Poetry

Politics and Poetry: Slam Poetry

slam poetry

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


For those of us that grew up as part of the MTV generation, we were taught that Slam Poetry is this:

If you couldn’t make it all the way through that ‘poem,’ don’t worry, I couldn’t either. That’s Joe Hernandez-Kolski performing “COOL” on Def Poetry back in 2007.

Poetry is also supposed to be about ‘feelings,’ so comedians like Nick Offerman have also put out their own idea of what slam poetry is. This video is from 2012:

Slam poetry is, actually, a competitive form of poetry in which artists perform original pieces of poetry and can be judged by a panel of up to five judges (which are usually random audience members selected from the audience before the performances begin) or winners can be selected from the audience’s response. The origins of Slam Poetry are credited to Marc Smith, a poet who performed in the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984, but scholars say that the history of Slam goes back much further to African oral traditions imported to America through slavery. And here’s four examples of what Slam poetry actually is.

First we’ll start with a slam poem by Amal Kassir from 2012, a native Syrian, who now resides in the United States in Denver:

Comparing what the perception of Slam Poetry is to an actual Slam Poem done in 2012 is, I feel, a great way to dispel the myths surrounding this art form.
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Politics and Poetry: The Occupy Wall Street Movement

robert haas

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


A lot of what I’ve been covering for the modern era more focuses on the works themselves and not the poets direct ties to politics. For the Occupy poetry, we’re going to look at Robert Hass, who was the Poet Laureate (believe it or not – that means like the nation’s poet) for Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997. The position itself is fairly a-political in nature. The poet gets an amount awarded and writes poems for milestones in the administration (swearing in, etc.).

That’s not really what I want to focus on – but know that Robert Hass has strong political ties to Democrats and Occupy happened under a Democrat (Obama). While he’s been part of “the system,” he’s also written poetry to critique wars and political decisions (made more by the Bush admin than Clinton’s or Obama’s however):

Between the Wars

When I ran, it rained. Late in the afternoon—
midsummer, upstate New York, mornings I wrote,
read Polish history, and there was a woman
whom I thought about; outside the moody, humid
American sublime—late in the afternoon,
toward sundown, just as the sky was darkening,
the light came up and redwings settled in the cattails.
They were death’s idea of twilight, the whole notes
of a requiem the massed clouds croaked
above the somber fields. Lady of eyelashes,
do you hear me? Whiteness, otter’s body,
coolness of the morning, rubbed amber
and the skin’s salt, do you hear me? This is Poland speaking,
“era of the dawn of freedom,” nineteen twenty-two.
When I ran, it rained. The blackbirds settled
their clannish squabbles in the reeds, and light came up.
First darkening, then light. And then pure fire.
Where does it come from? out of the impure
shining that rises from the soaked odor of the grass,
the levitating, Congregational, meadow-light-at-twilight
light that darkens the heavy-headed blossoms
of wild carrot, out of that, out of nothing
it boils up, pools on the horizon, fissures up,
igniting the undersides of clouds: pink flame,
red flame, vermilion, purple, deeper purple, dark.
You could wring the sourness of the sumac from the air,
the fescue sweetness from the grass, the slightly
maniacal cicadas tuning up to tear the fabric
of the silence into tatters, so that night,
if it wants to, comes as a beggar to the door
at which, if you do not offer milk and barley
to the maimed figure of the god, your well will foul,
your crops will wither in the fields. In the eastern marches
children know the story that the aspen quivers
because it failed to hide the Virgin and the Child
when Herod’s hunters were abroad. Think: night is the god
dressed as the beggar drinking the sweet milk.
Gray beard, thin shanks, the look in the eyes
idiot, unbearable, the wizened mouth agape,
like an infant’s that has cried and sucked and cried
and paused to catch its breath. The pink nubbin
of the nipple glistens. I’ll suckle at that breast,
the one in the song of the muttering illumination
of the fields before the sun goes down, before
the black train crosses the frontier from Prussia
into Poland in the age of the dawn of freedom.
Fifty freight cars from America, full of medicine
and the latest miracle, canned food.
The war is over. There are unburied bones
in the fields at sun-up, skylarks singing,
starved children begging chocolate on the tracks.


Robert Hass was also a teacher at Berkeley during the time of the protests taking place on campus. (more…)

Politics and Poetry: Feminism

sylvia plath

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


So, Sylvia Plath. She’s not my favorite, but one can’t talk about feminist poetry without talking about Sylvia Plath. She’s most well known for her work The Bell Jar, which is semi-autobiographical and was published right before her death. She had a tumultuous life, attempting suicide multiple times until the last time, when she stuck her head in an oven with the gas on in 1963. She was married to another poet, Ted Hughes, who cheated on her, often, and had two children. She is known for her intensely autobiographical works and the social restrictions facing women. This poem, “Lady Lazarus,” is from her book Collected Poems and was written in 1960:

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


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Pomona Valley Review: On the Selection Process

Earlier this summer, I was selected to be part of the editorial board of Pomona Valley Review – an arts journal that comes out once a year. Because of my experience here as a managing editor, as well as Melanie and I presenting on Pomona Valley Review’s poetry panel last year at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Associate conference (PAMLA), I was put in charge of the editorial board and took on the position of lead editor for the 11th edition of the journal.

While I have been published in the past through a handful of smaller journals (PVR included), this was my first time behind the scenes selecting artistic items that would be published. The process, I found, was very different from what we do here and not something I took into consideration when I would submit pieces myself.

I know that the knowledge I’ve gained in working as an editorial board member during this past issue of Pomona Valley Review has helped me understand how I should submit my work as a writer/poet to increase my chances of being published in the future. And, of course, I want to share that gained knowledge with you, the reader.

Submissions Interface

Pomona Valley Review uses Submittable for all of it’s submissions – stories, poetry, pictures, paintings, etc. But there are still many people who try to email in their submissions. When a journal selects one way and makes that way apparent, as a submitter, you should really follow what the journal asks. In general, if a journal asks for submissions one way and you send it in another way, your chances of being considered go down from the start. The policy at Pomona Valley Review is that unless we’re hurting for submissions, we won’t look at work that isn’t submitted in the correct manner.

Now, there was one author with poor vision and their adaptive software (text to speak) worked best in email. The process of creating a word document, uploading it, attaching it, and submitting a biography wasn’t accessible for that individual so their submission was taken via email. So exceptions can be made for accessibility purposes but otherwise, you’d need to stick with the platform the journal asks you to use. (more…)

Politics and Poetry: The Harlem Renaissance

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


In the 1920s the neighborhood Harlem, located in New York City, became a hotbed of culture for the disenfranchised black minority in the United States. Harlem became the place where black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and other blacks across the U.S. came together in the hopes of a better life, establishing an educated black middle class, and creating art in all of its forms, known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Great thinkers, writers, and poets like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Elizabeth Alexander, among others, emerged from this scene and left behind a lot of work that is heavily influential today. Today we’re going to focus on Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Countee Cullen.

Image of Langston Hughes
Image from The Huffington Post
Langston Hughes is hands down one of the best known American poets, not just one of the best known Harlem Renaissance poets. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and invited a new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes, born in 1902, lived through both the depression and became part of the peace movement in the 1940s to keep Americans at home and out of WWII. He was outspoken in his concept that as long as the U.S. had Jim Crow Laws and racial segregation, black Americans should not serve in the military and defend a country that did not offer them equal rights. As part of the left, during the time of McCarthyism, Hughes was accused of being a communist. He wasn’t tried or anything, but when asked why he never did join the American communist party, he stated “I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, so my interest in whatever may be considered political has always been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.” Hughes work was highly influential during the civil rights movement and has remained influential to this day. Here are two of his poems I wish to share today, the first being “You and Your Whole Race” written in 1930:

You and your whole race.
Look down upon the town in which you live
And be ashamed.
Look down upon white folks
And upon yourselves
And be ashamed
That such supine poverty exists there,
That such stupid ignorance breeds children there
Behind such humble shelters of despair—
That you yourselves have not the sense to care
Nor the manhood to stand up and say
I dare you to come one step nearer, evil world,
With your hands of greed seeking to touch my throat, I dare you to come one step nearer me:
When you can say that
you will be free!

This next poem of his is titled “Harlem” and is from 1951:
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Politics and Poetry: William Butler Yeats

Yeats, by Alice Boughton

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Ireland, under the thumb of England, rebelled against English control Easter weekend 1916, during WWI. While both the Irish and English were participating in WWI, England was more heavily engaged and the Irish Republicans used that opportunity to try to form an independent Ireland. The battle lasted six days but England sent thousands of reinforcements as well as artillery and a gunboat. While there was a fierce battle, Ireland ultimately lost and surrendered and the English inflicted heavy casualties on the Irish.

Maude Gonne, by Bain News Service
Maude Gonne, by Bain News Service

William Butler Yeats, native Irishman, nobel prize winning poet, and poet of the Irish Revolution and poet of the Irish Free State, was born in 1865. He was educated in both Ireland and England and fell in love with Maud Gonne, a woman that was engaged in the Irish Nationalist movement.

Yeats proposed to her in 1891 and she rejected him because he wasn’t political enough. Yeats, while agreeing with the sentiments of the Irish Republicans, hesitated to outright join the cause. He proposed yet again in 1899, 1900, and 1901, but was always met with a refusal. In 1903, she married another Irish Nationalist by the name of John MacBride. Heartbroken, Yeats still remained good friends with Gonne and even helped her file for divorce years later against her husband MacBride.

By 1912 and 1913, Yeats supported the idea of an Irish Parliament with control of domestic affairs, but pulled back from his full support of an independent Ireland. Then the Easter Rebellion happened. Yeats wrote a poem titled “Easter, 1916”:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

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The Ways I Use Poetry

When I was in grade school, I used poetry for entertainment. My grade school had regular book fairs, and one of the first books I bought on my own was The Random House Book of Poetry for Children because, in the first few pages, it had a funny poem about a boy that would take off all his clothing and could never figure out how to put it back on. The book was large and full of various poems. When there wasn’t anything to watch on television, or when I finished some of my homework, I’d sit in my room and read through my book of poetry and try to memorize the poems that were on the pages. As I aged, the appeal of the book of children’s poetry faded, and it was placed into a box and given to Goodwill.

It wasn’t until high school that I started to use poetry again. This time, I used poetry as a form of self-expression, as many teens end up doing. Sometimes I wrote poems and sometimes I wrote song lyrics, but they were always dark and angry and honestly, not very good. I used poetry to help form my self-identity and to work through an extreme level of teenage angst. These works often found themselves on napkins, or on ripped up pieces of paper, or inside of one of my textbooks. The poetry I wrote back then is long gone, which is probably a good thing. If I had to classify the type of use this poetry was, it would fall under the category of misuse. (more…)

Poems for National Poetry Month

April is my favorite time of year. Not for the showers (although, rain’s nice), nor for the beginning of spring; rather, April is my favorite time of the year because it’s officially National Poetry Month and that means I get to spam everyone I know on Facebook with poems everyday, and sometimes twice a day, for a whole month. It’s also the month of William Shakespeare’s birth and death, so I like to pay special attention to his sonnets and poems, as well as poetry that celebrates his work, during my favorite time of the year.

It’s really an English degree holder’s dream.

I want to share poetry with everyone this time of the year, and you are not immune. Here’s a poetry month starter kit of poetry for you to share with your friends, or to just read an enjoy, during my favorite month of the year. (more…)