I have been thinking a lot, these days, about literary, spoken word, slam and public poetry. Next month, in Chicago, I'm chairing a panel at the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference. Its title is "Sibling Rivalries: Written and Spoken Word Poetry and the Literary Tug-of-War." I share the panel with Danny Solis, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jill Battson, Shelle Sanchez, and Jasmine Cuffee. As writers and teachers, we represent a broad range of poetry and poetics and will talk about whether the seemingly deep divides between American poetry "camps" are real, imagined, necessary, divisive, etc. This issue is important to me because, as a teacher (and as Poet Laureate), I work with adults, college students, high school students, middle schools students, and younger writers. I have known dozens of high school students drawn to poetry because of spoken word/slam groups and projects. I have met quieter "non-performing" high school poets who feel alienated by the "popularity" of slam poetry. I have met literary poets who embrace the best of the spoken word/slam movement. I have talked to literary poets who have nothing but disdain for spoken word/slam poetry.
This presents a dilemma as I feel responsible to every writer I encounter/teach; I want to bring each to a deeper love for poetry any way I can. This means that I must embrace the range of American poetries as much as possible. I have a simple policy, then--to remind myself that no kind of poetry is exclusively good or bad. There is some pretty bad haiku out there. Ditto for slam poetry. Ditto for "literary" and experimental poetry. On the other hand, I've read, heard, or experienced wonderful, meaningful poetry of every kind, And I believe that good writers can come from any one of these "movements" or camps.
It's true--there are standards for different kinds of poetry that belong to that "style." I accept the fact that slam poetry must be "a performance." And, it should be good. This doesn't apply, really, to a literary reading (though good readers are appreciated). But I do hold both kinds of poetry to the same, higher standard (here's where my bias shows)--both kinds of poems must be exciting on the level of language and both kinds of poems must be layered and thematically complex. That's all.
Stay tuned for thoughts on public poetry and occasional poetry (like inauguration poems)--an issue I'm navigating right now as Santa Fe Poet Laureate.