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Some Questions, Some Answers:
On "the spoken word movement of the 1990's"

Dateline: 12/22/98

An email exchange between our own Bob Holman & Mark Miazga of Michigan State University:

Hi there,

First of all, I want to thank you for Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It's honestly one of the first books that ever made me love poetry. We don't have anything like that here in the midwest that I know of,** but it was fascinating to read about the cafe and, of course, the poetry.

Anyhow, I am currently doing a paper on the spoken word movement of the 1990's for my poetry class here at Michigan State University. I am writing you because you seem to come up a lot whenever I search the Internet for stuff, and I've heard some of your work on the Poemfome CD that I own.

Dear Mark,

First, thanks for your interest. Spoken word/performance poetry is still something of a new phenomenon, depending a lot on word of mouth (no pun indeedy), so it’s great to meet a new convert.

Here are the questions. If I use any quotes from you, I promise I will give you proper credit in my paper.
I'm happy to answer your questions; in fact, they make for a veritable FAQ of the Movement, and I'll be posting them on the Mining Co. Web site. If you put your paper online, we'll link to it.
1) How would you define spoken word? Is it poetry?
Spoken Word originated as a section at record stores for LP’s without music. Usually these were poetry records from Caedmon or records of play readings, usually Shakespeare. These days the sections still exist, and include speeches by Martin Luther King and the Pope, as well as comedy, plays, poetry. No longer are the records completely music-free. The term Spoken Word Poetry means poetry that is performed aloud.
2) How do you think the spoken word movement that occurred in the 1990's differed from earlier poem readings, like that of the Beats?
The Beats shared a philosophy, a politica agenda, even a style. One of the hallmarks of the current movement is its diversity. The Beats were very particular about who was in and out. Spoken word has a rough-edged, populist attitude, is intent on spreading the word of all poetry, and carries a democratizing energy.
3) How do you differentiate between spoken word and rap music?
Rap music is music. A spoken rap, or hip-hop, is a form of poetry, in my opinion, and since it is spoken, it is spoken word poetry. For years I ran a series called rAP iS pOETRY, and that simple statement to me is quite important in opening the definition so that a new poetry can take hold.
4) Do you think spoken word translates well to CD or to the page? Or is it best a genre heard live?
Yes, I think poems can translate to CD or page or film or Web site, that they can live there just as they live in books. But live is cheaper, and instanter, and the longest tradition, and has always been part of poetry’s essence.
5) I've heard Maggie Estep and Dana Bryant works that are catchier, funnier, and smarter than anything on the radio. Why doesn't radio support artists like these?
For gosh sakes, Estep even had a video directed by Steve Buscemi for her last album, and it still disappeared. So true so true. People’s ears do somersaults when they hear the p-word, I guess. It’s a tough task, poeticizing the system, and the TOUGHEST is the music biz.
6) Where, in general, do you see the spoken word movement headed?
More high school and college slams. More poetry bands, like Doughty (Soul Coughing) and Ani DiFranco and Mike Ladd. More college courses reading Aloud and studying Sekou Sundiata. A slow slouch towards Utopia. When we’re all poets, the politicians will have to look for a day job.


Want to share your perspective on "the spoken word movement of the 1990's"? Tell us how you've been "poeticizing the system"? Come on over to our Poetry Bulletin Board & let's talk.
**Editor's note: Actually, the Midwest was one of the wellsprings of the "spoken word movement of the 1990's," particularly Chicago, where the slam was born. See Kurt Heintz's An Incomplete History of Slam for more background.

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