Tag Archives: Art

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

Slingluff Gallery

11 West Girard Avenue
Philadelphia, PA

Subway: Girard Station: (Turn left at bottom of stairs, walk 1 block east to gallery)

Contact: (215) 307-1550
Jim Mancinelli,

Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur

According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.

In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.

The intern who cared for Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear. The painting was a tributary gift. While Dr. Rey was quite fond of Van Gogh, who mentioned the physician favorably and intimately in his letters, Rey did not appreciate the painting, at least not at first. His parents used it to cover a hole in a chicken coop. Nevertheless, Dr. Rey clearly appreciated the essential role art played in his patient’s life, and recommended Van Gogh continue to pursue it. At this time, of course, Van Gogh’s painting was for the most part unknown and/or dismissed.

Haus LebensWert is a philanthropically developed and supported facility in Cologne, Germany where patients may receive oncology services free of charge.  An integral part of Haus LebensWert’s vision and mission is to vigorously help cancer patients cope with life both during treatment and afterwards.  Another key component is the use of alternative and complimentary therapies.  These therapies are made available to patients in addition to traditional measures as part of a seamless whole.   Examples include psycho-oncology, art & music therapy, gymnastics and other exercise, voice instruction, Feldenkrais training, Nordic walking, dance therapy, massage and aroma massage, Tai-Qi, Qi-gong and acupuncture.   The Haus LebensWert, which complements a more traditional hospice, has been well received by both patients and practitioners, including those who refer their patients from outside (Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2009:320-5).

Critics of “complimentary and alternative medicine” (CAM) frequently complain of a double standard, and a lack of rigor in its evaluation.  Some feel this looseness encourages bloat and charlatanism, and risks distracting patients and practitioners from the path to “good outcome.”

“Academic medicine integrates three of the most honorable human activities: treating the ill, teaching, and research. The quality that all three share is persistent quest for truth. However, there is reluctance of academic medicine today to openly defend scientific truth by challenging the arguments and the very existence of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). There is no sound proof of CAM effectiveness, no hypotheses on the mechanisms of their action, nor scientific reports testing them. The fact that patients are charged for these “healing” activities makes CAM a plain fraud. With these facts in mind, the name “complementary and alternative medicine” is undeserved and misleading. CAM advocates maintain that CAM should be recognized precisely because it is widely practiced and very promising, that it has a special holistic/human approach, and works at least as a placebo in situations where medicine can do nothing more. As it seems that the public interest in paramedicine will only grow stronger before it grows weaker, scientists must raise their voice and question the truthfulness of CAM more openly.”
Croat Med J. 2004 Dec;45(6):684-8.

While a truth-centered paradigm is difficult to dispute, there is more than scientific truth at stake in the quest for human understanding.  There is also existential truth.  While physician-scientists optimize therapeutic regimens by evaluating their effects on controlled trial populations, each individual patient attempts to grapple with his or her radically changed reality both in terms of life, and death.  Quantity—be it months of survival, tumor size, or fraction cured—can be measured with increasing accuracy and predictive value.  Quality can’t be so easily parameterized.  Moreover, even attempts made to evaluate “quality of life” tend to fall short because experience transcends subjective criteria when they are too rigidly circumscribed.  Patients exist within the larger communities of other patients, clinicians, family, and the omnibus of culture.  If society views the sick as mechanisms in need of repair, and devalues anything regarded as “touchy feely,” then those in charge will cut the funds that allow physicians to spend time talking with patients or considering the larger life outside the body, while adding to the already glutted ranks of surgi-centers and MRI scanners.  Certainly the possible advantages of reinvigorating the art of medicine, or even expanding it to include real art, such as expressive writing, or speaking, as therapy,will be viewed as unworthy of “serious” exploration.  This is what has happened so far.  The impersonal and alienating experience of illness is nearly a truism, at least in the U.S.

Hospitals, especially large referral centers, can be daunting and soulless places.  As we move necessarily towards more “cost-effective” healthcare it will be important not to lose sight of the fact that quality and quantity exist to a large degree as orthogonal axes.  Designing healthcare to have a more empirical and inclusive approach to alternative healing strategies assures a better chance at quality of life, and should be encouraged as long as these don’t induce patients to forego proven treatment.   A life of fear and despair may be nearly as much a lost life as for the patient who dies of his or her disease.

Haus LebensWert, by the way, means House for a Life Worth Living.

I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.

Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.

Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”

Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.

(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)

I live in Philadelphia, a wonderful city, vibrant and diverse, with a downtown that thrives after dark and on weekends, with residential neighborhoods that are cosmopolitan here and provincial there. Arts and culture? We have museums to rival those in D.C. or New York. We have restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. We have a wonderful symphony orchestra and a magnificent concert hall in which to enjoy music. We have opera and theater and sports, lots of sports. We have Wi-Fi, and soon we’ll even have casinos (though hopefully not).

Bookstores? We don’t have so many. We don’t have enough, anyway. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lived here too long and seen too many wither and go. Do we really need bookstores anymore? Can’t we just do it all online? I’ll admit, I’m a fan of internet shopping. I can get anything from anywhere without leaving my chair, and I can get it delivered, overnight, when I’m impatient or last-minute or both. But maybe I’m a Luddite when it comes to browsing, to discovery, which is the real joy and purpose of a good bookstore and which can’t be duplicated virtually, not yet anyway. Sure, I can look inside books electronically at a number of websites. But I can’t hold one in my hands and feel its heft, smell the paper. Or notice that the pages aren’t flat, not really. They have depth. They have texture. I have a very nice wide screen monitor, but I still can’t see the type leap out at me when I stand with my head bent like a scribe while a stream of people flows quietly around me, or sink to the floor in a narrow aisle and give in to serious contemplation.

I think we’ve gone from around twenty to less than five independent bookstores in the city of Philadelphia. I think that’s not acceptable. Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about it. Except maybe frequent the ones that are left. O.k., so I’ll shop online some of the time; but I’ll also take a jaunt outside now and then, get my vitamin D from a little sunlight, peruse an indie bookstore’s offerings, and maybe even buy a few.

My favorite shop? There are two here in Philadelphia I must mention, in case you choose to visit or pass on the information. The first is Robins, which survives, though in a bravely, sadly scaled down version of its former self. Larry Robins is an institution in Philadelphia. His grandfather opened the store in 1936. Larry has been in the book business for more than forty years. Not only that, he’s championed the progressive side of related and relevant causes: censorship, blacklisting, freedom of speech. Tropic of Cancer. The Communist Manifesto. Mein Kampf. Salman Rushdie. All available, always available. Author readings? No place has been kinder or a bigger tent for every style and point of view. Fiction, politics, verse. He’s sponsored it all, and it’s still his store where authors, especially poets, and their Philadelphia audiences still congregate today.

The second store I would recommend is Head House Books, which, after four years, has less history, but not necessarily less charm. Owned and run by Richard de Wyngaert, the store reaches out in every conceivable way to the neighborhood around it in an effort to build literacy, community spirit, and an enjoyable space for browsing or listening to authors live. I have had two readings in the store, and both were graciously hosted, intimate, and well attended. This is the kind of store where a great deal of care goes into decisions about where and how to display books. Wandering Head House, I find that I see many books facing me with their covers, rather than just their spines. This makes my search for the right volume not only easier but more intriguing. It’s easy and enjoyable here to get diverted. Richard has strategically scattered chairs, a great love and knowledge of books, author readings, storytelling for children, and other events for children including a chess club. As a father, I’m glad for a store that isn’t only about sales, and one into which my children often tow me, rather than the other way around. I hope that when they grow up, bookstores like these won’t exist only in the virtual world of memory.


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