.. The Potomac Interview Series
     Lauren Harrison

An Interview with Brian Gilmore

Brian Gilmore: Poet, writer, and long time public interest attorney. He teaches at Howard Law School, running a housing discrimination clinic. Gilmore began writing poetry in 1985 during the Reagan era and has been writing ever since. After being first published in 1988, Gilmore has published two collections of poetry – Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem (Third World Press 1992) and Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: Poem for Duke Ellington (Karibu Books 2000). He is widely published in numerous anthologies including Bum Rush the Page (Medina), In Search of Color
(Miller), Step Into a World (Powell). Gilmore has lectured at various
colleges and high schools, and at the Associated Writing Programs conference in 1996-97. He currently writes for Jazz Times, and is a columnist with The Progressive Media Project.

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?

Brian Gilmore: There are a lot of differences and a lot of similarities. Poetry obviously benefits from what is sometimes called “the spoken word movement.” Poets, like myself, and many others who have been toiling as writers and readers get to read to more enthusiastic audiences who are really into poetry as a living, breathing art form with living poets. One doesn’t have to be dead for a few centuries to be important to the literary canon of the world. If there is a real difference between the two (and it is not that important), it is that poetry has many, many facets, while spoken word is poetry but sometimes it isn’t – it is just some person, musing “from the dome” so to speak. They do not remember what they said later, and they don’t care. Poetry, on the other hand, seems to want to remember and recall precisely what it said, and was trying to say. In other words, poetry, might be just a few words, or three or four sentences; spoken word relies more on the “spoken” nature of the words. If that cannot be elevated, it won’t work that well.

LH: Do you believe that the oral tradition is important in poetry? Whyor why not?

BG: It is important because poetry is, in fact, music or word music, as many great poets have stated. Poetry has a long, long tradition, and everyone who wrote it, did not necessarily have the means to write it down in a precise way all the time, or do 123 revisions of their poem. In Nicaragua, a country often called the country of poets, it is said that many people, poets, memorize their poem, and will recite it to you when asked. In countries suffering under oppression, keeping a poem of resistance in one’s memory is singularly important. Writing it down might result in death. In the oral tradition, is also important to the written tradition, and vice versa, because, once you hear a poet, and hear their cadence, their voice, their emotion, and passion, you can read their work, and hear them even when they are not there. It brings an understanding to the work.

LH: I've become acquainted with "jazz poetry" recently in the DC area.Does
music affect the content of your poetry and/or performances?

BG: Yes. Both of my books, collections, are music, or attempts to create word music. Word scratches over rhythms. My first, “elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem” is rhythm and blues. It is grounded in that tradition of the simple song that says something in a simple way. My second, “jungle nights and soda fountain rags” was an attempt to write poetry as jazz, with rhythm, blues, history, emotional content, improvisation, call and response, all of it. It tried to comment in a much different way. When I perform, or read, I try to be musical. I have read with musicians, and bands, so music is what I am about. I am a former musician (bass) so part of my thinking when I am into poetry readings, etc., is to enjoy it, and to show the audience, that this is important tome, it means a lot. If they see the reader enjoying the work, the audience will get into it easier.

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 youconsider rap/hip-hop as poetry? Is it spoken word art?

BG: Tupac Shakur is hardly one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. There are hundreds of poets more important and more accomplished than Tupac. This is not to say he isn’t talented because he is talented. He is a rapper though first; poetry for him is something he has incorporated into his aesthetics. I could go down the list of great living poets such as Kamau Braithwaite, Amiri Baraka, Elizabeth Alexander, Kenneth Carroll, Peter Harris, Sharon Strange, and hundreds of others who are writing and reading their poetry and taking it to a poetic level that Tupac can only dream about. Tupac is a rapper. Rap uses poetry to create itself but it is inaccurate to leap frog over so many great, living poets, and proclaim a rapper as the king of them all. It insults so many who do poetry well everyday of their lives. These people don’t have DJs, beats, promo budgets, record deals, or anything Tupac every had to get their words out. These individuals write about everything Tupac rapped about too but they don’t have to sell records so their poems dig deeper for solutions and answers; their comments are not easy slogans. They are the giants of poetry; Tupac is more apt to be called one of the 20th century’s most important rap artists. I think that would be more appropriate and respectful.

As for Rap, Tupac’s art form, it uses poetry to create itself but it is not poetry because rap is rap and uses a lot of different things to create itself. It is a great urban art form that has taken rhyming, a poetic style, and has done it well. The way it uses this poetic technique is superb and one of the major cultural developments of the last 30 years. It is poetry in the sense that it uses other poetic techniques as well. It uses metaphors well also. However, it would be simplistic to say rap is poetry. Spoken word is art as well because it has taken poetry and other literary devices and has had an impact on the literary and music worlds simultaneously.

LH: Do you assert that spoken word art is "supposed" to have apolitical message? Why or why not?

BG: All spoken word is political because all writing is political. If you are asking if spoken word should be overtly political, I would say, it doesn’t have to be, but when the writer chooses not to speak directly to the politics in our world, like when a poet decides to read poems about flowers or about the stars in the sky, that poet is being political. They have decided to make a political statement that says they think these things are important. The war in Iraq, homelessness, police brutality, domestic violence; these things are not important to them; thus, the poet still has spoken much about their politics. Peter Harris, a west coast poet, originally from DC, once wrote about love all the time, love between black adult men and women. But his political vision was the world; especially the world that black people lived in, needed to be full of love. It was a powerful political statement even though poets I know would often criticize his choice of topics. While they were busy writing political slogans as poetry, Peter was writing personal stuff about love that was far more political than a poem that was political in an abstract way. A lot of poets don’t understand that.

LH: What do you believe constitutes a great performance?

BG: One writes to communicate. Did you communicate? Did the audience take away the core of what you were trying to say in much of your work? Sometimes [at] spoken word events, the work is so long, it looses its meaning. Did you communicate and did the audience [feel] your communication; that is the core question.

LH: The *New York Times *claimed that audience popularity determinedthe victor of "game-show-like poetry slams," which defined spoken wordpoetry as a "pointlessly stiff term for poetry read aloud with stand-upcomic timing and aggression" in 1994. Are "slam contests" necessary and/or helpful for artistic growth?

BG: My friend, the poet, Kenneth Carroll, who loves poetry slams, has referred to poetry slams as “the most unliterary of literary events.” I agree. But I love slams. I have never participated in a slam and have no plans to participate but poetry slams, for poetry, is the equivalent of what punk rock was to rock and roll. Rock and roll had lost its way and here came this raw, energetic, against the grain music. The musicians could barely play but it energized rock and roll and gave it energy that it is still using. Poetry slams did the same. Poetry, most poetry (not in the black community) necessarily, was stale, and was ruled by academics, and non-profits literary groups for decades, when the slam came along. It opened up all sorts of possibilities. It created energy; it made poetry enjoyable, and it re-asserted the real rules of poetry because in poetry, there is only rule – The only rule in poetry is there are no rules. Robert Pinsky might say otherwise but it has always been those who went against the grain who changed the art form for the best. TS Eliot was an innovator. Kamau Braithwaite is an innovator (though he is an accomplished literary critic and theoretician). But that is what the poetry slam did – it raved
again that the only rule in poetry is there are no rules.

LH: In your opinion, are spoken word performances literary art orperformance art? Both?

BG: Can be both and is probably both (at least a little) almost all of the time. Sometimes, it is more performance and sometimes it is highly literary; just depends upon the vibe, the energy, and the poet.

LH: Do you think spoken word translates well to CD or to the page? Or is it a genre that is best heard live?

BG: It is good on CD but it is best usually live when it can take on elements of jazz where the element of surprise takes over. Jazz is like that; it happens in the moment. I recently performed with jazz saxophonist Marshall Keys and it was great. But it was all surprise. It happened right then and there which is best. CDs are good too. Spoken word suffers a bit on the page especially because of the length at times.

LH: Do you think that spoken word artists are respected as poets? If not, should they be?

BG: Some spoken word artists are well known poets. Sekou Sundiata comes to mind. People will have to judge the artists individually. Spoken word is important and incorporates poetry well. We all have to remember that 20 years ago, the term “spoken word” was rarely uttered though there were poetry readings all over the place. We should let this play out. The serious artists will be respected as poets but they might not want to be respected as poets – they might want to be respected as spoken word artists.

LH: How do spoken word artists survive financially? Does this differwith more "traditional" poets?

BG: Not sure. Most poets, writers, artists, survive by working elsewhere. Many teach in MFA programs, high schools, work at art non-profits, museums. There isn’t much money in poetry, in literature by itself. Some spoken word artists are out there on the road and roll with it for awhile. They do workshops, get grants, sell CDs, travel overseas, but traditional poets (I assume you mean like Pinsky and those kind of folks) usually get tenure at colleges and write their selves into obscurity. It is a frightening existence. That is why I became a public interest lawyer because I wanted to interact with all kinds of people and not just other academics. It has cost me in terms of being known in the traditional poetry world but it has kept me grounded for the last 20 years. I am now teaching at Howard Law School in a housing discrimination clinic. I expect to continue to meet all kinds of people there too once we start doing cases with real clients.

LH: Do you feel that spoken word art is a trend that will eventually disappear?

BG: It’s hard to say. Usually, art forms have to make themselves survive through institution building. Poetry survives specifically because of the growth of MFA programs and other institutions. Most people who read poetry, to tell the truth, are other poets. Just like most people who read karate books are people studying karate. An entity like spoken word had better take steps to ensure its survival. The movement to give out awards, form
organizations, etc., is a good step.

LH: The Beats, who many see as the "source" for America's return to the oral tradition, were typically young, White males. Now, the currentarena for spoken word seems to be widely represented by minorities(non-White and/or non-male). Why do you think minorities have surfacedas the new leaders of the spoken word movement? What are the culturalimplications of this change?

BG: The rise of hip-hop in my view. Integration also. It allowed minorities (persons of color) to attend schools they couldn’t attend 30 or 40 years ago. It brought the races together a bit on college campuses. But rap music is the real fuel to this. That is also why you have a lot of lousy spokenword/poetry events. Anyone and everyone is getting up there spouting out insane words with no direction and no coordination or real meaning. They want to be a rapper but they can’t do it. So they do spoken word, and can’t do that either. Their knowledge of poetry and its techniques, which would help, is non-existent.

LH: Do you think this form of poetry will become moremainstream/commercial with shows like *Def Poetry Jam* and contestwinners of National Poetry Slams making appearances in magazines, movies, CDs, etc? Do you foresee radio support?

BG: It is, as I said, before, hard to say. Institution building will likely be the key. Awards, writing critical articles about the form, essays, conferences (regular), all of that will establish the spoken word movement as something permanent and important. It could fade but it is really up to the artists and those who are putting on the events, etc. Institutionalize it and it has a good chance. Making money will be important but it isn’t the only thing. The traditional poetry world wants no parts of it right now; they hate it because it is more popular amongst non-poets.

LH: What is your vision for the spoken word movement? What "path" do you recommend to young, aspiring performance poets? Should spoken wordart emerge in classroom environments?

BG: I don’t really know. I am a poet, writer, and a lawyer. I can’t say I am a spoken word artist because I was reading and writing when there was no such thing, and if it does out next year, I will write. I love it. As for advice for aspiring performance poets, they should probably check out some of the great performers who have done it well. I don’t know many of the current players but Jayne Cortez comes to mind. Amiri Baraka. ML Liebler. Some of the young lions of the movement escape me now but they need to master literature and find their own voice. Read poetry, literature, listen to music, find your own sound, some kind of way. I think it is already in the classroom to tell the truth.

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