He made himself a Daddy
October 14, 2010 2:24 AM   Subscribe

Though never a competition, the Def Poetry Jam is a rhyming spin off from its comidic uncle that plays host to some of the most fantastic spoken word from a wonderful breadth of poets and people. The fun and inocent, the declaration of love , your cause the famous and the famouser, the needs of a single woman, the manifest, the virus and one written and delivered with such emotion and power that it left me speachless, "Knock Knock" by Daniel Beaty
posted by Cogentesque (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You're not kidding about "Knock Knock". Brilliant.
posted by IvoShandor at 3:11 AM on October 14, 2010

You and me both, Cogentesque. Beaty's delivery is stunning and powerful. It's nice to click on a link and know that it will stay with me until I die.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:22 AM on October 14, 2010

I found this one by clicking one of the other videos after watching a couple. What a teacher makes. Definitely worth checking out. Made me remember some of the reasons I teach.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:31 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Rumpled at 4:39 AM on October 14, 2010

I know it wouldn't be Metafilter unless someone stepped in to say 'meh', roll their eyes and disdainfully remark how all the links left them cold and they're totally above it. I'm, um... I'm not going to do that, but I'd like to offer a respectful countervailing voice, if that's okay.

I can't agree that Def Poetry Jam showcases 'a wonderful breadth of poets and people'. I am really, really glad it exists, as the most watched (and one of the only!) English language TV show about contemporary performance poets. I'm excited and grateful that such a programme was commissioned at all. But the poetry featured on DPJ is not exactly a dazzling stir fry of performance styles, subject matter and ideologies. There might not be a competitive element to the show, but aside from the celebrity guests, every poem they feature has run the US Slam gauntlet, a discipline which massively hones their performance abilities while homogenising content.

I agree that Daniel Beaty's piece is delivered very expertly - he doesn't fluff a word, he delivers it stridently but lucidly, ramping up the emotion while remaining coherent and focused. But aside from that, it trots out pretty much every Slam cliché in the book. It's a first-person identity politics piece that segues into a list poem where he angrily, loudly asserts a series of propositions that no one in the audience could possibly disagree with. There's not much beauty or craft in the words he chooses - aside from the pun on 'knock, knock' - because those are secondary to what, I'm sorry, feels to me like rather lazy populist triumphalism.

I'm probably overstating my case here. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, as I understand the terms, Knock, Knock is a reasonably solid piece of rhetoric, but a mediocre poem. Slam's key influences are America's rich cultural history of rousing sermons, barnstorming political stump speeches and the public confessional aspect of AA meetings. However, the competitive component to Slam has commodified these narratives. Poets have a clear inducement to simulate painful personal disclosures, and a strong disincentive to present any opinions that might run contrary to the crowd's established views.

I'm glad you brought up Taylor Mali, Ghidorah, because 'What Teachers Make' feels, to me, like a great illustration of all these things. At the start of the poem, he presents us with a strawman - a boorish, avaricious lawyer who sneeringly dismisses the entire teaching profession, before conveniently providing the poet with a setup that allows him to spend the next two and a half minutes yelling about what a fantastic human being he is. The crowd are in raptures, despite the fact that this dialogue never took place, and that - if you listen carefully - Mali never argues for the teachers as a whole, but merely for his own professional brilliance.

On the other hand, I realise that Slam exists as part of a wider cultural dialectic, and is, in part, reacting to shortcomings its practioners and consumers perceive in other art forms or movements. I just feel like it has become a bit of an echo chamber, and watching audience reactions on DPJ, it often seems like a hackneyed, familiar trope trumps skillful word-craft every time.

I hope I don't come off as a snide jackass, here. I genuinely love performance poetry - I just wanted to throw a different voice into the mix.
posted by RokkitNite at 5:07 AM on October 14, 2010 [15 favorites]

Rokkit, in parts you come across like a snide jackass, in parts you come across as very respectful - but what is damned sure is that you come across far more intelligent and in the know than me. I know what you are talking about completely, with the whole (for the lay audience) "Jerry Springer" style echo chmaber (as you expertly put it) and completely following in the fantasticly clear exmaples you give.

But if I listened to that riling poetry with such an inquisitive and understanding mind as yours (which feels like it has had much more experience with all forms of poetry) I would feel the same way as you. In the same way that if I listened to it fifty times, it would lose it's eminance. While I do agree with what you say, I am happy to take a step back and - even if I know the punch line - laugh when the comedian finishes the joke.
posted by Cogentesque at 5:20 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ghidora - it is absolutely wonderful in my first post to be part of an everlasting memory in someones life by copying a worthwhile URL address, thanks for your kind words :)
posted by Cogentesque at 5:22 AM on October 14, 2010

RokkitNite, I've been trying to think of how to respond to you, and yeah, I probably shouldn't, but coming from someone who hasn't really seen much of Def Poetry Jam, and doesn't have a lot of access to live poetry events, what I did see blew me away. While I recognize some of what you're pointing out (following the tropes that bring the most success, pandering to the audience, whathaveyou), to some extent, it's like watching, say, a vert contest in skate boarding and complaining that they aren't doing tricks, or a ski jump and complaining that they just go straight down hill. It might not be the pure performance art that fills your cup of tea, and maybe, after I've watched a hell of a lot more of these, I might tire of them too, but I'm pretty damn far from that at this point.

As far as complaining, about a piece of performance art, about the

the fact that this dialogue never took place

I don't know where I can help you with that. It's performance art. It's poetry. I don't see why it needs to have citations, and I'm more than willing to bet that most of the audience realize, as you said, that it's fiction. As for the painful personal disclosures, well hell, that seems to be in keeping with the general state of poetry, of literature, of blogging, of daily life in general.

But thanks, you know, for taking something that I pointed out as something that deeply resonated with me and telling me why it wasn't all that great. The 'strawman' you bring up is something that nearly every teacher has actually had to deal with, either in person, or in terms of a broadly held opinion. While Mali is clearly talking himself up, promoting himself (and in a couple areas, being inordinately proud of stuff that made me cringe a bit, to be honest), he's also speaking directly to teachers. I imagine almost any teacher that heard his list of accomplishments would be, at the same time, realizing that they shit they do is pretty damn brilliant in its own right. As I said, it reminded me of some of the reasons why I do teach, and after a remarkably shitty week at school, it was nice to come home to this, to get some outside validation, to help me remember that there have actually been moments I can point to and be proud of, and that not every week will be as bad as this one, not every year will be as difficult as it is right now.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:31 AM on October 14, 2010

Holy fucking shit. Knock Knock was fucking stellar.
posted by chunking express at 6:45 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

thanks, you know, for taking something that I pointed out as something that deeply resonated with me and telling me why it wasn't all that great

That wasn't how I intended my comments at all, and why I bookended them with some fairly major qualifiers. This is a topic I really care about, and I did my best to respond in a thoughtful, respectful way, while expressing my genuine opinion. What I think of Mali's poem does not in any way invalidate your feelings about it. Since it's one of the most watched performance poems on Youtube, I suspect its author can cope with some gentle criticism without plunging into a slough of self-loathing and despair. You know, I like teachers - my Dad was a teacher, and I teach part-time myself. I have no problem with the sentiment that teachers do a tough job, and that brilliant teachers are heroes. I just object to Mali hijacking that impossible-to-argue-with feeling to earn himself personal acclaim and win competitions. Cos if I were writing a poem about why teachers are great, I might, y'know, start off by thanking all the wonderful teachers I had, rather than casting myself in a self-aggrandising fan fic then listing all the examples of my Mr Chips kudos. But that's just me.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:48 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear: holy shit that poem was good.
posted by chunking express at 6:49 AM on October 14, 2010

I've loved Def Poetry Jam for eons. It is just such a delightful entanglement of things that I've only barely experienced and love so much -- theatrical performance, poetry performance (especially poetry for multiple voices), poetry in general, slam performance, and a healthy dose of 60's style throwback cultural confrontation. I used to watch it regularly when it was first broadcast, and have been sad that it hasn't been on the air since 2007.

So, thanks for this post. It hadn't occurred to me that some of the Def Poetry performances would be on YouTube. This is a treasure.
posted by hippybear at 6:51 AM on October 14, 2010

Also, Previously. (I have a giant crush on Suheir Hammad.)
posted by chunking express at 6:57 AM on October 14, 2010

Having been in/around the spoken word scene for years, I -do- like DPJ in general, but the slam format does usually lead to two general tones of poem - rising crescendo to BAM! ending or the "teasing hang" of the few introspective/quieter poems.

If you do find anyone's performance interesting, I highly suggest checking to see if they have CDs- you can get a broader range of poetry that folks do. Or if you're more brave, look up some open mics- you'll get some terrible poetry and some wonderful, unpolished poetry as well.

Folks in major cities will want to check out their local Youth Speaks chapters for some great performances of poets coming up. Youth Speaks performers often are just starting the slam circuit, so you find a good mix of that kind of work and spoken word that falls outside of it as well.
posted by yeloson at 7:48 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ghidorah: "But thanks, you know, for taking something that I pointed out as something that deeply resonated with me and telling me why it wasn't all that great."

He's not saying it oughtn't resonate with you, and he's not saying you're bad for liking it -- in fact that's sort of what he means when saying "it trots out pretty much every Slam cliché in the book. It's a first-person identity politics piece that segues into a list poem where he angrily, loudly asserts a series of propositions that no one in the audience could possibly disagree with". It does resonate because it's designed to, in topic and delivery. It's why it resonated with me -- I had some of those issues with my father (sick for many, many years, effectively missing from my life) and I worry about doing that to my own son. They're standard worries for any good father.

The fact that someone can look beyond the heartstring pulling and say look, technically proficient but topically lazy could maybe be a boon. You don't see a voice coach saying "yeah, I guess you're doing pretty well, we're done here", and so maybe someone urging poets on towards more refinement or (to go back to the original argument) less cliched topicality will do the field some good.
posted by boo_radley at 11:05 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

RokkitNite, that's an awesome takedown of Taylor Mali - I am going to forward that onto a few of his old slam teammates, who will probably nod vigorously in agreement. His delivery is so polished and engaging, it's tough to figure out why his stuff isn't as compelling as it should be, and I think you put your finger right on it.

In the interest of showing what might be considered a good performance poem, with beautiful phrasing, stately pacing, lush metaphor and deliberate, vicious heart-string pulling, here's Iyeoka Okoawo as she blows the roof off.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:46 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

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