Lauren Harrison: What is the integral difference between poetry and spoken word art (if you believe there is one) besides the obvious written and oral variances?
Sarah Browning: I think performance poetry is a hybrid form so that it combines poetry and performance and that the best performance poets are talented at both things. In performance poetry, a good performance doesn’t compensate for words that are not interesting. It just doesn’t. But when the two are both working, it can be quite extraordinary. But poetry that is primarily [written by a] “page poet” can also be performed very effectively, but has to have a life on the page and obviously performance poetry doesn’t have to. If it does all, the better. So those poets (page poets) are working with a different set of tools: How it looks on page, line breaks, cues that they can give the reader through sound.
LH: Do you believe that the oral tradition is important in poetry? Why or why not?
SB: Absolutely, for one thing it is the poetic tradition. It’s the oldest tradition we have and I think it forms so much contemporary poetry, even poetry that is primarily on the page. For poets who work primarily on the page, it has to be (I believe) in our minds as we are writing. We have to have that music of one form or the other. I was raised in the Episcopal church, but the sound, the music of the service is always with me, forms my writing as much as poetry and music. (Even though I left the church a long time ago and am no longer religious).
LH: I’ve become acquainted with “jazz poetry” recently in the DC area. Does music affect the content of your poetry and/or performances?
SB: I always wanted to be a musician, but I’m not skilled enough with it. For one thing I don’t have a good sense of rhythm. I can’t keep a beat! I can sing in a choir because there was a conductor. But as a poet you can have your own syncratic rhythm. I always hear a rhythm as I’m writing. The music has to play a tremendous part in the writing. Although I wouldn’t say I write blues or jazz poetry or [that I am] more directly influenced. But yes, my ear is a musical ear and I never write in regular meter.
LH: I took a poetry workshop in which the instructor asserted that Tupac Shakur was one of the late 20th century’s greatest poets. Do you consider rap/hip-hop as poetry? Is it spoken word art?
SB: Thirty years before your instructor said that everyone was saying Bob Dylan was the poet of his generation, much to the dismay of the established poet community. Sam Hammel, who was a here (at Busboys and Poets) said, “poetry is a big house,” and I agree with him. I think there’s lots of room for poetry in the world. Certainly spoken word and hip hop have overlapping elements, just like protest songs overlap with poetry. I don’t have a problem with it. My hope would be that young people are moved by the strong lyrics, will get turned on to spoken word, and get turned onto poetry and vice versa to complete the circle, so folks get exposed to all different kinds of poetry.
LH: Do you assert that spoken word art is “supposed” to have a political message? Why or why not?
SB: Well, there’s always been political tradition in all poetry. There is a political tradition, which isn’t to say that every poem is political. I believe in a culture that is dominated by corporate and political speech, to assert a poem, as an individual is a political act. To write a poem that is rich and valuable, apart from what we consume is a political act. I don’t think that every spoken word has to be political, to the extent that is influenced by a hip hop movement which was political and other African-American forms that have been political. I don’t think every piece has to be explicitly political.
LH: What do you believe constitutes a great performance?
SB: [The] same thing I think about poetry: I might see the skill, but if it doesn’t move me than it doesn’t interest me as much. I want to be moved. But it takes skill to do a moving performance. And what that magic is - I can tell you what it is on the page, not that there isn’t some mystery there too. But what makes it powerful, the performer has to inhabit the piece of work that they are doing, which is about the body and the voice, as well as the text and they have to be comfortable in that space even if what they are conveying is discomfort, and so it’s acting. It’s performance. To have the skills to do both well, (write and perform) I think is a remarkable gift. I admire it greatly.
LH: The New York Times claimed that audience popularity determined the victor of “game-show-like poetry slams,” which defined spoken word poetry as a “pointlessly stiff term for poetry read aloud with stand-up comic timing and aggression” in 1994. Are “slam contests” necessary and/or helpful for artistic growth?
SB: Some people love slam and some people hate them for themselves and for the movement. But you couldn’t pay me enough to do a poetry slam! I think it rewards a humor, often playing to the audience in one way or another: Sex, politics, the sensational and so on some poets do on the page, who play to their audience in a different way. I just can’t get too worked up about it. Certainly the slam has helped build the spoken word movement, so that’s great. It’s not my bag.
LH: In your opinion, are spoken word performances literary art or performance art? Both?
SB: It is both. It’s easy to criticize, because a lot of spoken word events are open mic and there’s a lot of crap. But there’s a lot o f crap in any art form, because people don’t work at their craft. Fortunately, for some of us, just wanting to express ourselves is not enough and we have to transform people through our art. The best of spoken word does that [transforming] and it works best when both elements are strong. Start surfing the web if you want to read some bad ass, awful poetry. Any forum that is an open forum will have a mix and some editors are not as strong.
LH: Do you think spoken word translates well to CD or to the page? Or is it a genre that is best heard live?
SB: Well, I think the live moment in any form is a fantastic thing because something happens in each individual moment that’s different from another one. I think it can work in CD form if the writing is strong, because you don’t have the physical form to enhance the writing. I have seen it work less well on the page, which I wish they could work on more. Most of what I got (as an editor )was unreadable, no line breaks or punctuation, and it was in a way that didn’t help the reader at all. So I would love to offer a workshop from “stage to page” to translate your work. We ended up only including one performance poet in DC Poets against the War. And another thing is length, because condensed language is also important with poetry on the page. They [spoken word artists] need to think hard about the language they could stand to lose.
LH: Do you think that spoken word artists are respected as poets? If not, should they be?
SB: If they are good, yea. I think it’s a poetry form. I have tremendous respect for it. So I’m not one of these people who says it’s not poetry. But it is its own poetic form, so you experience it differently.
LH: How do spoken word artists survive financially? Does this differ with more “traditional” poets?
SB: Well, some performance poets actually get paid when they perform and most poets on a page are not getting paid. So more power to them! But on the other hand, more poets on the page have been parlaying their work into university jobs and I’m guessing there won’t be as many opportunities for performance poets in the academia. On the other hand, those of us who don’t want to teach can’t support ourselves as poets and have to do something else. It’s a rough road for everybody.
LH: Do you feel that spoken word art is a trend that will eventually disappear?
SB: No, I don’t. There’s always been an oral tradition in poetry. Sometimes it’s taking different forms. Another wonderful thing about it is that it’s gotten people out of their houses and it’s a social movement in that way. People are always going to need human connection and for poets who work on the page, poetry readings are not always as convivial. That’s always going to be important for people because we’ve gotten too isolated from each other. But artistically we’re just beginning to see its potential and what people can do with it. The spoken word movement is so relatively young, so [it has] potential for development and it’s exciting to see where it’s going to go.
LH: The Beats, who many see as the “source” for America’s return to the oral tradition, were typically young, White males. Now, the current arena for spoken word seems to be widely represented by minorities (non-White and/or non-male). Why do you think minorities have surfaced as the new leaders of the spoken word movement? What are the cultural implications of this change?
SB: I think it’s wrong that the Beats were the mid-wives of the spoken word movement. I think they were influential in all sorts of ways. I would credit hip-hop as a more direct influence, which came out of low-income communities with a political message. To be a young person in America of color is to confront issues that White people are escaping, because White people think they are far removed from these issues, which is bull shit! So I think it makes sense that the leadership of it [spoken word movement] are people of color, because of the influence of hip hop and also earlier oral traditions in African American and Latino cultures. Music, chant, church- all of these played a role in the development of African American culture, so there’s a stronger oral tradition than say someone like me (White woman). It’s very striking that when a cultural form emerges from communities of color, it doesn’t take long for White people to try to co-op it like Elvis Presley and Eminem. What would be great would be if we had a spoken word movement where people of color continued to play visible leadership roles and White people didn’t predominate in the public mind, so people of color continue to get the attention and acclaim that they deserve as artists.
LH: Do you think this form of poetry will become more mainstream/commercial with shows like Def Poetry Jam and contest winners of National Poetry Slams making appearances in magazines, movies, CDs, etc? Do you foresee radio support?
SB: Capitalism can absorb anything and make it its own and take the teeth out of it. This is what happened to the majority of hip hop and rock and roll. If there is money to be made, it will be exploited by capitalism. What’s great about it now is that no one knows what to do with it from a market stand point. It goes on its own idiosyncrasies. It’s a double edged sword. If radio starts playing it, you know it is not going to be political because for the most part it’s going to be the most acceptable of what’s out there. This can be dangerous because it encourages people to duplicate it and that’s how art forms move away from their explicitly political roots. It happened even in bluegrass, which a lot of early songs are about exploitation of poor whites...after a while it’s all about nostalgia for some mountain home, it’s just sort of acceptable. It would be great, but I would caution the artist about pressures to tone down their work, like who gets the air play.
LH: What is your vision for the spoken word movement? What “path” do you recommend to young, aspiring performance poets? Should spoken word art emerge in classroom environments?
SB: The most important thing is to study poetry, read it, go to readings even if poets aren’t performance poets. I think the understanding of what makes for powerful language is essential of any young practitioner of any form. I’d like to see folks read. One moment here (at Busboys and Poets) people had to read a Langston poem before they performed. Memorizing, reading work that’s different from your own is important. My pallet, as primarily a page poet, has been extended by going to more performance poetry events. I’ve been influenced, which has expanded, and deepened my poetry and gave me something [else] to work with.
My hope for performance poets is to value the language and text as much as, if not more than, the performance and invest in crafting it more. That’s always my hope for all of us. There is always more to learn and ways to go. It’s sort of like [the] popularity of the form has been in communities of color in major cities like DC. We’re a very segregated society. It feels like spoken word can be a comfortable place of meeting across racial, gender, and sexual lines. But sometimes that requires extra work. White programmers need to create more for poets of color and do more to invite everyone in.
There is a whole field called performance studies, which is studying performance art, which are based in theater programs. I’m sure it will come into the classroom, whether it happens in the theatre departments or English departments. English departments are notoriously White, elitist, sexist, racist, and slow to change. It took them a long time to study even White women writers; so it will continue to be a slow process, but it will happen, because hip hop is still studied. Whether it is ever taught as a craft the way poetry on the page is taught, I don’t know. It is at poetry workshop type things, which are often controlled by academics, so that’s slow too.
LH: Wow! Well you have offered an interesting perspective. Thanks for your time.
SB: Thank you!