Saturday, April 1, 2017

And Consequently Meant for Publication

Back in 1921, Dorothy Parker was reviewing Broadway plays.  She panned a musical called The Right Girl, for (among other offenses) featuring "a song which exploits the rhyme:
I wouldn't give five cents
For a marriage license."
I'd thought rhymes like this were an innovation of rap; I guess it's worth knowing that they were sung on the legitimate stage a century ago.

Last night I went to a poetry slam at a local venue, mainly because a friend wanted to go, under the impression that it was going to focus on work by LGBTQ youth, which sounded interesting.  It turned out he was wrong -- the youth slam had taken place elsewhere, earlier in the evening -- and he decided not to go anyway.  Though I've been to numerous poetry readings, professional and amateur, I don't think I've ever actually attended a poetry slam before, so I paid the $5 cover.  (The event was a benefit for undocumented youth, so I don't regret the money I spent.)  I don't like the idea of poetry slams, which seem to be an attempt to win an audience for poetry by foregrounding the worst kinds of macho poetasting, combined with competition: poetry reading as pro-wrestling.  That's a doubly toxic cocktail as far as I'm concerned.  I have watched a video of a West Coast semiprofessional slam, which confirmed my bad impression.  But hey, give the kids a chance.

In a way it was reassuring: bad poetry is forever.  (Or as Christ might have said, the bad poets you will always have with you, and they'll be first in line for the open mike.)  First up was an avowed straight white boy who announced that he usually writes depressing stuff, but had decided to give the audience a break by reading something humorous.  He then warned about content, the poem was about sexual objectification, but it was a joke, right?  He was right: it was a bad joke, the content could have come straight from some asshole's Twitter feed, and you don't get a pass for sexist objectification just because you know what you're doing and admit it in advance.  I was depressed; maybe some of what he thought was his "depressing" stuff would actually have been funny.  But, happily, he did only the one.

Next up was another skinny white boy.  He did two rapid-fire raps of no distinction, and wanted to do a third but the MCs called time on him.  (I must give the organizers credit: the event was well-arranged, and it seemed they were not going to allow the great pitfall of many open mikes: the poet who bogarts the mike to read one dreadful screed after another.)   He surrended the stage readily, to his credit.

Next was a young woman in a buzzcut whose poem, she informed us, was about "trans identity."  (I'm referring to her as "she" because she didn't specify a pronoun, and it wasn't clear whether the poem was about herself -- she left that vague.)  The poem was undistinguished, and could have been written by any of the myriad poet-wannabes I've heard at open mikes over the past five decades.  One innovation: she read the text from her phone.

Finally (for me) a "proud bisexual" male poet took the stage.  His contribution was also a collection of cliches; sincere and well-meant, no doubt, and well-done for what it was, but basically it was MFA fodder.  No doubt he'll go far.  Next up after him was an acquaintance of mine, a local politician around 50 whom I've known since he was in college.  That confirmed my feeling that maybe I should have signed up to read myself -- I could have read a poem from my tablet, since I have most of my work on this blog.  But I had other things to do with the evening, and scooted out, freeing my seat for someone else.

I gather there will be another slam in a month, so maybe I'll sign up for that one.  I would not spend any time introducing my poem, as the other readers felt compelled to do.  That's another cliche of poetry readings that is still evidently with us.  (I began that post with an explanation, because the poem included has confused many people over the years.  It's atypical of my poetry posts here.)  One that wasn't in evidence last night was audience members chattering while the poets read: the audience was quiet and attentive, which was gratifying and a nice change from what I've observed in the past.

So, I'm venting.  But on the whole I was relieved to find that the college poetry scene has not changed, that Sturgeon's Law still applies.  I don't think I've succumbed to old-person nostalgia (which as Adrienne Rich said is just amnesia in reverse), since as I say, only the styles of body ornamentation have changed since the 70s.  Maybe if I'd stayed longer someone would have provided the surprise and revelation that you get when a really good poet, something with something of their own to say, takes the stage.  If I go to another of these, I'll stay for the duration and find out.