Nations: Emerging Poetries, Imagined Communities"
by Meta DuEwa Jones
Dramatic is the key word here...the energy pulses, snaps
Wildly entertaining...this film should find its way
into the classroom.
Slams are nothing if not democratic...Slams are essentially
These remarks capture the gist of a number of the reviews of Emmy award-winner Paul Devlins documentary film SlamNation. Devlins film covers the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland Oregon, mixing scenes of live performances of the competing poets with interviews from these same participants. In a poetry slam, judges (in most cases) randomly chosen from the audience, score poets on a scale from one to ten. The poet, or team of poets, with the highest score at the end of a series of elimination rounds, wins. The audience participation and democratic nature of the event have helped to foster the popularity of slam poetry nationwide. Yet it is precisely this audience-driven format of slamsin which showmanship, charisma, and theatricality of performance seems to count just as much as the artistic merit of the poems presentedthat has fueled critical skepticism over whether the poems performed within a slam environment count as literature.
The debate over whether the slam poetry movement fosters a return to verses classical roots as an improvisational, often competitive oral art form, as some would claim, or is indicative of barbarians at the gate of high art as others assert, boils down to a question that is continually asked about the art present in these competitions: But is it really poetry? My response to such a question is two fold: First, I suggest that we consider what definition of poetry bolsters such a question. Does the quibble over the literary limitations of the verbal art present in the slams represent a critical ambivalence over the status of public readings or performance within the terrain of poetry? Does the inquiry into its generic boundaries indicate an uncertainty over the space for what is now called the sport of the spoken word? Ironically, it might signify a discomfort with the status of poetry inherent in the slams as muscular verbal sportas conspicuous public competitionversus the equally (if not more so) competitive yet discrete vying for literary prizes, publication opportunities in prestigious poetry journals, admission to Masters in Fine Arts programs, and teaching positions in creative writing departments at universities.
My secondary response urges me to ask: But is it really new? The poet and critic Kalamu ya Salaam observes that the first African-American to publish a book in America, George Moses Horton (who in 1829 published The Hope of Liberty) dictated his early poetry. Thus, Salaam suggests that the first black poet to publish a book manufactured on American soil was both literally and figuratively a spoken word poet. It may seem anachronistic to begin my talk for a panel examining New Poetry by highlighting Mortons historical precedence in the art of spoken word. However, my purpose today is not to reach back in time chronologically, but across time, horizontally, to bring together three African-American women poets who worry the boundaries drawn between the spoken and the written word in their work.
In this paper, I will be imagining a community that links one of the stars of the film SlamNation, Jessica Care Moore, withour poet in residence at todays panelHarryette Mullen, and with the poet and playwright Elizabeth Alexander. Moore and Alexander easily qualify under the rubric of New Poets since their work has emerged on the scene within the last five to ten years. Considering that nearly two decades ago poems by Mullen were appearing in the journal Callaloo, matching Mullen with these two writers might seem a bit of a stretch. Yet, in an interview addressing the Situation of American Writing in the 1990s, the poet Michael Harper rightfully asserts that in order for the future of American writing to flourish, editors and critics must be willing to stick with authors over the duration of their entire career.
Applying this critical principle to Mullens corpus, for example, enables one to view the evolution of her poetic form. Distinct variation exists between the singular lyric subjectivity and fairly straightforward narrative found in early Callaloo poems such as Fable or in her book, Tree Tall Woman (1981), and the more formally innovative, non-linear and associative morphemic play present in S*PeRM**K*T (1992) and Muse and Drudge (1995). Thus, it is because I want to explore the work of new poets and new poetic developments by previously established writers that I place Mullen along with Moore and Alexander in my literary community.
I will focus on three principle threads that connect Moore, Mullen and Alexander: 1) the visible influence of African-American musical forms on the composition and structure of their poems, 2) the transformative pairing of colloquial and highly literary references in poetic language, and 3) the figure of the poet as both muse and musician. While their thematic links are of significant interest, it is precisely because of their divergent formal approaches to the merging of music and poetry that I am interested in comparing their poems. Too often, poetry by writers of color is treated as a paraphraseable socio-political or racial-cultural statement instead of as carefully crafted verse. In the case of slam poetry, the argument is that such composition-performances dont merit treatment as craft or as verse. As Maria Damon observes in an essay examining Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings and Dissident Traditions, poetry slams have been accused of sanctioning mediocritythat is, doggerel...It is assumed, both in traditional critical circles and also among the experimentalists that poetry that reaches for a wider field of conversants or emphasizes values other than craft and subjectivity necessarily suffers a diminution in subtlety and sophistication.Jessica Care Moores spoken-word oriented poetry, I contend, disabuses the reader-listener of this assumption.
Moores presence as one of the star cast in SlamNations documentary of the sport of spoken word should come as no surprise. She is no stranger to public competition, her claim to fame includes five consecutive wins at Amateur Night at the Apollo. A quick review of one of Moores compositions suggests (Apollo wins notwithstanding) that shes no amateur. Ill start by reading an excerpt from Moores book, The Words Dont Fit In My Mouth (1997). The poem is wryly entitled: My caged bird dont sing and every Black bird aint a piece of fried chicken:
My caged bird dont sing
Here we go into a contextual analysis of the poem: As my recital of Moores poem might illustrate, in terms of structure and form, Moores composition is written to be read aloud and heard. Often slant or near rhyme pairs such across/Lost and Gilligan/steal again are more clearly and effectively realized through pronunciation, timing of oral delivery and cadence. I should add that they are intended to be heard with musical accompaniment. Moores recent performance of My Caged Bird on the Eargasm: Crucial Poetics compilation album included a hip-hop derived percussive backbeat tailored to accentuate Moores own reading rhythm. Most tellingly, Moores reading/performance features the vocalist Blue (Alicia Ren嶪) interspersing a variegated reiteration of a chorus from the poems opening lines: I know why the caged bird dont sing...cause they took away our music. 
Moores poems implicit critique of the appropriation and subsequent commodification of African-American musical forms by others is also found in its dedication to all divas that grace the world with their spirit through songs no one can ever steal away and later in the poem, when the speaker figuratively addresses the white male rapper, Vanilla ice ice baby, claiming that every Heart beat/Drum beat...aint for sample/Or sale. The stolen wings of Moores metaphorical bird also connects with two of Mullens stanzas at the bottom of the handout, excerpted from Muse & Drudge, which read:
In an interview Mullen explained that white covers of black material was an allusive comment on the history of music in this country. Whats done by black people and then redone by white people, and white people are the ones who became the millionaires. Mullens remarks indicate she shares a concern similar to Moores although each uses different structural approaches to address the issue within her poetry.
The trope of the caged or clipped birdas emblematic of the plight of enslaved Africans negotiating the hostile terrain of Americacan be traced to Paul Laurence Dunbars often anthologized poem, Sympathy. Moores titular reference to My caged bird in her poem compels the reader to revisit Dunbars caged bird. A century ago, the speaker in Sympathy proclaimed:
Moore transforms the blood and bars imagery in Dunbars poem into a tri-color symbolismBird dressed in blue/Locked in a red pod zoo/And all the walls were white/Typical African bird plightfor Africans enslavement in America. Dunbars caged birds carol is a plaintive prayer. In contrast, Moores bird does not engage in deification but defecation. Halfway through the poem, the lines Clawed feet/leaving droppings on cross burners/Wearing sheets point to Moores use of metonymy and synecdochethe cross and sheets evoke imagery associated with the Klu Klux Klanto represent the birds metaphorical response to racial oppression. Moores trapped fowl also engages in a gendered act of resistance:
Black tar babies covered in feathers
Here, the birds ability to produce music is allied with her capacity to reproduce. Throughout the poem, Moore associatively links the inequitable commodification of Black music to the unjust commodification of Black bodies. In the face of slavery, the bird, if you will allow the pun, will not lay the ebony eggshe refuses to make babies come into a life of enforced labor for unpaid wages. Thus it is not just that Moores caged bird dont sing but that it wont sing.
Due to time constraints, I will not be able to gloss all of the literary allusions in Moores My Caged Bird. My point here is to illustrate that (Roger Eberts aforementioned remarks to the contrary) spoken-word oriented poetry can be a performance art as well as a literary one. I should add that, in addition to her performances within a spoken-word and hip-hop musico-poetic milieu, Moore has also worked in a jazz idiom as well. She recorded her poem The Words Dont Fit In My Mouth to jazz accompaniment on the jazz composer and saxophonist Antonio Harts recent release on Verve Records Here I Stand.The diversity of Moores collaborative performances with musicians seems apt. In the poem, her caged bird also performs in different musical genres. This canary is a multi-instrumentalist that can sing Negro spirituals, play a heart flute in one breath and the village blues on the harmonica in the next or become a human beat box that bellows beats quite lyrical. For Moore, the caged birdmetaphorically at leastis free to be every woman; she is lyricist and versifier, musician and muse.
In a related vein, Harryette Mullen envisions the poet as a performer, as a blues and jazz vocalist in her book length poem, Muse & Drudge. Mullen notes in an interview that she began the poem with a linguistic play on familiar blues subjects and phrases such as youve had my thrills/a reefer a tub of gin/dont mess with me Im evil/Im in your sin in order to situate the poem in relationship to the blues tradition. The opening quatrain for Muse & Drudge reflects this tradition in a metonymical and associative manner:
In four brief lines Mullen weaves together the tradition of classical poetry, blues-based jazz lyrics and composition and improvisation. Sapphires lyre explicitly names the African-American poet and novelist Sapphire while playing on the lyre as the etymological root for the word lyric. This resonates with the ancient idea of the poet as a lyricist. One hears the name for the ancient Greek poet Sappho embedded in Sapphire. Adjoining Sapphire to the word lyre directs the reader to this indirect reference since the lyre is a harplike musical instrument of ancient Greece, used for accompanying the voice in singing and recitation. The addition of the word styles is also multiply resonant since the word stylos named the writers instrument for scratching words onto the wax tablets the ancient Greeks used instead of paper. Thus the modern word style indicates the personal mark of the artist. The unique vocal stylization and improvisation of standard blues and jazz lyrics was the personal hallmark of singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holidays musical power and skill. Consequently, the phrase Sapphires lyre styles loosely converted reads Sapphire styles lyr-ics. Mullens remark that she thought of Muse and Drudge as the place where Sappho meets the blues at the crossroads then becomes Sapphire and sings the blues affirms this reading.
It should be noted that Sapphire sings both blues and jazz lyrics, since the last line in the quatrain, whose lives are lonely too, is a direct quote from the last verse of Lush Life, a jazz standard. Therefore, Mullens stated link to the blues tradition through her poem can be extended to the jazz tradition as well. This is apt, since she described her writing technique and style as being modeled on both blues and jazz performances. Mullen explains that Muse & Drudge was:
Mullen also mentioned that hypertext virtual shuffling could be a suitable technological metaphor for her composition of the poem, suggesting that if Muse & Drudge is a blues poem, it is a post-modern blues. None of the quatrains in the book have titles, nor do they appear to have one single progressive arc of development from books beginning to end. The hybrid blending of diverse resources present within a single quatrain such as muse of the world picks/out stark melodies/her raspy fabric/tickling the ebonies suggests that both the quatrains and individual lines can be shuffled and twisted around. Each densely allusive line can stand alone, none builds towards a unified, paraphraseable statement or moves from statement to resolution. Unlike Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, or more recently, Sterling Plump, Mullen expands the definition of blues poetry to include work that is neither mimetically structured on the traditional AAB or AABA form of many blues lyrics nor a transparent transcription of blues vernacularisms. Instead, Mullens novel compositional approach reveals her interest in aspects of the blues and oral tradition that are enigmatic and cryptic formulations, open to various interpretations. It is this essence of enigma which characterizes the complicated wordplay in Muse & Drudge that reveals its roots in jazz. Mysterious, Mullen notes, according to Clarence Major in Juba to Jive: a Dictionary of African-American Slang, refers to the avant-garde musical tradition, something thats way out. In terms of tradition, Mullen claims she associated the avant-garde or innovative aspects of [her poem] with jazz musicians, particularly people like Thelonious Monk, as in solo mysterioso. She also likened the phonemic games many of her verses engage in to scat singing. Mullens remarks concerning this aspect of her feminist avant-garde poetics is particularly revealing. It counters the critical tendency to read the innovative formal characteristics of her work as being essentially derived from European-American modernists such as Gertrude Stein and the more ostensibly opaque, or transparently vernacular, aspects of her writing as being socio-culturally rooted in African-American authors such as Zora Neale Hurston. I would argue that Mullens remarks concerning her concepts and strategies for composition indicate that in terms of content and form Muse & Drudge is effectively styled as a hybrid blues/jazz poem.
When jazz influenced poetry is compared to poetic forms influenced by the blues, the label formless is proffered as a compliment. The scholar Onwuchekwa Jemie, for instance, writes that unlike the blues poem, the jazz poem is without form. This viewpoint is in part a result of the proliferation of jazz poetry during the early to mid seventies, that visiblyand deliberatelybroke from more traditional metrical forms. Avant-garde free jazz of the late sixties and seventies that was closely associated with the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the pianist Cecil Taylor was seen as a model for poetic experimentation. This musics departure from straight-ahead jazz conventions such as creating improvisations without preset chord progressions, suggests a better parallel than blues forms offer for attempts to transform jazz through poetry during this period. While it is true that the bulk of jazz poems written during this period were in free verse, the absence of set metrical patterns does not necessarily indicate the absence of a pattern.
The assumption that the poetry modeled after jazz is necessarily amorphous is not compatible with the evidence at hand. Elizabeth Alexanders poem John Col demonstrates the contrary. I will recite Alexanders poem in its entirety because its carefully embroidered pattern revolves around the title from the first to the final verse in the last stanza:
In contrast to the sheets of sounda description Ira Gitler used to describe Coltranes rapid fire succession of streams of notes in his playing style of the 50s (and here I hear an oblique echo of Mullens aforementioned unfurling sheets of bluish music) Alexanders poem is pared down to a minimal number of words. In fact, because these highly evocative words beat, heart, blood, terrible, beauty and brass are repeated with syntactical variance, the total number of unique words in the poem is less than it appears. Word count is crucial to understanding the poems structure; Alexander arranged the number of words or word fragments in each line of each stanza with mathematical precision. Even the variance has computational symmetry. To get a sense of the logic of her pattern, it is helpful to see a visual chart of the poems total word count per line and per stanza:
Note that not only are there no more than four words/word fragments per line but also there are no less than two. Also note that each stanza has at least one doubled pair of lines with an equivalent number of words (ie. 3, 3; 2, 2; 4, 4). The two stanzas with the exact same word count, 3-3-3-3, are the 3rd and the 5th stanzas; they are also the only two stanzas in the poem in which Coltranes horn is mentioned. The fourth and the sixth stanzas, by comparison, vary the total word count pattern of 12, they contain 13 and 15 words, respectively. The last stanza is the only stanza with five lines instead of four; this fifth line functions as a poetic equivalent of the tag in jazz. The line extends the poems opening theme; trane song circles back to join the opening line, John Col, which is also the poems title. The elegance of Alexanders structure is its near-invisibility. Unless the reader is counting specifically for a numerical pattern, she would not necessarily be fully aware of its existence. And yet it serves as a guiding principle for the poem, it is the frame upon which each line is built. In this, Alexanders poem parallels the tapestry of a skillfully executed jazz solo: the casual listener may hear only a flurry of well-paced notes or well-timed silences that seem purely spontaneous; unless the listener dissects the improvisation, note for note, he or she may not be aware of the chord progressions upon which the improviser builds.
On both a structural and a textual level, Alexanders verbal scripting of Coltranes sound is characterized by syntactical restraint. If you look closely at your handout, you will notice that the poem contains no commas, semicolons, or periods, no punctuation to indicate grammatical pauses, stops or starts. Instead Alexander achieves a syncopated, alternately jarring and fluid rhythm in the poem by letting the silent spaces between the words speak. The only extralexical marks in the poem, significantly, are the quotations placed around Central Park West, and between the hyphenated words shred-ding, blood-blowing, foot-lights, beau-ty, and heart-beat. Moreover, the fourth stanza
is the poetic equivalent of a musical riff. Alexander breaks apart and rearranges the phrase a terrible beauty as a jazz soloist would fragment and worry a melodic line. A standard procedure in jazz entails borrowing from other songsthat are not necessarily jazz tunesand folding them into a restructured melody, often transforming the original tunes rhythmic framework and chord patterns. Similarly, Alexanders manipulation of the phrase a terrible/beauty a horn builds in a sample which echoes crucial lines from Yeats poem Easter 1916, while transforming Yeats recurrent verses. Alexanders borrowing is structurally significant. The concluding couplets for the first, second and final stanzas of Easter 1916 are, respectively: All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born., Transformed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born., and Are changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born. Alexanders transformation of Yeats verse illustrates the striking effects of structural change of a few similar lines. In The First Book of Jazz, Langston Hughes declared that Jazz is a way of playing music even more than it is a composed music. Almost any music can become jazz if it is played with jazz treatment. Similarly, Alexanders poem suggests that jazz poetry can be seen as a way of playing with words, even more than it is genre of poetry composed about jazz.
This emphasis on playing with words, or more generally on play, seems a suitable way to conclude my discussion of Moore, Mullen and Alexander. For the question of play brings us back to the metaphor used for slam competitions at the beginning of my talk. The noted film critic Roger Ebert called this performance art a muscular verbal sport. Given the valorization of the spectacle of the written over and above the sport of the spoken word in poetry scholarship, it is unlikely to see poets such as Moore and Mullen discussed in the same context. Moreover, due to the additional critical tendency to separate formally innovative writers such as Mullen from so-called neo-formalists such as Alexander, readers might not see them housed under the same tent. Yet I have endeavored to illustrate that it takes only a leapor following Moores aviary metaphor, a flightof critical faith to follow these three poets into whatever communal territory their poetry leads. Emerging poetry scholarship should be willing to imagine across poetry communities, and if need be, to create them.
 Slamnation, dir. Paul Devlin, perf. Bob Holman, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Beau Sia, et. al, Cinema Guild, 1998.
 Often signing up on a list is the sole requirement for being eligible to perform at a local coffeehouse or bar that hosts such slams.
 Roger Ebert, rev. of SlamNation, dir. Paul Devlin, Chicago Sun Times Online <http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1998/10/102304.html.
 Maria Damon, Was that Different, Dissident or Dissonant? Poetry (n) the Public Spear: Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, Ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) 334.
 Kalamu ya Salaam, Why Spoken Word Rules, Black Issues Book Review (March-April 1999): 21
Harper, Michael. Interview. The Situation of American Writing 1999. American Literary History 11.2 (1999): 215-353.
 Harryette Mullen, Fable, Callaloo, 9.1(1986): 108.
 Damon 326.
 Jessica Care Moore, My Caged Bird Dont Sing and Every Black Bird Aint A Piece of Fried Chicken, The Words Dont Fit In My Mouth (New York: Moore Black Press, 1997) 96-98.
 Jessica Care Moore, My Caged Bird Dont Sing, Eargasms: Crucial Poetics Vol. 1. Ozone, 1999.
 Moore, My Caged Bird Dont Sing, The Words Dont Fit In My Mouth 98.
 Mullen, Muse & Drudge (Philadelphia: Singing Horse Press, 1995) 1
 Calvin Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues: An Interview with Harryette Mullen, Callaloo 19.3 (1996): 652.
 Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sympathy, Norton Anthology of African American Literature, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Nellie McKay, et. al (New York: Norton, 1997) 900.
 Moore, My Caged Bird, The Words Dont Fit In My Mouth 97.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 653.
 Mullen, Muse & Drudge 1.
 Lyre, Websters Reference Dictionary 570.
 Robert OMeally, Introduction, Writing the Blues, Writing Jazz, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 1998) 535.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 654.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 654.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 668.
 Mullen, Muse & Drudge 17.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 664.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 666.
 Bedient, The Solo Mysterioso Blues 666.
 See for example, an earlier issue of How2, in which Kimberly Lamm argues that from [Gertrude] Steins work, Mullen extracts associational logic, verbal density that resists complete interpretive mastery by the reader, and a detached and idiosyncratic authorial presence. From [Zora Neale] Hurstons work, Mullen extracts the performative and mimetic qualities of African-America [sic] dialect and its highly visual components while also emphasizing the way language participates in and shapes cultural and economic exchanges. Kimberly Lamm, Modernist Clothes Made New: The Visible Presence of Zora Neale Hurston and Gertrude Stein in Harryette Mullens Trimmings, How2, <http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/stadler_center/how2/current/readings/lamm.html>. Also see Elisabeth Frosts remarks in Postmodern Culture that both Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino use a fundamentally Steinian lnaguage yet voice difference that Stein tended to avoid in her poetryissues of race, class and inequity in American culture. Elizabeth A. Frost, Signifying on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino, Postmodern Culture, n.p. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v005/5.3frost.html> I should add that I am not disputing the influence of Steins work on Mullens poetics or form of composition that both Lamm and Frost lucidly demonstrate. Instead, it is my contention that such categorization of the innovative and intricate as white and the vernacular and transparent as black does a disservice to the multiple musico-cultural and literary origins of innovation in Mullens work.
 Onwuchekwa Jemie, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (New York: Columbia UP, 1976) 56-57.
 Elizabeth Alexander, John Col, The Venus Hottentot (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990).
 The structure of John Col can also be evaluated in terms of syllabic arrangement; in that case the pattern becomes 2-4-4-3; 5-4-4-4; 4-4-4-4; 4-4-4-4; 5-5-6-4; 4-3-3-4-2. Significantly the final stanza is a numerical variation of the first.
 William Butler Yeats, Easter 1916, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, eds. M. H. Abrams, et. al (New York: Norton, 1993) 1878-1880. Alexander also picked up on the theme of repetition and slight variation in the cyclical elements of Yeats' poem. The third stanza provides the most suggestive comparison:
Repetition with variation in the above lines has the effect of building intensity of verbal resonance while shading meaning. Alexander uses greater economy of words to similar purpose in John Col. In addition, the opening couplet of the poems last stanza: Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart may also be referred to in the brass heart in Alexanders poem. Yeats changes are literal and temporal, minute by minute while Alexanders are spatial and miniscule: mi-nute.
 Langston Hughes, What is Jazz? The First Book of Jazz (Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1999)46. Originally published by Franklin Watts in 1955.
BIO: Meta DuEwa Jones recently received her doctorate in English and American Literature from Standford University. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African-American Studies at the University of Virginia.