The MTV generation takes a literary turn by embracing rap-tinged poetry slams

February 21, 1994|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,Hartford Courant

MTV, with its incessant music videos, was expected to lower literary aspirations of our youth, dumb 'em down, extracting them from the linear world of words once and for all.

But not all of MTV is "Beavis and Butt-head" (where Butt-head snarls at any rock videos with written words: "If I wanted to read, I'd go to school").

Jumping on the explosion of spoken-word performance and poetry slams, MTV has produced commercial-size bites of "Fightin' Wordz" from young poets. It also made the young bards the only non-musical focus of an "Unplugged" show and is sponsoring a national "Free Your Mind" tour.

Music does find its way into the tour, of course. Amplifiers may be more common than lecterns in this poetry swing. One of the three poets, John S. Hall, may be better known as front man for his band King Missile, but he performs on the current tour without music.

Two other poets who have been seen on MTV spots and on "Unplugged," however, will add musicians to their usual solo stand-up readings. Reg E. Gaines, known for his powerful poem "Please Don't Take My Air Jordans," will have some musical backing, and poet Maggie Estep will be backed by her full band, I Love Everybody.

Many tour stops have been enhanced by bigger-name recording artists, including Speech from Arrested Development, rapper MC Lyte, spoken-word ground-breaker Gil-Scott Heron, as well as the MTV VJ Kennedy.

For King Missile's Mr. Hall, the spoken-word tour is a return to something that preceded his band.

"I've always considered what I've done with Missile half spoken word and half song," he says from Florida.

Certainly, some of the New York band's best-known material was nothing more than spoken rants over music, done with a passion that takes them out of the realm of mere readings.

"When I was going to poetry readings in New York 10 years ago," Mr. Hall says, "there was a lot of great writing, but there weren't great readers, and they weren't particularly interested in how they were presenting their work. I saw this as an opportunity. I could go and maybe not write so well, but I could scream or have some urgency to my delivery that could get some kind of response.

"A couple of people complimented my writing. But mostly it's a matter of being noticed. Presentation."

Just as visual presentation is half the effect of an MTV video, so is it an important part of the spoken-word artist. Says Ms. Estep, also calling from Florida, "For me, there are some incredible writers who just can't hold an audience's attention."

Ms. Estep, who represents the new poetry-slam generation as cover girl on the current High Times magazine, says her brand of delivery is "some sort of hybrid of rap, I guess."

Like a lot of the new-style poets, the actual literary artifact -- the book -- comes last. "It's ironic, when I was starting out," she says, "I just wrote and wasn't doing readings or anything."

Too shy to get up, she had to be talked into doing a reading. "It was a fluke," she says. "I was writing and someone dragged me to an open-mike situation. I read and did really well. I seemed to have an immediate affinity to do it. That's sort of how my performance style developed. I was so scared. I was very introverted, very shy. I got so nervous, I'd just rush through things and just pace. It evolved into my signature."

And once she did, she found she could plug into a new personality perfectly suited for the poetry slam world. Since then, she has been featured in the PBS special "Words in Your Face," been part of New York's four-person team at last year's National Poetry Slam and has gone on the Nuyorican Poets Live tour (after the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) before the current "Free Your Mind" tour.

"And now, the publishers are coming to me," she says.

As for the cover on High Times, where she is declared "leader of the spoken word pack," Ms. Estep says, "I've kept it hidden from mom. It's funny, because I haven't smoked pot in years. I think their writers were a little disgruntled with us. They kept asking us, 'Do you all get high to write?' Only one guy drank beer."

There is a downside to being trendy -- bad poets, audiences more interested in the nuevo-beatnik scene than the words, exploiters right and left. But it has helped the poets involved.

"To me it's great," Ms. Estep says. "It means I'm making a living doing something that's almost unheard of. I'm very lucky it got trendy. I don't have a problem with that."

Says Mr. Hall: "If television can be a part of a trend that opens up the field a bit, it's fine by me."

Mr. Hall says "there's a football field of overlap" between what spoken-word artists do and the work of performance artists. "When people read from pieces of paper, we tend to call them poets," he says. "When some people memorize their stuff, we call them performance artists."

In Mr. Hall's mind, the spoken-word world would include anyone from Spalding Gray and Lydia Lunch to Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

For someone who has played the rock audiences and the poetry crowds, Mr. Hall notices that on the current tour, "the audiences are quieter, they're listening to the words. At the same time, they don't respond as boisterously. The response is enthusiastic, but they're not screaming and yelling, 'Encore! Encore!' It's respectful receptivity, more than it is a party."

And certainly, there's no moshing at these poetry readings.

Most of the changes, however, have to do with the fact that nothing stronger than coffee is served at these performances.

"I noticed that not as many women flirt with me after the show," Mr. Hall says, "and I figured it out: They're not drunk."

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