I’ve been to four readings in the past week. It’s that time of spring where the poets want to share what they’ve been working on all winter.
I saw Climbing Poetree and Buddy Wakefield do some performance poetry. I wrote a review about it in the Oberlin Review.
It was immediately apparent while watching Climbing Poe Tree that much of the nine performed poems at the ’Sco seemed to be made of well-worn expressions. One poem, introduced as “Being Human,” consisted of common objects personified then queried if they felt human emotions — “I wonder if stars wish/ upon themselves before they die/ if they need to teach their young to shine.” They spoke bluntly during another poem from their recent project, “Hurricane Season,”— “FEMA got folded up in Homeland Security’s back pocket” —while a slideshow of clipart and stock photos faded in and out behind them.
During their set, Climbing Poetree told a joke that I’ve heard many times before. It’s a pickup line joke, where it’s funny because (ostensibly) because the pickup line is so bad that it’s funny. The version told by Climbing Poetree goes like this:
“Girl, are you tired? / Because you’ve been running through my mind all night.”
It drew huge laughs from the 70-strong crowd. To me, the line was crude, unoriginal and “played out.” But the audience clearly disagreed with me. Was it because of the re-contextualization of the line–a lesbian doing a sleazy dude’s come-on in a love poem?–or perhaps because most gathered in the room hadn’t heard the line before and were laughing at its innate cleverness? (it is pretty clever, in my opinion.) Perhaps it is because these two women were connected in a live-performer-to-audience fashion (like at a U2 concert) and we all know that great audience-connecting songs aren’t always the most linguistically original (it’s a beautiful day! WOOO!)
Therefore my question changes: does it makes more sense to consider performance poetry as closer aligned with the performance aspect as opposed to the poetry side?
It’s cold in Oberlin today, where I just got back from a silent vigil/protest/rally. There were about 80 students there of mixed race, sex and orientation who were all concerned about a slur which appeared on the side of Dascomb Saturday night. I remember waking up sunny Sunday morning and walking past Dascomb and feeling my spirits fall. Imagine the two most vulgar words in a modern lexicon and put them together, hastily and messily spread across the side of a first-year dorm. Words do have power, and the slur written on the wall punched me in the gut.
It also reminded me of this interesting sketch comedy video by Derrick Comedy from a few years ago. In this video, the exact same slur is used to great comic effect—the people in the spelling bee can’t say the word and refuse to spell it. Now-TV-star Donald Glover gives the punchline.
funny on the internet–not funny on walls
It’s interesting that if you go to the YouTube page, the most recent comment (and I usually think YouTube comments are the lowest form of human communication) is “oberlin sucks.” While I don’t think Derrick Comedy or the writer of this sketch created this particular slur, it is the first thing I thought of when I saw the graffiti. I think it is likely that the person who did the graffiti was thinking of this video. Type in N—-rF—-t on Google, and all the hits on the first page link to the video.
This raises interesting questions. Does Derrick Comedy share some implicit blame for the dangerous graffiti on Dascomb? Derrick Comedy has a black member and often does social commentary through their comedy. I do believe that the person who defaced Dascomb did not mean the slur as a direct threat (although I see and appreciate how it makes people feel unsafe) but rather as an Ultimate Word Taboo. The worst thing you can write on the side of a building. If they got the taboo from this video, then this video is partially why that graffiti was branded on the side of Dascomb.
Personally, I don’t think Derrick is implicit in this controversy. They, for the most part, make socially conscious comedy. Plus, someone was bound to put those two words together eventually, and I don’t put it past the original graffitist to come up with the slur on her own. Regardless of the origin and reference, it’s clear that in one context the very same word can (almost) “push things forward,” on the internet, and in another context deeply affect and hurt communities in a small town.
Of my own, of course, On the Oberlin Review’s website right now you can see my #textpatois in action—A review of Oberlin’s own translation symposium.
Oberlin Review: Geniuses at Translation Symposium Stun Everyone
Although the Symposium featured works in a total of 12 different languages, the majority of the poems read were translated from a foreign tongue to English. College senior Harmony Pringle, for instance, translated an anonymous Mozarabic poem to both modern Spanish and English, while College junior Olivia Combe translated the e. e. cummings poem “somewhere I have never travelled” into French. I was amazed by several poets who translated works between two languages, neither of which was the translator’s first tongue — further underscoring the cross-cultural significance of the act of translation.
I think that translation is of utmost importance and that translation will never really go away. Unlike manufacturing or even document discovery, translation as an act requires a human’s ability to reason and consider, and even though Google is trying as hard as they can to do some machine translation of poetry, we’re still far away from translating literature automatically. I think there’s a strict dichotomy governing translation. (take this with salt; I am frustratingly monolingual) There’s actual, practical translation, like what’s done at the UN every day–translation meant to serve a direct, tangible purpose. “I need to know what you’re saying so we can conduct this business transaction.” There’s also translation that’s more artistic in nature. That’s what was on display at the Translation Symposium at Oberlin. You could see it in the Classics translations–when students were tasked with translation works already deemed Classics back during Antiquity, they tried something different. They translated in a non-literal fashion. They used modern rhetorical techniques. Through translation, they added to the sum of human knowledge about these Classics.
Although this is a topic that has been covered countless times by better writers than I, it is important to identify the problems facing the current economic mode of “word dissemination.” There are two main problems facing the publishing industry in total at the moment.
The current megatrend dominating discussion of the literary word is that readership for most forms of literary writing is down. If people are reading less of these forms, then the incentive to produce them may be less if the satisfaction of readership is a large reason why writers write. The number of mass market (national) publications that publish short fiction is decreasing and it’s becoming hard to be a rock-star literary figure in the United States. Take the Millions top 1- best novels of 2010– none are well known outside of a select group of fiction-buffs (most of whom are wagering are industry types.) Of course, Mindfair Books in Oberlin, OH posts a list of the top sellers of the week one hundred years ago (or 5200 weeks) with the tagline “permanence is fleeting.”
And let’s be clear here– I’m not saying literature is dead and I’m not saying it’s dying. I believe with all my heart that there will always be writers with something to express and they will always find a way to transmit that message to the public at large. However, the modes of dissemination available to a writer today (or yesterday, really) will not be available in 20, ten, five years and so aspiring writers (and people interested in the publishing industries) should keep this in mind while blazing a path.
Compounding this decrease in the readership of literary forms is the fact that the economic system of publishing is an anachronistic beast. The economic structure of book publishing is threatened, and although there are new experiments exploring ways to fix it, there’s been no consensus to date. The Kindle, while a great device, still at some level encourages the idea or the thought that words are free, and as a result, book prices are falling–Amazon is seen as a “loss leader,” and the vast majority of current authors publish a book and yet see little money from it. As it stands, we haven’t found a way to pay the writer and keep the current publishing system
That’s the problem. We tl;dr, and no one pays to read long things anymore.