Richard Hugo House, Broadway Performance Hall, the Breakroom, and other venues; www.poetryfestival.org; tickets: 725-1650. April 27-May 6.
The fourth annual Seattle Poetry Festival occupies several venues around town this week, showcasing, as it has in the past, very few performers with startlingly vital work, alongside a lot of embarrassing blather.
On the bright end of this spectrum are Ishmael Reed, a writer better known for his novels and criticism, and Pan-African beatnik veteran Ted Joans (one of the original taggers, who wrote "BIRD LIVES" all over Manhattan after Charlie Parker's death in 1953). Both these poets engage the most quintessentially American, perhaps, of all subjects: black consciousness in the New World. (Also along these lines is Griot, a performance poetry group from Georgia whose members speak as oracles through the personae of Yoruban gods.) Reed is a true literary lion; a publisher and a no-bullshit-tolerator in literary and social politics. His poetry, even when exhorting the city of Oakland to provide better access to human services, finds access to an epic tone in its short, unmetered lines: an abbreviated spoken blues. This is near to Joans' wavelength as well, a kind of truly "blank" verse (not the unrhymed pentameter that term strictly refers to, but an absence of affect at the end of each line, which builds of its brevity a haunting solidity and fierce rage, stone on stone).
Michael McClure's move away from the traditional music of English verse, instead of taking him like Reed and Joans into an alternate hoodoo tradition, leads his work off a cliff into suburban stonerdom. I recommend you stay away. Judy Grahn, one of the few women in the boys' club that was the San Francisco renaissance, evokes serene stillness with imagistic Goddess-Bless poetry. Many of the anthologies that publish her work sound abominably touchy-feely, but as a poet she is quite graceful, if not particularly ambitious.
The festival also hosts an abundance of little shows whose exoticism is attractive: the Kamilche Guerrilla Girls Poetry Collective; robertkarimi, an Iranian/ Guatemalan poet who explores his heritages in "full body rhythm"; and Crystal Williams, whose promotional paragraph suggests a certain weight by its reticence. Hugo House's Poetry Clothesline invites the public to hang their own work out like laundry, and Ronica Mukherjee, co-founder of the thrilling WTO/Y2K noisemakers, the Infernal Noise Brigade, appears at the Breakroom. (Other featured poets--Carolyn Lei-Lanilau, Opal Palmer-Adisa, and New Mexico poets Lisa Gill, Mitch Rayes, and Gary Glazner are obscurely published and have no press packets.)
What really dominates the Poetry Festival's stages every year, however, to mixed effect, is the slam; Eleventh Hour Production's year-round project is the Seattle Slam at Dutch Ned's Tavern. This year's festival hosts the Oakland Slam Team, whose work I have not read nor heard and so cannot justly comment on. But it must be said that while the principle of the slam is that anyone can write poetry--it's easy!--just because anyone can doesn't mean everyone should.
The slam scene makes a lot of noise about getting poetry out of the ivory tower of academia, but by pretending to be the alternative to tepid workshop poetry, it gives a skewed picture of the current situation. When contemporary American poetry lost a broad readership about 30 years ago--largely usurped by rock music--it was, for the most part, because it had abandoned what musicality and common vision made it appealing. It is easy and appropriate to attack the mediocrity of a middle-lightweight NPR academic like Billy Collins, but anyone who would consider Collins highbrow is not a reader of poetry. The fact is that the very poetics of personality and identity have so infected the mass of American poets that their work can survive nowhere but inside the university and its journals, in which the cachet of publication takes precedence over distinctions of the quality of the work published, and critical rigor, when applied to poets neither white nor male (nor old), is mistaken for reactionary politicking.
The aesthetic of the slam, on the other hand, all too often turns up low-grade writing, heavy posturing, and TV-level gags. Slam performances veer toward (and I'm being generous here) one-dimensional, uninflected rants, attempting a bardic tone but almost never awake to the finer attenuations of language--or, God forbid, rhythm. Thus the hiphop poets embraced by the slam culture out of the primacy of accessibility as aesthetic value fall closer to the merits of traditional English verse than the slammers realize, and they, not the slams, represent the true spirit of modern American poetry.
Art is not a democracy. Art is not made with good intentions. At worst, consistently subjected to half-assed work, poetry's huge potential audience finds nothing there it is looking for, and turns away for a lifetime.