September, 1997

POETRY: Verse Vixen
'ABC No Meo'
by Joanna Rakoff

Because I live my life as though it were a novel of manners I have, as of late, been seeking out the validity of Stella Gibbons' 1932 assertion that "Most young men are alarmed on hearing that a young woman writes poetry. Combined with an ill-groomed head of hair and an eccentric style of dress, such an admission is almost fatal." New York girls develop strange and creative methods for fending off the attention of unwanted suitors and actually telling people that I'm a poet is my latest tactic.

Unfortunately, society has changed a bit since Ms. Gibbons' heyday and the hipster types that crawl up to me in East Village cafes haven't been scared away by my proclamations; however, the responses from these urban bon vivants have been rather informative about how the general populus views poetry. Generally, it goes something like this:

Hipster Guy: Good time to be a poet, huh?

Me (scowling): No. Not particularly.

Hipster Guy: Yeah, but like all that spoken work stuff, like the Nuyorican and stuff. You know, like Henry Rollins and that guy from King Missile. There was, like, a world tour and stuff. Spoken word, man.

You see what I'm getting at: you say "poetry," they hear "spoken word." Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The Hipster Guy is right. Urban spoken word artsists represent one of the only alternatives to the mind-numbing dullness of most mainstream (i.e. academic) poetry. But to what extent have these vernacular poets spice up High Culture poetry? The ivory tower in which I spent my college years didn't recognize spoken word as a part of its pristine circles. Poets were poets and those boho-ypes screaming expletives in smoky clubs were a different species.

The ivory shackles have been chafing a bit so I decided to get myself a spoken word education. Having attended a slam at the Nuyorican (and finding the audience filled with NYU frat boys and their underage dates), I ended up at the polar opposit of the New York spoken word scene: the mother of all readings, ABC No Rio.

For the last ten to fifteen years (no one can give me an exact figure) writers and performers of all kings have been gathering in a crumbling Lower East Side tenement for "our unorganicized reading"--the weekly spoken word event with "no list, no feature, no bullshit." In its earlier days ABC No Rio was more of an avant garde talent show allowing musicians (bands even!) along with the usual poets and writers. Currently, with its hangover-curing meeting time of Sundays at 3 pm, the event feels more like a friendly workshop. The group fluctuates between 10 and 20 people, including a rotating group of about eight regulars, who sit in a chaotic arrangement of mismatched chairs, casually awaiting their chance to read.

On this particular Sunday, most of the readers were fiction writers (including the fabulous flame-haired downtown icon J.D. Rage, reading hysterical snatches from her new novel); however, the few poets were, indeed, of the spoken word genre and, despite the appallingly different atmostphere, seemed exactly like those I had seen at the Nuyorican: Malcolm Howl, a funny California kid telling stories about his huge family and menial jobs; Sharon O, an earnest girl describing her experience in unbearable cliche ("it's always darkest before the dawn"); Thad Rutkowski, a hyperactive, wryly funny and iconoclastic monologist (a long-time regular, his work and performance style proved the most polished and unique).

But is this poetry? I don't know. I tend to side with my ivory towered mentors in feeling that spoken word can only be considered a genre in and of itself. Ultimately, of course, the question is not whether or not spoken word artists are actually poets but what academic poets can learn from the manner in which spoken word artists use language.

I'm going back next Sunday to continue the lesson.

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