Celebrating Spoken Word
- Regie Cabico (Editor) and Todd Ellis (Editor)
Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sheri-D Wilson (Author)
The Sweet Taste of Lightning: Po'ems and Po'em-o-logues. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Ellis
When I saw Regie Cabico take the stage at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1994 for a One-Man Slam, the poet literally took the stage, storming through his performance with an energy and passion that treats poetry not just as a contact sport, but also as a wake-up call for language as a living art form. This is the kind of charged enthusiasm driving Cabico and Canadian co-editor Todd Swift in assembling Poetry Nation, a Canadian-American anthology that operates as a kind of manifesto for a "new" poetics of fusion that claims to eliminate the borders between oral and written traditions. The result is wildly eclectic but hardly new (Catullus’s first-century B.C. love poems would fit in just fine here, for instance; poets have always experimented with the power of vocalization to tap into language’s contact with the body through the principles of prosody. But the editors’ strong commitment to saving poetry from premature suffocation as high art, together with their years as poetry activists helping to create the poetry slam movement (Cabico in New York and Swift in Montreal), give the anthology a sense of the urgency inherent in the post-typography instantaneous information age.
The style of their selections is for the most part aggressive, additive, muscular, and steeped in the secondary orality of pop cultural icons and vocabulary: MTV, Elvis, Barbie, Agent Scully and Antonio Banderas become the new symbolic language that holds this encyclopedic collection together. Some of the poems stumble against the predictable problem that the most effective oral techniques—simple structural forms, circularity, and the logic of sound association—do not always transfer well to the page. A few, like Melody Jordan’s "Everything is Ice Cream (and the world is a very hot place)" and Nick Carpo’s "For My Friend who Complains He Can’t Dance and Has a Severe Case of Writer’s Block," seem, when the performative element is lost, little more than one-line jokes stretched into full length poems. For these, the anthology can only script what we assume works in performance, rather than providing any experience of the piece. Other poems are sufficiently textually "fused" that they work well as a mix of text and oral elements, such Ras Baraka’s "For the Brothers Who Ain’t Here" and Anne Elliott’s elegantly enraged conversational repetitivism. Issues of the body and the bawdy predominate: some poems work simply as elaborate synecdoches in which the body is re-conceived in new fleshly images; still others, such as Louise Bak’s "Heteroflexidome," punch up the pop imagery with oral wordplay (her "egotesti-cal flutter-flies" being an excellent example). A number of the poets in this collection tackle the theme of child abuse, sexual, psychological or otherwise, from the child’s point of view. Rittah Parrish’s excellent "The Rules," Philip Arima’s "Be Quiet," and Richard Tayson’s "Remembering the Man who Molested Me" stand out as important works worthy of critical attention.
The collection also includes some richly textual poems. Tayson’s work startles with its lucid imagism; Taylor Mali’s wonderful poems have the same pure clarity on the page as they do in his ferocious Slam Nation film performance; Paul Beatty’s supreme cursing poem "Stall me Out" leaps from the page. Do not miss Michael Holmes’ intricate "(Bramalea Limited)" or Julie Crysler’s pedal-to-the-floor car poem, "Fury."
The anthology contains selections of some acknowledged "elders" such as Allen Ginsberg and bill bissett, but disappoints by neglecting other vital contributors (Four Horsemen, The Roots, Amiri Baraka, Lillian Allen) in favour of some puzzling inclusions. Sky Gilbert, for instance, deserves honour but not as a poet, and Evelyn Lau has never been a fusion poet. The editors’ preoccupation with "breaking down borders" (a philosophy not sufficiently problematized here—after all, monoliths like the Disney, MacDonald’s and Chapters empires also dissolve cultural and national borders) has resulted in a polyphonic text that is a project of tertiary orality. Converting post-literate oral forms back into print, the editors have assembled under one cover a valuable record of some of the freshest and most vigorous voices of the current decade of slam and performance poetry. But is it "alternative" poetry? As Sheri-D Wilson might say, "alternative to what?" ("Fast For-Words").
Wilson’s contribution to the Poetry Nation anthology is "Bukowski on the Block Ah-Ha," a poem that contemplates the late poet’s wreck of a life and epitomizes the tone for her new collection, The Sweet Taste of Lightning. Wilson perfected her unique jazzoetry style and poem-o-logue form in her three previous collections of poems. Known primarily as an "action" poet with roots in improvisational theatre, Wilson knows her language craft, too. When she applies her wit and intelligence to Canadian politics the result is the hilarious narrative poem "Montreal Montreal and Only Montreal" and the brilliant dramatic absurdity, "Oui et Non," that puns the Quebec referendum question against the English "we know."
The collection is organized around the extended metaphor of lightning as the energy behind her poetics/politics, and Wilson digs into this serious work with wry humour. Her "Dober-Woman-Pincer," "im-man-ent muse," and "New York Waldorf elevator Genie Bitch" characters may be fiercely comic, but Wilson’s poems delve into some deep waters. In the section entitled "Life Bolt" she writes tender lyrics to explore the tragedies of AIDS, Alzheimer’s and genocide. Wilson’s elegy in "Ginsberg’s Gone Gone Gone" is deeply informed, dramatic, clear-eyed and smart. She also displays her formal virtuoso skills with the rant (a poem-dance) and the poem-skit forms she invented. "He was a Hothead," for instance, treats the themes of rage and sexual violence as Wilson reworks the title of an earlier poem of the same name, this time as a dramatic poem-o-logue terrifying in its power and vulnerability:
his body’s hard against my back SNAP
down the exploding hallway SNAP
the hallway streaks SNAP
pull away animal wild
In this collection, Wilson practices feminist oralgamy, folding words in on each other to invoke multiple contradictory images for life, sex, death, rage and politics. If the Poetry Nation anthology provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary North American performance poetics, The Sweet Taste of Lightning demonstrates the range that a single artist working across genre boundaries can achieve.
- By Our Lack of Ghosts by Daniel Burgoyne
Books reviewed: One Muddy Hand by Earle Birney and Sam Solecki
- Receiving Gifts by Margaret Steffler
Books reviewed: The Birthday Girl by June Lawrason and Jean Little, I Gave My Mum a Castle by Jean Little and Kady MacDonald, and The Girl With a Baby by Sylvia Olsen
- a blizzard in my eyes by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood and Charles Pachter
- The Art of Work by Crystal Hurdle
Books reviewed: A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems by Kate Braid, Kahlo: The World Split Open by Linda Frank, Paper Trail by Arleen Paré, and The Office Tower Tales by Alice Major
- Lyric Distances by Susan Holbrook
Books reviewed: Her Festival Clothes by Mavis Jones, Rehearsing the Miracle by Linda Rogers, and A Geography of Souls by Kathleen McCracken
MLA: Ellis, Susan. Celebrating Spoken Word. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 129 - 131)
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