Madness and Retribution by Juliette TorrezIt is the rare spoken word poet whose work both performs well and reads well. Most performance poetry is meant to be just that -- performed. Without the immediacy and intimacy formed by an audience hearing the words spoken in the tone, emotion, attitude, speed, accent, and body language that the performer adds to these pieces, they largely lose their potency. Performance poetry/spoken word is indeed a skill and the best of these performers (some of which can be found at poetry slams that take place at your local bars and coffee shops) have a special talent and their audiences experience language, rhyme and often improvisation in completely unique ways. Not all poets are good “readers” nor do all of them see themselves are primarily performers. Likewise some poetry can not be fully appreciated aurally -- the structure or subtle word play may be lost. Writing for a reader is very different from writing for a listener.
Performance poetry and spoken word should really only be published as CDs because it is nearly impossible to judge the artists work unless you can hear them perform it. By putting them in book form, they unfortunately become far too easy of a target. When collections by spoken word artists such as Juliette Torrez’s Madness and Retribution are held up against books by poets who write for exclusively for the page and also those who have successfully combined writing for the page and the stage, the weaknesses of her writing are made obvious. The line and stanza breaks seem arbitrary and the lines themselves often lack the sort of rhythm that the art form of spoken word should excel at, frequently they seem choppy or just plain awkward. These poems are billed as narratives but unfortunately the way these poems come out on the page does not make for the most compelling storytelling. The people who Torrez describes regularly slip into stereotypes of themselves, leaving the reader with the feeling that they haven’t heard the real stories. The few poems that spoke to me at all were those that were clearly written about Torrez herself, including the final poem aptly titled “Personal History” or another one that starts off with “if i were a man/i’d be a drag queen.” Also, there was a good moment or two in some of the poems named for the cities they describe like “Albuquerque,” where, for example, Torrez writes “albuquerque/you don’t love yourself the way/san Francisco loves itself/the way seattle loves itself/the way santa fe loves itself.”
The word choices are ordinary and there are few surprises with the exception of some attempts at word play, for example in “Spokane,” a poem about driving where “karma” becomes “carma” -- all the same a rather feeble effort. The subject matter is tough -- drugs, violence, domestic abuse, homelessness, poverty -- but the language doesn’t sustain this mood and much of what is supposed to be powerful ends up falling flat. For instance, the poem entitled “The Red Dress” reads like a plot summary for yet another Lifetime Television movie on domestic violence. Torrez is currently 39 years old, but these narratives often seem like they are written from the viewpoint of a juvenile still obsessed with marijuana and road trips. Many of the expressions and attitudes have the casual ennui and bravado of someone who likes to talk a big game but can’t really back it up with anything substantive. It must be assumed that in her performances at such venues as the National Poetry Slam that Torrez captures these people and situations in a more impassioned and convincing manner, but her work as it appears on these pages does not embody any of the hypothetical power of her stage presence.
Madness and Retribution by Juliette Torrez
Manic D Press