by Cole Sarar, photography by Cole Sarar
When a performing artist goes on tour, generally the goal is to reach more audiences, to acquaint more people with one’s style, name, and artwork. My unanticipated success came not so much in books sold or fans accumulated, but in my own education, and hopefully the ability to bring that new knowledge to better understand my city’s spoken word scene.
The first thing I want to impart is that we have an incredibly great scene here in the twin cities- we are the perfect storm of talents, and need only to take those next steps.
One of the things that struck me at the Talk Story Spoken Word Sampler is the friendliness between everyone, but the huge rift in philosophy between most of the slam poets and most of the activist poets. It’s the sort of thing that has existed for as long as art and wealth, but I think it bears paying attention to. Many slam poets believe in art for art’s sake. They are so collaborative and competitive, in preparation for the next slam, the next national slam, a book, a show, whatever it is- it drives them to create art that sucks the audience in and gets them on board. The audience’s attention and the respect of their peers are the ways slam poets measure their own successes. Oftentimes this yields really amazing, strong writing, polished, theatrical performances, and poetry that asks questions of the audience, but offers no answers- dramatic poems are hefty stories in lush detail and surprising metaphor. It gives the audience a lot to think about, but the feeling that nothing will ever be done about these struggles and injustices, that perhaps, there is nothing to be done.
On the other hand, the folks that I would qualify as activist poets see spoken word as a tool towards a greater end, that is- the legislation they want to see through, the community they want to serve or inspire to action, the change they want to inspire in philosophy or social structure- poetry is only one step in getting things done. Art has been a tool of the oppressed and poor for a long time now- a way to explore and expose questions “the man” would rather not think about, and in the case of these activist poets, to offer answers and inspire action. Most of the activist poets I saw perform at Talk Story work for non-profits, or head up other sorts of organizations that do real-world work on the issues they bring to light. But where some slam poets lack actual engagement with the community, some activist poets lack the knowledge of poetry as an artform to write the strongest material they are able.
Now, while it sounds that I’m being a negative person here, and critiquing EVERYONE for not being EVERYTHING, let it be known that I am one of Minnesota spoken word’s biggest supporters, and one of the people who believes the most in it. It is easy for me to see what needs to be done, because so much has been done so far.
Jake Virden’s poem on Wednesday might be the perfect example of the best of both worlds- his piece was a beautiful, personal account of the recent history of Northeast Minneapolis- the gentrification and the way the arts scene remains ignorant and dismissive of blue collar workers. The writing of the piece was incredibly strong, and I was reminded of how so many of us are living in city communities that are less and less community and more history amnesiacs.
There is, of course a continuum:
Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria’s “Hands” piece is better performed than it was when I saw it over a year ago, and reminded me why I believe in Rodrigo so strongly- a simple piece that translates between many cultures and offers answers for the problem he illuminates, and serves as an unapologetic anthem.
Poetic Assassins are writing much more specific work asking more specific questions, offering real options- I’m really excited to see where they go in the next few years with their writing.
The night was, all in all, a really strong collection of performers from many different traditions of performance, with many different sorts of goals in mind. The one thing I heard tons of were anthems for Minneapolis- and rather than being rote or repetitive, it was a strong theme for the evening- we’re all working on this same place. I want us to learn from each other and become stronger writers and performers, and more aware and involved leaders. Scroll down for some more pictures from the night. There are also more photos at Flickr.