A Conversation with Bob Holman, Dinosaur, Jabberwocky, Rapper, Shaman, and Kora
DG: Here we are in your downtown loft in Manhattan, with your shelves of books towering over us, your computers staring us in the eyes, your big dog sleeping comfortably at your feet, your several hundred CD's in their boxes. Spring 2001 is nearly upon us, and I'm thinking about your poem, "We Are the Dinosaur." It's a very rhythmic piece, employing rhyme and off-rhyme. It's obviously related to rap poetry and meant to be performed, as it is on your Mouth Almighty CD recording. For the benefit of the average reader, explain the phenomenon of rap poetry, hip-hop and its origins, how they differ, and how you became involved with performance poetry.
BH: The 'average reader'! We are so attuned to the phenomenon of the book, to the product of the book, that we think of poetry as something that we read rather than something that we hear, but in fact these activities are equal in my mind with regard to poetry.
So, well, the nomenclature is still up for grabs--as usual with new things. While there is a hip-hop nation at this point, the relationship of rap to hip-hop is in flux.
Hip-hop originated in the South Bronx in the mid- to late 70's, and it's a distinctly African-American phenomenon. It's a complete culture, with dance, break-dancing, visual art, graffiti, with rap being the poetic form of the movement or nation of hip-hop. The roots of this kind of poetry go back to Africa and go back through the African-American experience to other types of poetry, such as dub in the Caribbean.
Rap began with MC's or DJ's speaking over music to keep the crowd dancing to the music. So what you have is a relationship between poetry and music that recalls the origins of the art when poetry and music were inseparable, as for example when Sappho was strumming her lyre or performing her poems.
Rap or hip-hop is a densely rhymed, highly rhythmic form. Rhyme and rhythm are two of the hallmarks of the literary genre of poetry. But, these days with rap having arrived as a form, there is a cadre of definers who wish to see the kind of poetry that's known as 'rap' excluded from the definition of a poetry because it is at once a popular art form, and also related to music in the way that song is.
I draw the distinction with the fact that there is no melody in hip-hop; it is a spoken form, as is dub poetry in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. Hip-hop and dub in that sense are no different to me than poems which are read. So, let's see, did I get at everything?
DG: I think you did, and of course you're absolutely correct about the shamanist tradition, how poetry began in an oral tradition and the bookish tradition came later. I lectured about the poet-priest-healer in the early 70's, and I went around playing my African lyre in the tradition of Sappho, in the shamanist tradition.
I know you're a pioneer in bringing poetry back to a performance tradition, but I'm thinking about "We Are the Dinosaur" and the poems of yours with a sociopolitical resonance: "1990," "The Death of Poetry," and "You Can't be a Jerk and Write Great Poetry;" also, "Sweat Infects Politics," your first video. I'm thinking about "We Are the Dinosaur" as a poem that really concerns the state of the earth--in its sardonic way. Do you hope to excite your listeners to concern for the fate of the earth or to sociopolitical action of some kind when you say that poem?
BH: Absolutely! It's a funny poem, but the truths are very sad, you know, the way humans continue to abuse the earth. What the poem is about is in the title. We are the dinosaur, we're creating the scenario for our own extinction--which is a pretty funny thing if it weren't so totally tragic--although maybe the universe is better off without an earth, I don't know. So,yeah, I'm totally game for an activism through poetry.
I'm completely behind the idea that the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech, is a poetic license. We can all be engaged with poetry by speaking what's up with us, and the more we're able to refine our method of speaking about it by using an engaging method, the better. We can sit around with taxonomies, and we can discuss different ways of engaging that language, but to have it be charged with the words which say what you mean and mean what you say, then you are talking poetry, writing poetry. And, if we're also reading poetry and listening to poetry, then we're engaging each other with all of our faculties. Instead of being looked at as consumers, we'll be looked at as citizens or, maybe, we'll even be looked at as artists.
In the early days, everybody did their art! Nowadays, as our experts have given us smaller and smaller definitions of identity, we've become consumers and spectators rather than participants. But we all talk, we all use language! If you're deaf and dumb, you still use language. Some of the most beautiful poems are in American Sign Language which is great and sort of a metaphor for what a poem is in all its dimensions--which is to say that you can't write down an ASL poem; it can only exist when it's in performance.
Hip-hop came on me when I was dancing at the Nuyorican Poets' Café in 1979. I stopped on the dance floor and realized what I was doing had been a dream. I was dancing to a poem, Curtis Blow's "These are the Breaks." It was the first rap song I'd ever heard. I raced back to my apartment on 13th Street and immediately wrote my own rap poem--and isn't rap always a poem? I wrote it in my own blend of Curtis Blow, Wittgenstein and Dr. Seuss, brought it back to the café and said, "Hey, I've written a rap, I'm going to now perform it." And so the Las Vegas Lights run by Willie Corea and Miguel Algarin started playing over me and I was suddenly the star of my own café rap, live video--except for only one problem: I could not read the poem. The lights were not meant for reading; they were meant for Las Vegas or show biz or poe biz.
The lights were so wrong for reading, I realized that I had to memorize the poem, really perform it! So that was my first step towards memorizing. Before that, it had always been sort of a badge of honor to use the text, the page, as a launching pad, there in front of me, but now I realized that if I was serious about doing rap, if I wanted it to happen--and this time under the bright spotlights of that world of the café stage--I'd have to memorize and recite the poem.
DG: Yes, and to be able to move around and add dramatic gestures. Performance of a poem is a whole different thing than a reading. It makes a poet his own actor, his or her own monologue deliverer!
BH: Exactly, and it's not for everybody, and it doesn't have to be, but at this point in the culture it's especially interesting to watch the way the Internet is moving from being a text-based medium to a video and audio medium.
DG: Interactive forms with audio, video, animation, yes.
BH: That's what kids are learning now, they're seeing the dimensionality of text.
DG: Absolutely! There was no holding back Gutenberg's press, as much as people bemoaned that it would mean the end of illuminated texts, of elegant letter-writing. I find it so hard to keep up with the hardcopy world, the performance world, and the Internet world of poetry all at once. Computers and e-mail were supposed to give us more time and use less paper, but it's really just the opposite: more print-outs, an hour or two a day for e-mail, surfing literary magazines on line, hearing Real Audio performances on line.
BH: And all of this activity steps right out of the book, jumps right off the page. What's the page? Where's it gone!
DG: Yes, language isn't fast enough for the new computer whiz kids. They make up a new, fast-talking short-hand, full of "cookies" and hacker jargon, and rap rhythms. They want the visual, they want all the elements together, communicating.
I was a performance poet from early on, and a professional jazz singer. But I didn't just choose one certain kind of rhythm; I used to do my poems and choreopoems to jazz, sometimes folk rock, sometimes Renaissance music, sometimes to classical Vivaldi or Monteverdi or Pergolesi. I don't see much of that lyrical kind of poem in the world of performance poetry. It's more wedded to rock-and-roll rhythms and rap or break-dance rhythms.
BH: Definitely. That's where the crossover from music to poetry is most alive at this moment. There are the beginnings of my poem, "The Impossible Rap," which is set, not to Vivaldi but that other guy,... He wrote a lot of pieces he called "conversations." Renaissance is very overused, Renaissance composers. I've performed recently with a viola da gamba though, so, it's all possible. Robert Pinsky [former U.S. Poet Laureate] is going to be performing with a string quartet.
DG: Pinsky's an ole jazz horn player, and he loves jazz. But, back to your poems: Some of them are engaged with real sociopolitical issues, but they're not particularly conventional in style. They're often elliptical, highly inventive, surreal, abstract. You borrow elements of the so-called 'Language School'--which has actually been around since Lewis Carroll wrote "The Jabberwocky." There's a Jabberwocky quality to some of your work, a lot of your work. You show a desire to communicate truth and justice and be engaged by the real world of power politics, but at the same time your work is often very playful.
BH: You have to engage the whole mind, the whole being. In the world of advertising, we are so used to being talked down to that the ability of the mind to take flight is where you find the poem. To have moments of jarring dissonance--and I'm talking about both sound and meaning--is something that wakes up an audience. It's part of poetry's job to be that surprise which is at the essence of the haiku, to have that plop of the frog become the mushroom of the atomic blast. It's Hiroshima! That's the job of the poet, to make those hinges and leaping connections. The poem is structured so that at the end of each line you're actually jumping off into an abyss, and the next line can flip the meaning around to a completely different world. So, if you don't go there, then you're not taking advantage of what a poem can do.
The idea that you are fulfilling a form, like building an urn, "throwing" a pot like a potter, has been one of the concerns of poetry. Now we look at each poem as its own individual space shouted into consciousness, with each poem creating its own form. But, what it has to do is live up to that form in the same way that it would if you were writing a sonnet. It has to use the same types of skills that a poet like Emily Dickinson did to have surprises within a line that could propel you into thinking in a new way --which is function plus--where it has its meaning. There is also the dance which adds to the pizza: The pizza's gonna come to your house, but who's gonna bring the pizza? What's gonna be on the pizza? What's gonna happen to the pizza?
DG: Right. Otherwise you could just be making a political speech, which would not be a poem, and it wouldn't have all that excitement and surprise! You've been deeply involved with the idea of the slam, a poetry competition which is involved with political issues of social justice and truth. The film Slam, for example, is a very powerful sociopolitical statement about life in the ghetto and about ethnic and Black youths caught in the unjust prison system.
You appear as an emcee in the last part of the film. Say something about the idea of the slam and how it becomes a sociopolitical force in the story of the film or in the world at large. Say something about what the form of slam means to the so-called 'café' or 'performance poet,' as opposed to the academic and bookish poet, in terms of class and economic power, survival and the struggle for social justice.
BH: A poetry slam was begun in the mid-80's in Chicago by Mark Smith, as a means to fill up time at a group poetry show, to have one more little piece that would fill out an evening that had poetry with music, collaborative poems, poets' theatre. I don't know if there were any poetry videos, but it was a kaleidoscope of the poetry media, so why not have a little boxing metaphor dropped into the mix? This had happened in Chicago a few years before with the poetry bouts, which continue out in Taos every year.
The idea is to simply tweak the notion of this sort of super-refined, and perhaps elitist art into something that is totally populist. Poetry is the most elastic medium and can certainly play both sides of that debate. So the reason it's become popular with people, with young poets with a political agenda and with performing poets, is that they still have a need for these kinds of engagements--using any other medium but the page. We've built our class system around the academy and books. This is where we've built our intellectual frame of viewing the world.
You no longer have to be in the room with Plato; you can simply read Socrates. You don't have to be around Norman O. Brown to learn about philosophy; you can read the thing. And the better you can read, the better your vocabulary, the more you're going to understand. Meanwhile, you're being taken away from the other elements of language--its sound, and its movement, and its emotional context.
That's been a very good thing for allowing a kind of objective reading of so-and-so, but how objective can you ever really be? Slam makes the point that when a poet sends her poems to a magazine the editor is going to: a) read the poems and say, 'This is the world's greatest poem. I'm gonna publish this right away!'; b) look at the return address and say, 'I've never heard of this person,' so they immediately go into the slush pile; c) be an open-hearted kind of a guy with her own agenda and open it up and read it and say, 'Hm, this poem rhymes. No good.'; d) all the above.
So, in other words, who sets themselves up as an editor? It's just a member of the audience who's doing it. What a hoot! So, the lesson--I'm a didactic kind of a guy, you know. I'm teaching and everything now--is that the person who gets to the poem is you, the listener, you, the reader. So when the judge gives the world's greatest poem a ranking of 7 or 3--and of course it's impossible to reduce a poem to a numerological equivalent, which is why slam does it continuously--the audience can boo, can engage, can interact, say, "No, that poem is definitely not a 7.3. It was an 8.9 if I ever heard one!"
To me, that kind of absurdity doesn't negate the power of a poem; it gives back a vitality to it, it gives back its little vestigial clause so that it can walk around inside the audience and the audience can be your home inside of the poem, as with any family, arguing about what its meaning is.
Now the slam, like so many other movements, including hip-hop, has begun a process of institutionalization as it's grown older. As we humans institutionalize, we codify. What began as an anarchic realm is now an incorporated entity, with bylaws. I will always believe in slam as this kind of sensationally energized alternative, because it has no hierarchy except who the audience is digging that night.
You hear from people who may not have been writing a long time, but who really have something to say, and when people have something to say it often isn't about the beauties of the paint peeling from a fence; it's about why I don't have the money, why my great-great grandparents were slaves, things that have the first shelves--as Williams said--is "I am." Then, of course what's the next shelf? In a way, slam is engaged in that first shelf, and after generations of hearing from some people, it's about time ears got opened to other parts of our citizenry.
DG: Yes, and it doesn't leave the poet saying, "This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me," the way Dickinson had to say, all alone in her room in Amherst. So it makes it a much more communal and directly communicative event.
In any case, I know about your video debut with your poem, "SWEAT AND SEX AND POLITICS," and your book, The Collective Call of the Wild. You've produced many videos for WNYC-TV, you've won Emmy Awards, you're Executive Producer at Washington Square Arts and Films, co-founder of Mouth Almighty records, the country's only poetry CD label with a major distributor like Mercury Records. I'm aware that you're a pioneer of video poetry, and know your big, huge projects, "The United States of Poetry"--which I show in my writing classes at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan andthose graphic arts students really dig it--and "The World of Poetry," monumental video projects for public television. Say something about those projects and the impetus or inspiration for their production.
BH: The inspiration for those projects came through collaboration with artists who are from the other side of the camera--or from the business side. While I'm intrigued with utilizing new media to redefine forms of poems, I am just as grounded in using those media as a means for distribution, for getting the poems to people.
Television was the enemy of poetry until Danny O'Neil, a producer at WNYC-TV, came to me and said, "Would you want to work on a poetry series with me?"--and that on a public TV station which the city no longer owns, thanks to our current mayor. It took me two seconds to realize this other perspective. Thirty people were coming to my poetry readings while the rest of the world was home watching TV. So, if you can put the poem on the TV, they don't have to worry about coming to my readings, because they'll get the poem at home!
Now, do you sell out the poem by it putting on television? Well, I think if I give it away and say, "Do what you want with it," that argument can be made. But if a producer is coming to me, asking, "Do you want to work on this with me?" and I know I'm not going to sell out the poem, then what can happen? That's been the guiding frame for me: if the poet retains control and can say "yes" or "no" to what it's going to look like.
If the poem comes out through the studio recording session and the video shoot, and the poet says, "Yes, that's my poem!' then you've won. If it's not, then you throw the thing away and you say, "It didn't work." You try another way to present it. If you take the poet out of the equation, and treat the poem like words on a piece of paper, than you take your chances. The poem becomes more of a script than a poem, and you see what you can do to convey it, like a theatre or screenplay piece.
DG: I think it's a problem when some people go on television to read a poem and they don't read well. The audience dies out there, saying, "No wonder I don't bother with poetry; it's dull and puts me to sleep." I'd hate to say who has been on television reading and killing the audience for poetry, even with all good intentions.
BH: This was the first rule with Josh Blum. It had to be lively and keep the audience with it. Adler called me up when he was doing PR for Michael Franti 's work, "The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy." Right now Fanti's fronting a band called "Spearhead." He's a young guy from San Francisco who can strip the layers of distribution out of the meaning of the poem and really get it directly into you. He's really a talented, charismatic guy.
Bill Adler called up and said, "I've got this guy who wants to work out with the poets. What can we do?" I said, "Bring him down tonight," and Franti came down and made immediate contact with Tracie Morris and Reg E. Gaines. We saw that you can talk all you want to about the connections, but unless you've got one of these guys who lives in the rarified zone of high pop and is willing to come down and slum with the rap poets, it doesn't happen that way. You couldn't get Reg E. Gaines on a stage where Franti was, but you can get Franti to come down and be on the stage that night with Gaines because he had the nerve to make that connection.
That's where I realized that Adler, to my mind, was a driving force in getting rap out to the public. So, I started camping out in his office until I got him to come up with this idea for starting Mouth Almighty as a poetry label. But again, it was this idea of finding the guy to do it. I can write the poems and help others' poems out into the world, but I don't have the skills to actually get them out there. I can do entrepreneurial work, but Josh Blum, Danny O'Neill, and Bill Adler are all very talented guys with great skills. They know how to produce and find the sound engineers and camera artists, and don't mind delegating authority. It's taking the solitary art of poetry and finding the commiserating commune that will be able to lift it out there and have trust in themselves and the poets. My job is basically to be the translator who says it's okay to do this.
My job is ending, because, alas, with the horrendous triumph of capitalism, there is a large segment of poets who refuse to engage on any terms with the commercial universe. But that stance is so fraught with contradictions. Most of the youth today is just trying to figure out how to get a job and get their work out there, creating their web sites, etc. which allows them to stay in control of their work as it goes out into the world.
[END of PART ONE]
Daniela Gioseffi is an American Book Award winning author who has published ten books of poetry and prose. Her work will be engraved in marble on a newly renovated Pennsylvania Station wall next year. Her books of poetry are Eggs in the Lake (BOA Editions, Ltd.), Word Wounds and Water Flowers, and Going On Poems 2000 (Via Folios, Purdue University), and Symbiosis (forthcoming from Rattapallax Press, NY, 2001). She has won two New York State Council for the Arts grant awards in poetry and published numerous poems in anthologies and literary magazines such as The Paris Review, The Nation, Chelsea, Choice, Ms., Poetry East, Prairie Schooner, Antaeus, and Big City Lit. She edits Wise Women's Web, now www.PoetsUSA.com, nominated for Best of the Web in 1998. Daniela is a freelance reviewer for several journals, among them, The American Book Review, The Hungry Mind Review, The Small Press Review, Poet Lore and The Cortland Review. She is a member of The National Book Critics Circle, PEN American Center and The Academy of American Poets, and gives talks and readings around the country at many campuses, libraries and book fairs--specializing in poetry with a social conscience. She edits Poets.USA.com and NJPoets.com, as well as ItalianAmericanWriters. com.