Lately since the recent season premiere of ‘Russel Simmons presents Def Poetry’ which airs Friday nights at 10:30 on HBO, as well as several rebroadcasts of the same episode several times that night as well as during the week and on any number of the HBO substations,(HBO2, HBOZone, HBO west coast ect…) anyway lately myself and several of my poetry counterparts and as well as people I admire in the poetry world, we have been discussing the quandary that is Def Poetry. As I stated in a friends comments section – Me and Def poetry have a love hate relationship – I love the possibility they hate living up to. It has been pointed out that the ratio of Poets to Celebrities has gotten out of hand- as if there aren’t enough good poets doing good poetry –(Because apparently going from the quality of poets performing you don’t have to be spectacular – just better than average.) to fill an half an hour. I digress at even the most mediocre poetry spot – we can fill 30 minutes with some pretty good stuff. Just a few of those poets featured on Def Poetry are good performers and average poets. This last episode I listened to – and enjoyed Dan Sully and Tim Strattford “Death From Below”, Bassey Ikpi “I Want to Kiss You”, Georgia Me “For Your Protection”, and Will Da Real One Bell “Diary of the Reformed”. My fiancée really enjoyed Alica Keys’ poem “P.O.W.” and I thought it was alright – I could tell she really believes in her poems the way she believes in her music – or she’s a great actress and needs to try out for some movie – that’s my biggest thing about spoken word in general- that performance is so much more the focus than poetry, how you say what you are saying in stead of HOW you SAY what you are saying – are you following me people?
I catch so much flack for feeling this way – but if you don’t read poetry – try and learn your craft how can you call yourself a poet? Alica Keys can call her self a musician because she studies and grabs the art of playing the piano, comics practice material and study comics before them – Because you expressed your self with a poem – that automatically makes you a poet? how bout no? How bout I’m gonna practice medicine but that don’t make me a doctor. There are a few other main stream poetry shows out there along with a countless numbers put together by public access channels. I have heard of one on Black Family Channel – and I never know when BET is gonna show Lyric Café (has anyone seen a accurate BET show guide –really?) so the shows are there, they just suffer from the same fate hip hop has become befallen to. Commercialization. When people figure out they can make money on something – its usually by making it look like something else. In this case – its easy to try an package Poetry like hip/hop or worse yet – Rap, to make money off of it.
I love poetry – I honestly do, and what people put on paper and call poetry hurts my little poet soul some days. And I watch Def poetry because it is such a step forward but like all things commercial Russell is more concerned with the bottom line than keeping it real. Don’t get me wrong I believe he believes in the potential of the art, that he feels like he is promoting poetry the way he promoted hip hop- but it isn’t the same. And it is sad that he can’t see the earning potential in poetry in its natural state , that he feels he must amp it up to retain viewers, sadly it may be the opposite.
Poetry is not hip hop. Rappers are not poets. Anymore than I can stand up and rap I don’t believe they can stand up and spit. I do admit there are poets who can rap – and rapper who read well; Dahlak Brathwaite: “Just Another Routine Check” from episode (29) i.e this seasons first episode is a prime example. But those are exceptions to the rule.
As much as I love him Mos Def is not a poet in all of his renaissance man theologian, broadway, hip hop Mc, Actor, movie star goodness – he’s not a poet, so why is he hosting? He’s not even good at it. And all in all isn’t that the point? Poets being good enough at poetry to warrant a show. You didn’t have celebrities on Def Comedy Jam or did I miss the episode where comics weren’t funny enough on their own they needs some celebrity push. I understand the finance of it, I know I spent more than my fair share of my income (more than 40% some years) putting poetry events together to try and further the poetry movement, and poetry don’t make money in most average sized markets. and that’s real – markets like b-more and NYC and LA that’s a bit different some marketing and promos and some phat poets and you can get 300 peeps weekly to come and shell out a cover – but that don’t stop me from loving poetry or spending my money trying to push it further still, or begging Def Poetry to be real about it. When you get a local website for your business then def poetry could be something great just like Def comedy launched careers, Def poetry could do that – for more than the 8 to ten who did Def Poetry on Broadway. They could have a new cast every year, they could be the base that launched poetry tours like Kings of comedy – (I know there was one that did a show in BMore but I’m talking true tour in the realest most commercially feasible sense of the word.) Def poetry could be the venue that makes poets respect the form more, makes commercial media respect the art form more, But honestly that’s really the poets job isn’t it? If we don’t respect our art to demand more of the people using it – especially our selves – then we don’t have a whole lot of room to talk do we? I’m just trying some different avenues. Tell me what you think….
p.s the DVD’s of the show need to be better too, we all know everypoet gets up there and does at least two or three pieces – they need to do some real bonus material and some interviews and stuff fromthe show… Shoot the DVD was like twenty bucks for four shows… Russell you need to get real on that one fo sho!