Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
In Viral, Button Poetry collects the nine poems featured on its YouTube channel that went viral in 2013 to the a capella tune of 200,000+ views each. These impressive play counts support Button’s promotional claim that the anthology is a “forceful argument for the continuing cultural relevance of poetry.” Such statements are common in spoken word communities that have defined themselves in part as a response to the perceived irrelevance/boringness of much published (or “page”) poetry, and they contain a flavor of defensiveness around the marginalized position they hold in the culture. These artists are mostly young, and with few exceptions have not yet gained the institutional support of the (relatively) powerful poets everyone ignores. This is approximately how the story gets told in spoken word circles, and there’s a lot of truth to it. These poets tend to be dismissed and excluded for aesthetic reasons from MFA programs that guard the pathway to professorship.
However, when spoken word moves from the stage to the page it shifts the terms of the discussion too. We read poems differently as text than we do as performance. Considering that these poets are great performers, it’s a fair question why they need a book. To be real: none of these poems is as good as text (since there is only an e-book, it’s still not actually page) as it is on YouTube. But a few come close. Javon Johnson’s “Cuz He’s Black” is a direct, clear, and powerful story of a speaker witnessing his five-year-old nephew’s racial consciousness already taking form. Black boys “don’t have the luxury / of playing war / when we’re already in one” doesn’t need to be “delivered” to leave you bobbing your head in recognition. Johnson avoids one of the traps of spoken word by not overselling the moralism of problem-solution formula in his poem. His speaker identifies the racist forces at work on his nephew (as well as on himself), but he has the self-awareness to know that identifying them is not relieving them; instead of becoming a policy directive, the poem maintains as a testimony to what it’s like to be a person who wants to better the world but is limited in his powers to realize this goal. The power that is accessible to him is the one he takes advantage of. Namely, to turn vulnerability into art.
Dylan Garity, Assistant Director of Button Poetry, has two pieces in the collection, both of which move further in the direction of op-ed pieces. “Friend Zone” challenges the speaker’s unintentional participation in rape culture, while “Rigged Game” reflects on the injustices of our educational system. These two poems are maybe the best examples of of the book’s overall effect: they are easy to agree with and harder to be moved by—until you see them performed, in which case: whole ‘nother story. “Pinatas,” by Pages Matam, and “Shrinking Women,” by Lily Myers, are, along with “Cuz He’s Black,” the poems that work best as reading material. Each employs extended metaphor and vivid language that are features common to much good writing. Matam describes rape as “a Vietnam prostitute with red, white, and blue skin.” Myers illustrates eating disorder saying, “I don’t know the requirements of the sociology major / because I spent the entire meeting deciding / whether or not I could have another piece of pizza.”
Perhaps the best-known poem in the collection is Neil Hilborn’s “OCD,” which presents a failed love through the lens of the eponymous condition. It’s a stunning thing to watch—and the ending’s a real killer—but without Hilborn’s performance the piece comes off as simplistic and as a caricature of the disorder. It’s Hilborn’s second piece in Viral, though, “The Mating Habits of the North American Hipster,” that most deserves comment. When he does it live, there’s an accent you don’t get from the text, but the poem for once is just as bad as you fear, three minutes of cliched judgment from the speaker. In a movement that prides itself on inclusivity, why this aggressive animosity toward hipsters (whatever/whoever they are)? Besides Hilborn, at least two other contributors to Viral (Michael Mlekoday, Button’s Head Editor, who provides the foreword here, and unfortunately for the book did not himself go viral in 2013; and Guante, about whom more below) take shots at hipsters in their other work. To many, skinny jeans merely represent bad taste in pants, but very often in spoken word they work as synecdoche for an ironic way of life at (nearly violent) odds with the earnestness that is the core ethos of the form. The hipster seems to embody a degree of sin that spoken word depends on to draw its own virtues in contrast. The aggressive opposition betrays an insecurity regarding the hipster’s (or, irony’s) legitimate threat to spoken word’s distinctive tone. The earnestness of the form, as Viral attests, exposes a great weakness alongside a major strength: it allows for the power to really move its audience; it also allows people to get away with bad poetry that’s in support of a good cause.
The harshness of some of these judgments discomforts me, and with the exception of “North American Hipster” these are all great pieces that deserve to have gone viral, but that’s what makes the decision to publish them in an e-book doubly curious. If you are expected to read without the pleasures of a physical text (I printed the book out, but I assume most readers will not), all the more reason to click over to the video. It wouldn’t be a knock against these poems that they don’t read well if they were meant as performances, but packaged this way it becomes one.
So the real intrigue of the book is the original work (essays in most cases) each author contributes to accompany the poems. This is an opportunity for the poets to reflect on the form (text vs. performance) or the craft or who knows what. Unfortunately, many of them forgo these possibilities for the sake of interpreting their poems or mediating the reactions of those 200,000+ views. Javon Johnson accepts the criticism of “Cuz He’s Black” that it neglects “straight black girls, black women, and our black LGBTQ brothers and sisters.” This would be a valid criticism of social policy, but it’s not a valid criticism of a poem. This kind of response, however, highlights the danger these poems face of having their agendas confused for their art, when the great appeal of spoken word has always been its ability to provide both simultaneously. In Garity’s essay we read about responses his poem got and what his “goal with the poem was.” This response undermines the poem’s successes and defends its failures. Matam gives us hundreds of words covering the same territory as his poem, but less effectively.
One of the strong essays is Rachel Rostad’s “Media Matters: a Lecture Delivered at UC San Diego, November 2013,” which accompanies her poem “To J. K. Rowling, from Cho Chang.” Rostad succeeds in complicating the poem and moving her discussion into the realm of craft as a moral concern for writers—in addition to the moral concerns of the poem’s subject (in this case the stereotyping of Asian women).
But the highlight of the entire book is Guante’s essay “Both Sides of the ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ Debate Miss the Big Picture,” which returns to the foundational question of the spoken word form, its relation to so-called “traditional” poetry. As Guante claims, and as Viral demonstrates, concern over the death of poetry is “due to either simple ignorance or a willful distaste for the form” of performance poetry. Generously, Guante treats the former like an open possibility: “Maybe some people think poetry is dead because they’ve built their ivory tower so tall they can’t see us moving around down here.” But the view from the tower is a looking down in more ways than one. They—I don’t want to say “we” here—see you, and they ignore you because they think they can; they think they’re protected up there. Are they? Guante knows the stereotypes work both ways, that not all poetry professors are “white yuppies … [who] fear that writing something relevant will ‘dilute their Art.’” He knows that “the page/stage divide is a false binary—an enormous overlap exists between published poets and performance poets, and we can all learn from each other.” This much is indisputable. Whether he’s also correct that performance poetry is “the future of poetry” or whether it is only a movement that will contribute to whatever that future will be, we’ll see. Either way, “that’s scary for some people, but progress always is.” All towers end up as rubble. And on the ground: poets everywhere.
Scott F. Parker is dislocate’s Reviews Editor.