke from that and from my friends, and continued along the path to and through scholastic accomplishment I’d secretly followed all along. But I believe I always knew that such branching off has to be traumatic, that like a brother injured an accident, some part of me which was loyal and real and hard as the world had been compromised.
The choice then had been between the gritty adolescent truth of high school swaggerers who went on to careers in gas stations and supermarkets and bars, and the fenced off intellectual green of science and medicine. Poetry didn’t happen on the scene until later. And this is the strange part. Pondering my choices now, I believe poems were always a hard road back to those guys with the nicked, grease-black hands. And this leaves me exactly nowhere now as I consider whether ‘Cuda is a little too macho, a little too coarse for its own good, wondering as always in my ignorance, what’s art and what’s not.
It may be that vehicles like Youtube are the hope for poetry, in all its purist’s incestuous insularity. The audience is vast, nearly boundless, and willing to be reached, vulnerable despite their rough edges because the juxtaposition of images has freed them of their prejudices, suspended them for the dream-voice of the poet.
It may be that it’s on the brink between schlock and song where poetry has to happen, like the Dead Man’s curve in the dark some hero who’ll never amount to anything risks with his cheap and precious life.