A few weeks ago, President and Mrs. Obama decided to have a Poetry Night at the White House. I was all excited, until I found out that Common and Jill Scott were going to be on the program with former US Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove.
I love Jill Scott the musician, but I’ve never thought she was a great poet and when she walked on stage at the White House, bringing a laptop to the podium and reading from it, I knew I’d been right. Then, I noticed she was “biting” legendary Sonia Sanchez’s style, without giving credit. This is a no-no in the poetry world. You can “bite” but you have to put something at the top of your poem like, “after Sonia Sanchez.”
And Jill committed the sin of going over her allotted time, again, another no-no, although poets do that frequently and you can feel the room getting cold as each minute stretches longer. But, as my nephew can say, I guess Jill was “a’ight.”
But Common was much worse than Jill could ever be. I could barely made it through watching his poem. There was a lot of uproar and to-do about Common’s invite from conservatives who claimed he hated cops. (Oh wow, like the rest of the African American community just absolutely adores the American criminal justice system and all its paid officers.)
But frankly I didn’t care about Common and the cops at all. My beef was and still is that Common is a horrible poet. Yes, I said it. It had to be said.
Listen, Common looks great without his shirt on, and I know this because I went to see his movie with Queen Latifah and Common’s acting was almost as horrible as his poetry. But since he did not take his shirt off at the White House, I was really, really cranky that the space for someone who was a good poet (and who didn’t regularly use the b-word when referring to women in his/her records) was taken by the admittedly cute but poetry-tone deaf rapper Common.
What made me even crankier was that there were African American literary and cultural scholars online praising Common’s “artistry” evidenced in those sad, pedestrian heroic couplets of his.
And then, what made me downright enraged was the tone that some—not all, but some—of those critics were using, a tone of condescension. How was it that I was a published, award-winning Black poet, yet my opinion did not count at all about Black poetry, unless of course, I agreed that Common was a great poet?
I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why were all these siddity, upper-middle class scholarly Black folks pretending that Common a fabulous poet? Didn’t they know that what he was reciting wasn’t good poetry, unless of course, he was a child in grade school?
The overall gist of the online scholarly comments went something like this:
Number One, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a matter of “perspective.” And even if the beholder is someone who doesn’t read not only poetry books but, like, any books at all, that functionally illiterate someone gets to say what is and what is not poetry.
Number two, if you don’t think Common is a good poet, you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, and if you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, that means you’re prejudiced against working class Black folks. And shame on your classist self and stop pouring your haterade.
Then I realized something: creative writing (and poetry in particular) seems to be the only other field that people think they can just come into with no knowledge of tradition, no training, and with no apprenticeship at the feet of other experts. (The other field is stripping.)
Let me break this down further.
I love me some Jill Scott the singer. I saw her concert DVD “Live in Paris” and she was signifying on other singers who had “dancers in the background” and no “live instrumentation;” the implication was that real singers didn’t need all of that.
Now, I sang the blues back in graduate school, fronting for a band of White guys. (I loved them boys, too. They could really play). And I could carry a pretty good tune and belt like nobody’s business, but I still only have about a one and a half octave range, certainly I couldn’t stand next to Jill Scott on the stage without completely embarrassing myself.
So how does Jill Scott get to be serious about her art but want to keep me and my (probably) lip-synching one and a half octave self –and my background dancers and pre-recorded music track–off her stage, but I don’t get to be serious about my art on my page? How is she going to dog out somebody’s dancers and then bring her laptop to the White House and read off it? I’m just saying.
You know why I haven’t mentioned Common here in this “musician metaphor” ? Because if I’m not a musician and I can sing, Common’s talking over a prerecorded track definitely eliminates him from that field.
Let’s return to the Black literary critics. I don’t want to give the impression here that if someone doesn’t agree with me, that makes him or her The Devil. I like a good debate and I like it vigorous. As Tina sang, I like my debate “nice and rough.” Maybe it’s because I hung with boys back in the day. I never learned to fight well with my fists, but I can sell some woof tickets with the best of them, and I always bring Blady Jane to a debate.
My issue is not disagreement with my views on poetry. My issue is that I’ve worked hard as a poet and I keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the scholarly respect that should be accorded to me and to others who have worked hard in this field and who are actual practitioners in the field of poetry.
We poets don’t talk about it, we be about it.
Most literary and cultural critics I know are brilliant writers and thinkers. But most that I know couldn’t write a successful poem if you were holding their mama hostage somewhere, either. Yet, these folks—literary and cultural critics—who have never written a successful poem let alone published a book of award-winning poetry now claim the right to tell professional poets, the actual practitioners of the craft, what is and is not poetry. And they claim the right to chuckle condescendingly at us when we try to disagree with them.
And why? It’s simple: the critics went to graduate school and earned Ph.D.’s in Literary and/or Cultural Studies. And most of us poets don’t have those Ph.D’s.
These are the folks who can suddenly decide that someone is a poet based upon whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth, as long as he can “rhyme”—which rhymes with “time,” “dime,” “lime,” in his stank heroic couplets—and as long as he is a Black man who looks good in or out of a suit and no matter what he calls us Sisters.
But if I, a trained and award-winning poet, an expert in the field with eighteen years of work under my belt, says “No, that’s not good poetry,” I will be called a classist. I will be told to go set my jealous self down and start writing a poem that “reaches the people” the way that “Genius-Brother Common” did with his simplistic rhymes. And again, before I pick up the pen, put down the haterade.
Now, what I just wrote (above) is called “literary analysis.” I looked at what several Black literary and cultural scholars wrote online a few weeks back about Common’s poetry performance at the White House, thought about what they wrote, and then I took a position based upon my thoughts on what they wrote.
But what I just did doesn’t count as “literary analysis” to literary and cultural scholars because I don’t have a Ph.D. in literary or cultural studies. I certainly couldn’t publish my analysis in a peer-reviewed critical journal; if I mailed it to them, they would send my work back to me in twenty-four hours, if I was lucky. If not, they’d throw it in the trash can.
So now, who’s the classist?
P.S. Thanks to my Brother-poet Rich Villar for “wig snatch”!:-)