July 2007

Izetta Mobley


The Spoken Word Revolution Redux edited by Mark Eleveld

The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux is the second installment of an anthology of spoken word poetry featuring the work of traditional Poets Laureate juxtaposed with slam poets. Slam poetry has come a long way in the last two decades -- through its creation by Marc Smith in 1985, to Def Poetry Jam, the groundbreaking television show produced by Russell Simmons, which also enjoyed a Broadway showing, to the peak of slam poetry in the late 1990s. Here, Eleveld again pairs with Marc Smith, cited as the founder of modern-day slam poetry, for their second volume, which follows much of the same format as the first edition. With over 150 poems, an audio CD featuring more than 75 minutes of live readings, and commentary to contextualize each poetry theme, Spoken Word is all about fun.

I can remember my first experience with slam poetry: the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, a place of myth, New York City grit and sophistication, and nearly unbearably hip. A place where, for me, language bounced. Eleveld and Smith do much to recapture many of my initial sensations when hearing spoken word poetry. The two have selected broadly, though there are some notable absences -- at least to this novice -- of Southern writers and well-known artists like Staceyann Chin. Nevertheless, they have created an engaging romp through the world of spoken word poetry.

Both Smith and Eleveld assert that spoken word poetry arises from Beat generation poems, and while certainly mainstream spoken word is connected to the Beat poetry of the 1950s, much of the poetry in urban centers of the country, where slam poetry has thrived, have been just as heavily influenced by rap and the spoken word cultures of the Caribbean, African, and African American people who popularized slam poetry through Def Poetry Jam. Neither Eleveld nor Smith offer a broader overview of slam poetry’s history, and that does the anthology a disservice. Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation donates a chapter from his book for the Hip-Hop Poetica section, which does provide a different insight on how culture contributed to the burgeoning spoken word movement, but it didn’t give me the broad outline I would have liked.

Instead, Spoken Word is truly about just that: the poetry. There are outstanding poems in the anthology -- made even more powerful by their moving readings included on the accompanying audio CD. Hollywood junkies and cult fans of the 1990s film, Reality Bites, will find Ethan Hawke’s recitation of Gregory Corso’s “Marriage,” which he also read in the beginning of that film, deliciously subversive and ironic. Viggo Mortensen and his son Hank also appear, both providing solid work. Keven Stein’s “Tract,” which is an ode to a cantaloupe, brings forth recollections of Pablo Neruda’s work in Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon. Patricia Smith, one of only a little more than two dozen female poets featured, soars on “When the Burning Begins,” a beautiful eulogy to a murdered father. This poem’s strength lay in its ability to be just as powerful read out loud as it is on the page, and is a gem.

Other notable work in the anthology includes Simone Muench’s “Tom Waits, I Hate You;” an adapted jazz rendition of e.e. cummings’ “put off your faces, Death:for day is over,” which in some ways is more intriguing than the original. Jeremy Richards does a hilarious and yet on point parody of Sylvia Plath that’s worth listening to him read aloud. Brendan Murphy and Linton Kwesi Johnson both provide international poetry with decidedly political undertones. Nora Gomringer, who hails from a poetry legacy, shows her chops for performance poetry in “Moment on Rattan Bench,” a sublime treat.

Spoken Word might be most appropriate for those new to spoken poetry: for instance high school English students, those trying to expand their knowledge of modern poetry, or those who want to build up their library of spoken word poets. The CD is a great way to follow along with each artist as they read or perform. Though this can be distracting, as many of the readers transpose their words, it is interesting to witness the words taking flight off of the page and coming directly from the author’s mouth. As an overview it’s wonderful; for those with more spoken word experience this may not appease your appetite.

The Spoken Word Revolution Redux edited by Mark Eleveld
Sourcebooks MediaFusion
ISBN: 1402208693
256 Pages