I went to a STORY SLAM on Monday. The first story was by a guy (female to male transgender). He was walking home from the subway late one night in Brooklyn, a drunk guy pissing on the sidewalk yelled, “Suck my dick” at him. He didn’t follow it with either “dyke” or “fag,” so our storyteller “didn’t know quite how he meant it.” The delivery of this line was the only funny part of a story in which he felt threatened as both a man and a woman because the guy sat on a stoop across the street. There he sat for a few minutes, smoking and watching our hero’s front door.
This is the kind of story that, if told by a friend, I would respond with sympathy and back-patting. But as a story on the stage, it falls flat. I feel mean when I insult it because it was so personal and particular. It’s as if I am insulting the story-teller and not the story. In this case, the two are so intertwined that, yes, I suppose I am insulting both. Sorry.
I am totally annoyed by this confessional, self-pitying art-form. I should probably stop going to Louder Arts, but something compels me to go back and try to find meaning. Sometimes I have a nice time. Sometimes there is excellent stuff. But other times I want to smack every single person in the bar.
I’ve delved into my own psychology and even my own moodiness for the reason I hate it so much.
Is it because it is all so focused on self? That’s not it. I’m writing about myself right now and I just drooled over Alison Bechdel’s wonderfully solipsistic memoir, Are You My Mother?
Is it because it is all so silly? No. I am a huge fan of both Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I love silly
Is it because I am a white, upper-class, ivy-league woman who can pass for straight and dresses like a shabby Republican? This may very well be the reason but my subjective experience of my own life prevents me from addressing this question in any useful way.
So let’s talk about something I can address: The obsession with self in slam poetry as manifested by a preoccupation with race, gender, sexuality, linguistic group, class, age, weight, career choice and other easily identifiable personal traits.
Basically, what I am wondering is, why do all the black people talk about being black? Why do all the Hispanics talk about being Hispanic? Why do all the trans/gay/lesbian/whatevers walk about being trans/gay/lesbian/whatever? And why, god, why, do the vegans make slam poetry about being vegan? If I hear tofu used as a metaphor for self-determination one more time, I am expatriating.
This preoccupation with autobiography was especially obvious to me last week when I approached the curator of the show with a question about the upcoming Story Slam.
Me: So what’s the deal with the story slam?
Guy: You get 5-minutes to tell any story you want. Then we score you.
Me: That sounds awesome but does the story have to be true?
Guy: It’s like the Moth story series.
Me: Yes, but in the Moth story series, the stories are true. Can the stories next week be fiction?
Guy: No one is going to call you out if it’s not true.
Me: Can they have fairies and dragons and be fantasy?
Guy: If no one here knows you, they won’t know if you’re making it up.
Me: Okay, but I don’t know any dragons. Can the stories be fantasy or complete fiction?
Guy: You just have to finish in five minutes.
We didn’t get very far. I don’t think the guy was an idiot. I think he was a bit distracted and that it hadn’t fully occurred to him that people wouldn’t be telling autobiographical stories. The focus is so much on the aforementioned self-focused poetry that it doesn’t occur to anyone to do fiction. It’s the same way no one gets up and does sonnets at Louder Arts very often either.
I wonder why this is. Partly, it’s a legacy of African American Protest poetry (The Revolution will not be televised. But it might be Facebooked.).
It was a rebellion against the white-centric, male-centric notion of poetry as aesthetic and useless. The separation of literary value and usefulness goes as far back as Horace’s dulce and utile (he thought poetry ought to be both useful and instructive). Later, critics came to disagree and take a kind of “poetry for poetry’s sake” approach (See: A.C. Bradley Oxford Lectures on Poetry, 1909). For a while there, good poetry could not be propaganda.
Nowadays, the line between use and quality in poetry is much more blurred. Anyone who says otherwise is pretentious (and probably a sissy). And yet… I am finding the use or the quality difficult to uncover in these confessional riffs. So why do people make them? Why do other people like them?
Here’s why: The poetry is the result of living in New York City.
Everyone is so obsessed with the superficial details of their own identities because, in a place like New York City, you are constantly faced with huge amount of people who judge you based on a moment’s glance. This style of poetry a kind of response to the hectic, overwhelming nature of urban living.
It’s urban poetry.
I’m going to use the imprecise term “urban” for lack of anything better. In this context, urban is NOT a euphemism for black or African American. I really do just mean poetry and prose produced in a city. The association with black culture is implied and deliberate. It’s urban poetry as opposed to rural poetry like Robert Frost’s or even suburban poetry like Anne Sexton or some of Sylvia Plath. (This way of categorizing literature makes me laugh. Where does Walden fit? Pseudo-rural?)
Urban poetry, in the grand tradition of Allen Ginzberg and Langston Hughes, deals with the experience of the city.
New York is such an overwhelming place to live. It’s loud and bright and in a crazy way, hyper-real. When something smells of piss, it stinks of piss. When the subway is loud, it roars. The buildings are so tall they make you dizzy. There is more happening than could ever be absorbed by one person. But more than that, in the city, we are faced with OTHER people almost all the time. These other people come from every country, speak every language and come from every social class possible. When you walk down the street you see yourself constantly reflected in the reactions and solicitations of others. I was wearing my mom’s designer blazer and Chanel shoes the other day in Union Square and a guy followed me into the subway to give me his card, hoping I would buy some of his art. My black friends tell me that, at night, taxis won’t stop for them.
When that guy (ftm) walked home in Brooklyn and got followed by a creep, he saw himself as victimized by the drunk’s reaction to his identity (variously: white, artsy, faggy, dykey, trans, rich…).
It’s hard to get past the reality of yourself reflected back in countless faces each day. I think that many of the people at Louder Arts (and maybe people in general) get caught up in this reflection and don’t get beyond it to make meaningful poetry and prose. It’s fitting that all the pieces are spoken in the present tense. It creates an “in your face” effect and is apt for poems that don’t have much life after they are spoken.
The function of literature should be to imagine things that do not quite exist. Sometimes they never will and sometimes they are just on the horizon. It any case, it is a productive force for transformation (political, personal or both) that goes beyond the superficial details of the present. Many of these poets and storytellers are so caught up in identifying (labeling, observing) the present that they have are left with very little room for imagining something beyond themselves.