Poetry for a Soundbite Society

GINA MARIA CARUSO

November 09, 1992|By GINA MARIA CARUSO

An African American woman wearing dreadlocks, colorful beads and woven clothing reads her poem in a thunderous voice. The audience, a mix of hip urban whites, African Americans and street people, whoop, cheer and applaud.

Another black woman poet takes the spotlight and explains the title of the poem she is about to read. ''Big Mama'' she says, ''is not a fat, overweight black woman. She is someone who nourishes others and pulls them up by their bootstraps.''

The crowd shouts, ''Amen!'' and bursts into another round of applause.

Mark Sanders, who goes by the name Bean, is the upbeat host of the Wednesday night poetry series at Cafe Montage, a coffee shop on Baltimore's East Preston Street that has become one of the area's hottest new poetry venues. Bean tells his audiences to ''slap people in the face'' with words. ''Let your voices be known!'' he cries.

Though public poetry readings in New York and Chicago are nothing new, and New York's NuYorican Cafe has been discovered by such papers as the New York Times and the Village Voice, Baltimore is experiencing its own unique incarnation of the spoken-word mania.

Like its counterparts in New York and Chicago, the tone of Baltimore's poetry scene is strongly rhythmic, often angry, occasionally humorous or political. Yet Baltimore doesn't seem to harbor the frenetic, viciously competitive atmosphere that has become the literary norm in those cities.

New York and Chicago, for example, are renowned for a performance art innovation known as the ''poetry slam.'' The ''slam,'' invented in 1986 by Chicago poet Marc Smith, is a contest between poets where five audience judges rate the poets' efforts on a scale of zero to 10. The winner, who might compete against as many as 10 other poets, gets a $10 or $20 prize.

Bean dislikes slams, comparing them to Roman circuses where innocent wordsmiths naively wander into the arena and ''get their guts ripped out.''

''Anyone in Baltimore who has something to say can read at the Cafe Montage,'' Bean says proudly. ''It's a non-competitive, supportive environment. There are not a lot of poets who try to impress you with florid language. Their words are honest and have integrity.''

In Baltimore, according to Bean, one need only make eye contact with an audience to see whether or not one is communicating. ''You'll always get applause. And afterward, honest but kind criticism,'' he says. ''I've seen poets off the streets evolve in leaps and bounds.''

While obviously not all these poets will become famous, Baltimore's poetry cafes, which draw up to 70 people a night, give a voice to many who previously had no outlet.

''Cities can be so degrading and dehumanizing,'' Bean said. ''People who feel alienated, who can't speak up at their dull jobs, and are treated like nobodies without faces, now have something to say.''

Bean also praises Linda Richardson, the proprietor of Cafe Montage, for supporting the spoken-word explosion in Baltimore -- even although Ms. Richardson apparently profits only occasionally from the growing crowd of urban literati. All those starving writers just don't buy enough of her coffee and pastries.

What has inspired all this new energy and vitality in the local poetry scene? Professors of poetry complain that Americans no longer publish or even read poetry. Yet curiously they seem to spend a lot of time writing it.

Academic critics also bewail the mediocrity of contemporary poetry: Too many poets are glutting the universities with creative writing programs, they say. This old guard mourns the days when newspapers, magazines and journals regularly presented artists such as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, and it blames politicians and the media for defiling the written word.

What the academics fail to understand is that American poetry has returned to its oral and aural roots -- much like the ancient Greeks, such as Homer, who passed down their poems by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next like family recipes.

In some ways, the Baltimore poetry scene is reminiscent of the Beat Generation's salons of the 1950s -- albeit mostly without the Beat poets' depressive whining. The raw energy of today's cafe poetry more closely resembles the rhythms of rap. As NuYorican host Bob Holman words it: ''This is the kind of poetry that drives the wax out of the ears of teen-agers.''

Roland Legiardi-Laura, director of the NuYorican Cafe, believes poetry is a necessity in our society. "During the age of the sound bite, poetry has become the last hide-out for the truth," he says. "America is a land of 500 million starving ears and poetry is a laser-guided smart-bomb of meaning."

Recently one of the Cafe's Montage's prized readers, a wiry young man with bright blue eyes named Don MacIntosh, described in his poetry that most ineffable of experiences -- what it's like to be a poet in Baltimore:

We would be together

Urban deer running free

In a rainy field of steel.

Can you dig it?

Gina Maria Caruso is a former English teacher and poet who lives in Baltimore.

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