NEW POETRY MISSION: pendulum frozen (push!)

(Charles Kruger)

Sam Sax, Nic Alea and Andrew Paul Nelson organized New Poetry Mission a few months ago. What they had in mind was a reading series that would exclusively feature “new shit.” They talked about reading material with the ink still wet. They also wanted to raise the critical standard in responding to the work. They had concluded that too much unconditional acceptance was hurting the scene. They meant to take a stand.

The result has been a mixed bag. Certainly, the series has attracted poets with talent, energy and something to say. On every occasion, the room is crowded with enthusiastic performers and audience. There is always some excellent work. Indeed, about six weeks ago, I wrote a very enthusiastic review.

But, sadly, the recent resignation of the diligent Andrew Paul Nelson has been a disappointment. The notably talented APN, who is known for neither inclusivity nor gentility (he spat on the stage on one memorable occasion), nevertheless promoted a strict adherence to high standards and an emphasis on craft and attentive listening. Assuming his duties is Jen G., an extremely talented writer and performer who is very similar in tone and attitude to her colleagues Sam and Nic.

In Andrew’s absence, the gravitational pull of the slam culture that has nurtured all of the current curators makes it difficult to find anything truly “new” here.

Although it certainly cannot be denied that slam culture has revitalized American poetry and continues to produce some excellent work, it does have certain tendencies that can detract from excellence, including:

  • a formulaic approach in theme, structure, rhythm and style of performance
  • a performance culture that conflates content with persona
  • an emphasis on and encouragement of raucous audience participation
  • a rebellious adolescent psychology

None of the above qualities are necessarily bad. In fact, each of them has contributed to the success of the slam scene and its positive influence on our poetry. But too much of a good thing is too much. The pendulum needs to swing.

Recently, Litseen attended a poetry reading at the San Francisco Zen Center, which would surely be the antithesis of a slam. Tea and cookies were served. The room was quiet, candlelit, respectful. Voices were soft. Attitudes were contemplative. The poetry could be savored, considered, reflected upon and gently imbibed. Nice, I thought.

But I can recognize the legitimacy of a critique that would find that atmosphere stifling, appealing to only certain classes of people, elitist and fuddy-duddy. Tea drinking, quiet voices and a meditative mood do not necessarily signify poetry.

But neither, necessarily, does boastful drunkenness, loud bursts of energy, excess profanity and an in-your-face attitude.

In both instances, the danger is that attitude will be confused with content, style with substance.

And that brings me to my uneasiness with New Poetry Mission. After an hour of performance, I am too often left with a memory of an attitude and a style of presentation rather than with the actual words spoken. And this phenomena is encouraged by the constant, aggressive, almost bullying tirades to the audience to shout out their feelings—good and bad—make noise, stamp feet, etc. It’s fun, no question. But is it producing art?

Such an atmosphere makes it difficult to respond to the content and, in my opinion, devalues it.

So my point is that the “new shit show” is working at cross-purposes: On the one hand, the creators sincerely want to focus on language, new material, and a critical ear. On the other hand, they are stuck in a culture that does not encourage these purposes. There has to be some give, one way or the other. I believe.

Still, talent tells and there were certainly some outstanding performances at the last edition. The entire show can be seen here.

I have selected three standout performances to call to your attention. First, there is a new poem by the always exceptional Sam Sax. In this instance, he responds to the recent hung jury in the infamous trial of teenager Brandon McInerney who shot and killed his 8th grade classmate, Larry King, because Larry  was flirting with him. I very much admire how Sam does not generalize about injustice or limit himself to his own experience, but writes with great specificity about public events.

Sam Sax

My second selection is Jasmine Wilkerson Sufi. This is a persona poem in which the poet takes on a most unexpected character: that of a loving but homophobic mother, a devout fundamentalist Christian sincerely worried about the welfare of her lesbian daughter.

Jasmine Wilkerson Sufi

Lastly, I share with you the closing selection of the evening’s feature poet, James Cagney. Cagney’s entire half hour performance is well worth looking at. He is a poet who is a superb storyteller and one who writes with exceptional clarity and ease. Always accessible, he is never less than thought provoking. Here he also presents a persona poem in an unusual character: that of a drunk chicken.

James Cagney