Keep DREAMing, sayeth the Senate. First responders bill, originally too big too fund. If you're asked about your sexuality in the miliatry, you can now tell without fear of repercussion. The thing is, the debate over
human gay rights made Sen. Lindsey Graham so, so tired. He's not used working three days in row, unlike the impoverished millions for whom he voted to deny health care. That's why treaty debate took so long to START, during the lame duck.
It's difficult to think through the logjam that passes for political discussion, these days. In our heuristic dystopia, creative thinking is reduced to opinion polls, whose results are expostulated by an ochlos determined to conceal difference and dissensus within discrete, manageable boundaries. If our nation is in any way like the Platonic Republic so frequently cited by would-be philosopher monarchs, it's in its desperate attempt to censor a repartitioning of power through a banishment of cries questioning the intelligibility of mainstream discourse, refusing to be classified.
Yet, while Plato's vision dismissed society's disruptive voices—namely, artists and poets—to the wilderness because of their ability to make and break myths, as Edouard Glissant says, "Nowhere is it stated that now, in this thought of errantry, humanity will not succeed in transmuting myth's opacities (that were formerly the occasion for setting roots) and the diffracted insights of political philosophy, thereby reconciling Homer and Plato, Hegel and the African griot." Maybe the streets of Washington D.C. aren't gurgling with griots, African or otherwise, but the melding of poetics as activism and activism as poetics, form as function and function as form, to which Glissant alludes foreshadows the discursive shock necessary to believe in change.
And change hurts, Kelly Tsai reminds us in "Little Red Books." Still, can change be envisaged or explored any more practically than is done in spoken word poetry? Does the adjective "poetry" necessitate activism, when modifying spoken word? Have the two always been entwined and, if so, to what end? Helping to unravel these questions, and several others, is the aforementioned (and aforevideoed) Kelly Tsai, to whom I hand my metaphorical mic.
Q: It's sometimes held that spoken word didn't come to fruition, as movement, until the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, spoken word artists frequently acknowledge the influence of their poetic predecessors, from Saul Williams to the beat poets to Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes and beyond. Do you think that's purely out of literary respect, or is there some conceptual genealogy to it, in which the artistic—or discursive, if you'll allow me the term—position modern "slam" poets are afforded is understood with reference to their cultural and/or literary heritage?
A: I definitely think that it's erroneous to say that spoken word didn't come to fruition as a movement until the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of artists working today are influenced by the Black Arts movement and poets of the '70s who still perform today, like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovani, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron; in the Asian Pacific Islander American community, people like Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin; in the Latino community Pedro Pietri, and many, many more. Also, sectors of hip-hop culture are affected deeply by the work of poets in the '70s, which is why I love how Common and Kanye West have included the work of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron on their recent albums.
So, the conceptual genealogy is that the work gets passed on. Some people grow up with the vinyl in their households or from stories from parents or family members. People like myself grow up with it by seeing people at the poetry set who are influenced by those poets' work. The late Kent Foreman, who I grew up watching as a teenager in the Chicago poetry scene, used to hang with Max Roach, Maya Angelou, Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Amiri Baraka. Lawson Inada, a Japanese-American poet from the Pacific Northwest whom I had the pleasure of learning from, tells amazing stories about Japanese internment and hanging out backstage with Billie Holliday, all within the same breath. So, the poetry, the politics, the history, the music, and the traditions transmit themselves across generation and geography through the beauty of oral culture. Sure, this is different for each poet, but from my perspective I also draw from these lineages and traditions. They mean something to me, and I want to carry them forward into this millenium, just as the poets that have inspired and shaped a lot of my work carry on the breath of poets that came before them.
As for the rise of "slam" poetry (i.e., poetry that comes scored competitions in bars and cafes in a specific structured performative format), its confluence with spoken word that emerged from hip-hop, punk, folk,and neo-soul cultures, and further mainstreaming/commercialization of the culture, it would be accurate to say that it came to fruition in the 1980s and 1990s.
A few dates in the vast timeline of it all, which raised the national profile of the culture, in addition to dozens of touring groups and a massive proliferation spoken word and poetry venues across the country, though in no way a comprehensive/objective/authoritative list:
- 1984: Marc Smith credited with starting the poetry slam in Chicago (still continues every Sunday night);
- 1989: First poetry slam held at Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York (still continues every Wednesday and Friday night);
- 1990: First National Poetry Slam in San Francisco (still continues annually, with over 76 teams and 350 poets in 2010);
- 1993: MTV Spoken Word Unplugged with Maggie Estep, Bob Holman, Reg E. Gaines, Edwin Torres. John Singleton's "Poetic Justice";
- 1994: Lollapalooza has a spoken word tent;
- 1995: The Roots feature Ursula Rucker on Do You Want More?! and Illadelph Half Life (1996) and Things Fall Apart (1999);
- 1997: "Love Jones" released;
- 1998: "Slam" with Saul Williams goes to Cannes Film Festival. "Slam Nation" documentary released. First Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam (still continues annually, with over 500 poets in 2010);
- 2000: Tupac Shakur features Nikki Giovanni on "The Rose the Grew from Concrete." Jill Scott, who started as a spoken word artist, releases her debut, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, vol. 1;
- 2001: First Asian Pacific Islander Spoken Word Summit in Seattle, Washington (still continues biannually, with over 150 poets in 2009);
- 2002: "Def Poetry" opens on Broadway and "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" debuts on HBO, continuing for six seasons until 2007;
- 2009: "Brave New Voices" documentary series debuts on HBO, with second season in 2010.
So, you get the idea. I could talk about this forever from a lot of different directions. This is just a little sideways view.
Q: Many of your poems interrogate the binary oppositions upon which our shifting social fabric comes to rest, be they racial (black/white), sexual (gay/straight), gendered (male/female) or otherwise. What type of space are you hoping to open in blurring these boundaries, and what advantages, if any, does spoken word allow, for this purpose, over other mediums?
A: I'd say that I'm not actively trying to blur boundaries, so much as describe my life as it already is. In a world that's made up of these constructed binaries, I either don't exist or confound the whole system, as in who I am and what my experiences are don't make sense. I would like to exist, and I would like to feel as though my life makes sense, is authentic and reasonable, and comes from all these different factors at play. You'd think with all this damn language and thinking we'd be able to create a way to describe and explore the different textures of our worlds with the same complication and sophistication that naturally exists in them, but I often feel that our existing concepts and language fall short of that. Honestly, sometimes the simplest poems in my own mind (because they are just an outpouring of my own life) seem to be the most powerful ones in this regard.
The benefit of spoken word? Well, the message is considered important and the transmission of that message is a major point of the art form. I'm always tripped out when I listen to a song for the 90th time and realize that it's actually a very political song, but I never appreciated it for that. In other art forms, there are so many other things to appreciate—the rhythms, the melodies, the technical skills of the players, the cinematography, the staging, the directing—that, ironically, the message often gets lost in all that. Spoken word is a very stripped down art form. It's a very direct art form. It is a very immediate and intimate art form. There is intricate artistry to be appreciated in it, but there's no filter. This moment. You and me, right now. Let's enjoy it and make something of it that really rocks and transforms our worlds.
Q: In my small, sparsely populated theoretical world, we spend a lot of time talking about the difference between being "dialogical" and "dialectical," with the former connoting a continuous polyvocal relationship with multiple narratives (past, present and future), and the latter defining a synthesis of two (binary?) competing claims. To me, spoken word poetry epitomizes dialogism in its elemental form, with the interaction between poet and audience engaging what each different individual brings to a common performance. Am I mistaken, and, more importantly, how would you describe the exchange that takes place when you're on stage?
A: Words like dialogical, dialectical, and epistemological—my brain seems to throw out, even though I've looked them up a million times. One of my friends who's a stand-up comic told me that there's no rehearsing in stand-up. You've got to develop the work in front of an audience, which is partially why a lot of comics talk about the importance of getting up on stage every night to test new material. Although I do think there's rehearsing in spoken word, I agree that there is a lot of alchemy that comes about with each particular audience. There is a sense of emotional improvisation, given the energy of the people in the room, even if all the words or gestures are the same. My poems aren't finished until I've got them in front of a crowd at least 2-3 times. The moment of performance, the clicking in the brain, how the words taste on my tongue all inform where I edit, where I shape, where I polish, and essentially how I find the heart of the poem. I need the audience to get my work done. Perhaps this is the same in a lot of performing art forms and film, too, but the energy of the live audience and what I feel in those moments of attachment or detachment help me to create my work.
Q: It's becoming banal to condemn political activists as anarchists, who care nothing about the foundations of history. In poems like "Little Red Books," however, you suggest that a misappropriation of history fosters a kind of existential apathy toward the experiences of others, perhaps contributing to the marginalization of those experiences. How has history, both your own generally, informed your work, and, as someone who has created with everyone from college students to sexual assault survivors, what would you say about the role of history in grounding modern activism?
A: It's funny how "Little Red Books" became one of my first better-known poems, since it is such a distinct example of how I am a product of my history without even knowing it. One of my mentors who's a novelist talks about how your first novel should be your "root" story, the one that is an attempt to get at the heart of who you are and what your story is. My maternal grandfather was a politician in Shanghai before the Communist revolution, so this poem really comes from a place of grappling with the complications of the Communist revolution in China, on a personal level. On one hand, you have the rising up of a lot of poor folks taking control of their destiny, which I think is what a lot of activists around the world gravitate to in that story.
My family stories include people having to run as children and teenagers to not be killed by Mao's armies and our family that has been divided forever by the schism between relatives who fled to Taiwan and the ones who stayed in China. So, how do you reconcile what in theory sounds so great and in practice involved a lot of misery, death, and human suffering? This is a central question for all activists (and I would even argue for all people): How do we make our ideals real? If we listen to our own family histories, our neighborhoods, the lives of our friends and their families, we have our work cut out for us and hopefully can learn from other people's pain and progress in order to create new solutions.
Q: The first time I heard "Little Red Books," I got misty-eyed at the line "Change hurts; living it is hard." It reminded me of the people I've encountered who struggled to make a difference, while maintaining their personal survival. It's almost anthemic, in my opinion, like Pink singing about "hard work" in Dear Mr. President. I hate to ask such a putative question, but I will: Given that we live in a time when a senator can be elected after denouncing the Civil Rights Act, a born-again virgin can be nominated for a Senate seat while lamenting the chastity of other virgins, and, to the tune of millions of listeners, a television commentator regular lambastes the president for stoking Maoist violence, what would you say about the significance of your words for today's shrill, image-driven politics? (I dismount my high horse.)
A: I do the best that I can, and each year, I commit to doing it better and reaching as many people as I can that would be moved by the work. I often return to this quote by Muriel Ruckeyser: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open," which I think is true of all people, not just women. For me, your question is really a question about how do people maintain integrity and consistency over time in a world over-saturated by distraction? Not to sound too new age-y, but I do think that some of that distraction comes from a lack of listening and being in tune with our spiritual selves. When we're connected with our minds, our bodies, our spirits, when we value of our lives and feel as though our lives are important, when we turn down the volume on everything that is vying for our attention, we can think, feel, live more clearly and hopefully communicate more honestly, with a productive level of self-awareness and revelation. This is what I feel like is missing in the public arenas that you mentioned.
Q: Finally, you've spoken about Asian-Americans being dismissed as "whatever," when it comes to identity politics—a statement that can be made by many Others, such as the Native Hawaiians of my my home "state." I wonder if part of this drive toward universalizing stems from a desire for established powers to impose universal control over a diverse population. True or not, do you think spoken word poetry can help foreground an identity politics that's more fluid, dynamic and reflective of the aesthetic multiplicity taking shape across the country? After all, many people claim not one background, but numerous backgrounds, pridefully proclaiming what others disregard as fragmentation and division.
A: I feel like my poem "Self-Centered" hits on what I've been trying to articulate for so long when it comes to identity politics. When I wrote that poem, I realized that all forms of discrimination are essentially forms of intense narcissism. Within this narcissism, everything in the world revolves around your race, culture, sexuality, class, nationality, ability, etc. Everything attends to your needs and desires, above all else. So, how do we, as a society, deal with this kind of narcissism and break it down? Well, in individual narcissism, this behavior usually stems from a lack of self-love, a lack of ability to see the self and feel comfortable with it, which leads to an inability to see and feel comfortable with anything beyond the self. So, there's that. It takes courage to see and look beyond yourself. Some critics (i.e., people on YouTube, lol), may say that I don't see beyond my world of Asian Pacific Islander America, but like most minority nationalist movements, that kind of narcissism comes from my work to establish space in a world where I'm forced every day to see, think, and empathize outside of myself.
I know far more about white American cultures and black American cultures than most people will ever know about Asian or Asian Pacific Islander American cultures. That's what it is to be a minority, you have to learn and think and feel outside of yourself in order to survive. So, what can spoken word do in the midst of all this? Exactly what I feel like that poem does, flip the script on the circumstances and through the joy of the word, allow people to experience what was previously nonexistent, insignificant, or unrelatable. Spoken word allows me to speak as honestly and truly as I can about my worlds and the fluidity, relationship, and syncretism of those worlds with those of other people.