It may not be the VMAs, but the Brooklyn Book Festival isn’t your mother’s book club. The festival announced its schedule of events last week, and, yes, there will be twerking … or rather, the author of TwERK, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, will be on the panel Poetry in Performance. Here’s TwERK‘s overview, in case you aren’t familiar with it:
TWERK unveils an identity shaped by popular media and history, code switching and cultural inclusivity. The poems, songs, and myths in this long-awaited first book are as rooted in lyric as in innovation, in Black music as in macaronic satire. TWERK evokes paradox, humor, and vulnerability, and it offers myriad avenues fueled by language, idiom, and vernacular. This book asks only that we imagine America as it has always existed, an Americana beyond the English language.
“Here it is: a dope jam of dictions; a remixed, multicultural, polyphonic dance of vocabularies; a language of high stakes, hi-jinx, and hybridity. TWERK is subversive, vulnerable, and volatile. TwERK twists tongues. TwERK tweaks speech. Reading these amazing poems mostly makes me say, Wow! Open your ears to take this music in, open your mouth to say it out loud. And: Wow!”—Terrance Hayes
The Poetry in Performance panel will also feature Tyehimba Jess (leadbelly), Taylor Mali (The Last Time As We Are), and Quincy Troupe (ErranCities) and is moderated by Mary Gannon of the Academy of American Poets.
Performance has long been an essential part of poetry. The great ancient epics were told through oral storytelling or sung. It’s believed that Homer’s The Odyssey, for example, was brought to life by a professional performer known as a rhapsode, who improvised according to his audience.
Readings expose works to new audiences. They can make the words on a page feel more personal as the audience hears the intonation of the author’s voice and connects with him or her.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” stands on its own as a great poem, but hearing him read it aloud makes it that much more powerful.
It’s sometimes been said, though, that writers are their own worst readers. This is because writing and performing are two very different skill sets.
Some poets love open mics and performing their works, but not all do. Many introspective writers envisioned a life of sitting alone in a room with a cup of steaming hot coffee as their fingers flew over a typewriter; not a life shuttling from bookstore to coffeehouses to give readings to bored patrons. Yet, many authors today are told to give readings, appear on radio shows, and sell their work.
The blogs have been abuzz about Miley Cyrus’ twerking at the VMAs, and some, like Pakalert Press, have blamed her handlers, like her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, did a few years ago. We like to think of poetry performance as being on a higher plane, but, to play devil’s advocate, is it always so different? Isn’t performance just another form of marketing?
Is the proliferation of burlesque poetry an example of literary twerking? Are these female poets subverting expectations or unwittingly playing into them? Does slam improve one’s improvisation and literary techniques or has it simply become its own cliche style? Must a writer give into the agent/publicist/handler’s pressure to perform his or her work to succeed in today’s literary landscape?
More Writing Wednesday posts here.