With a Beat and More than Just Slam: The Spoken Word Revolution Redux edited by Mark Eleveld
I am about to rave and rave some more, which is not something I do everyday about any book, film, piece of music, song or person (other than Gary Oldman), so get ready. The funny thing about my ardor for editor Mark Eleveld’s The Spoken Word Revolution Redux and accompanying audio CD, narrated by two prominent Chicago slam poets, Marc Smith (the founder of the poetry slam) and Kevin Corval, is that it isn’t based on the overall quality of the poetry which at times does not hold up as well on the page as it does in performance or on the CD or even on the fact that not only is there a poem by Viggo Mortensen, a reading by Ethan Hawke and a poem about/to Tom Waits as well as a letter from the late Jeff Buckley to Bob Dylan inside. No, I like it because it exists for the sheer appreciation of spoken word poetry in all forms and because it contains poems from a variety of poets, including far more than one woman or one non-white person. But wait, there’s more because not only is there poetry in this book and poetry on a CD, but there are also essays on poetry and poets. And these essays are well written, express varying perspectives on spoken word and its place in the literary canon – or if it has a place there and they are accessible to both people who already have an interest in poetry or spoken word as well as to people who may have never read a poem or attended an open reading of poetry.
The Spoken Word Revolution Redux is the follow up to The Spoken Word Revolution and continues to inform and educate about spoken word poetry, particularly slam. If you don’t particularly like slam, then you may not like a good measure of the poetry in the book. I enjoy slam style and hip-hop poetry when it is performed. However, most of it does not translate for me to the page and that is true of some of the slam poems that appear in the book. That’s ok though because that’s part of the beauty of the way the book and CD are structured, so one can compare some of the poems on the page to how they sound recorded, i.e. as the poet intended them to be performed. This is one of the reasons the book makes an excellent poetry text book for high school English classes.
Another reason is the essays that are included as well as the inclusion of songwriters, actors and other non-typical poets so that students and the general public can see that not all poetry is stuffy and pretentious.
The book itself is divided into seven sections by theme and begins with the essay, “Poetry as a Basic Human Need,” by Ted Kooser, U.S Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. His essay about the debate as to whether spoken word is really poetry or not that is still going on in academic circles, opens the book nicely and establishes the theme of history and how spoken word is an extension of the original oral art of poetry and story-telling. He then goes on to the next debate on spoken word and whether it can be called literature or not. He posits:
Our experience of performance poetry is mostly of
the moment...It lives and dies in a day...Thus the
writing has to be really good...if it’s to endure...
Perhaps performance poetry should be looked at as
less as “Literature” and more like dance.
I will not get into whether or not I agree with him, but it raises some important ideas for students and non-students to think about while reading the book and listening to the CD.
The way the 54 track audio CD is structured reinforces the text book - albeit hip text book quality of The Spoken Word Revolution Redux. This is because each track is introduced by either Marc Smith or Kevin Corval. Their introductions are short and neither of them sound like pretentious poetry professors. When I first listened to the CD I really enjoyed having the poems preceded by Marc Smith's distinct voice. However as a CD to listen to over and over, I might want to fast forward past the introductions or make a recording of just the poems' performers themselves. For me, two of the most exciting inclusions on the CD were actor Ethan Hawke’s reading of Gregory Corso’s “Marriage,” and the late Jeff Buckley reading his “ A Letter to Bob Dylan.” Also on the CD is Viggo Mortensen, a man of many talents, followed by his son Hank Mortensen reading a poem I enjoyed very much for its surrealistic humor entitled, “Why I’m not a Businessman.”
One of my favorite poems in the book, which is also on the CD, is Simone Muench’s “Tom Waits, I Hate You.” I too have felt similar sentiment towards other artists and a need to blame their art for my own personal transgressions. This love/hate feeling is inherent in the following:
the way your voice snags
my skin when I’m waltzing
through a coffee shop, for the thousand
crows caught in your throat
Which leads me to the other great thing about The Spoken Word Revolution Redux and that is that Ms. Muench is not the only woman included in this anthology. In fact there are more than three women even, far more which is very refreshing. Women get a whole section to themselves and are also included in other sections of the book and on the CD. I feel sad to have to say that even in the 21st century, this is not the norm and I hope more editors will follow Mark Eleveld’s lead and include more women in their poetry, prose and essay anthologies.
Besides including many talented women, the book also includes poems by international poets. Some readers might complain that most of the poets in the book who are not from other countries, hail predominantly from the east coast or Chicago. This didn’t bother me too much and perhaps there will be future books about the west coast performance poetry scene in the future. Mark Eleveld resides in Illinois and slam started in Chicago so in a way it kind of makes sense that a lot of the poets would be from that part of the scene.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, I can’t praise this book enough. In spite of any flaws it may have, or any argument anybody could have with the selection of poems, The Spoken Word Revolution Redux proves that performance poetry is both literature and entertainment. It’s not the number three best selling poetry anthology because it’s boring or full of dense impenetrable language that only academics can decipher. It’s popular because for opposite reasons because it proves that poetry doesn’t have to be any of those things or written only by people with Masters of Fine Arts degrees. I defend my love of this book because anything that exposes as many people as possible to poetry in this sort of an accessible format deserves all the praise I can muster.
The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, [edited by] Mark Eleveld, Sourcebooks, Inc., www.sourcebooks.com , ISBN –13:978-1-4022-0869, ISBN – 10:1-4022-0869-3, Hardcover, plus 1 Audio CD, 320pp. $24.95