An Interview for The Aroostook Review by Jessica Becker
photo: courtesy of Uchefotography
Jessica: I met E. G. Bailey at the TLAN conference in Vermont at Goddard College in the fall of 2010 where I attended his Spoken Word workshop. Here are his responses to some questions I sent him by email to find out even more about Spoken Word and how it is transformative for him and for others. Enjoy!
Q. What is your definition for “spoken word?”
A . When I started there wasn't really a definition of spoken word. I know because I actively searched for it. What definitions you could find were often wrong or didn't really capture the practice of the art form. A lot of them were similar to this Wikipedia definition, 'Spoken Word is used as a musical or entertainment term, referring to works or performances that consist solely or mostly of one person speaking as if naturally. Musically, this is distinct from rapping, as rapping incorporates rhythm and sometimes melody, whereas spoken word, is more akin to narration or speaking as the person would in conversation…In entertainment, spoken word performances generally consist of storytelling or sometimes poetry, something exemplified by people like Hedwig Gorski, the originator of performance poetry, Mark 'Chopper' Read and Henry Rollins.' If you know anything about spoken word, you know immediately there are many holes in this definition. And one listen to the Last Poets or Gil Scott Heron, Amiri Baraka, Sekou Sundiata, Dana Bryant, Carl Hancock Rux, Ainsley Burrows, Saul Williams or Jessica Care Moore, counters most of the arguments laid out in this definition. The simplest definition, and one that is becoming more common, is that 'Spoken word is performance poetry'. Though it's true, it doesn't capture the full essence of the art form or what makes it distinct from other practices, nor does it speak to the process of creating the thing itself. There are many ways to perform a poem, but spoken word is a distinct kind of poetry performance. It is part of the tradition of performance poetry, or the performance of poetry, but it is different from a standard reading, i.e. performance, of a poem, which I call a poetry reading style. It is still performing the poem, but it is often quite different from a spoken word style, partly because the focus and intention is usually different. One tends to focus on clarity and meaning, while the other tends to focus on rhythm, emotion and theatricality, whether it is a slam poem or spoken word with music, in order to add other layers, and sometimes layers of meaning, that would not necessarily be conveyed in a standard reading style. For a few years I made it a goal to come up with a more accurate definition. 'Spoken Word is an art form which accentuates the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem––thereby expanding the texture, the context and possibly the meaning of the work. You can accentuate these rhythms either through your verbal delivery or you can add music, or both. The work can be created by the individual poet or with a group of poets, and musicians, either improvisational or through conscious arrangement.' To put is more succinctly, 'Spoken Word is accentuating the rhythmic elements inherent within a poem, whether through instrumentation or your own vocal delivery.' But the art form has evolved so much over the last 10-15 years that even this definition may need to be expanded. Also the focus of this definition deals primarily with text and rhythm, it does not necessarily encompass spoken word that is more focused on theatricality and storytelling, or that marries with other disciplines such as dance or film. It is not a pure definition but it gets closer to heart of what many of us are trying to do as spoken word artists. [For more information about the development of the this definition of spoken word, see http://egbailey.com/2008/05/30/without-punctuation/ .]
Q . How is it transformative?
photo: courtesy of Uchefotography
A . Anytime you deal with art on a consistent basis it is transformative. It changes you, changes how you see yourself and the world, how you interact with the community around you. It has the potential to not only connect communities across racial, gender and economic lines, but also opens people's eyes to social issues, evolutions and needs in a way that can be provocative and effective. I've seen how it's made people stronger, more empowered. I've seen youth feel validated, find refuge on the stage, find community with other spoken word artists. Sometimes that shift is what they needed to go on to do other things, sometimes greater things, or just that sense of identity and belonging. Those are some of the things I've experienced with spoken word and I've seen it reflected in peers, and in the youth we work with. This is part of why I've continued to do it, other than just a deep love for it.
Q. How much time do you spend involved with spoken word?
A. If I said 15-20 hours a day, it would not be an exaggeration. I am involved with some aspect of spoken word or a spoken word related project everyday all day. It might be administrative work, it might be organizing, producing, or a radio show but it's somehow related to spoken word. What I'm always trying to balance is the administrative with the artistic. Right now, the scales are leaning back towards the artistic, which I am excited about. I am currently developing a stage adaptation of Amiri Baraka's cycle of poems, Wise Why's Y's. I will be working directly with Baraka, and several other collaborators, to develop the project. I am also recording band versions of the American African album. We will probably also record some reinterpretations of works by other artists, some will be covers and some completely new interpretations, like I've done with Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal, Bob Kaufman and others.
Q. How many performances do you usually do during the year? How many workshops? Do you do anything else for spoken word?
A. I don't do as many solo performances as I used to, but that's because I've expanded the palette of what I do. I am organizing or producing; I am recording, doing radio or directing. But I still perform a great deal, and am always involved with some kind of show or project, often simultaneously. When you're trying to explore and expand the art form, it become less about performing and more about how the projects can be a catalyst for other things and other people. Sometimes it's just about planting seeds, hoping that someone gets inspired to create something new, something that opens other doors or clarifies other questions.
I teach at least half the year, either in the middle schools and high schools or at the University of Minnesota. It's something I've always done since I started doing spoken word. First with other organizations then with our own organizations. Some are introductory workshops getting students interested in the art form, others are poetry classes or theatre classes. It just depends on the needs of the schools or the students. We also work with educators to show them how spoken word can be used in the classroom or incorporated into their curriculum. I'm sure that part of my love for teaching comes from growing up with parents that were teachers but also because I want to spread the love of spoken word to others, especially young people. No art form can have any longevity if it's not passed on, if it doesn't inspire the next generation. I don't want them to shy away from it because they don't know what it is or understand it, or what the tools and techniques are. So I try to reach as many students as I can.
Q. What has been your favorite activity to do for spoken word so far?
photo: courtesy of Uchefotography
A. When I feel the strongest and most alive in terms of doing spoken word, is when I'm on stage with a band. It's when I feel the most comfortable. But it's also what I've explored the longest with spoken word. My first true experience of performing spoken word involved music, because I was interested in how poetry married with music, not just in terms of song lyrics but that too. I wanted to understand how both poetry and music, standing their own ground could come together to create something new, perhaps something stronger. Words change their texture when musicalized as lyrics. What they gain in emotionality, they sometimes lose in power. But what if the words could retain that power, retain its own identity but still marry with rhythm and music. My first performances with spoken word were really about this, in addition to exploring the different ways that spoken word could be manifested, staged, performed. Every performance explored a different aspect. What if I became the character and delivered the poem as a monologue? What if it was an improvisation between three poets based on a fictional character with each poet creating their own persona and history of the character, performed simultaneously on stage with musical accompaniment? When I first started doing spoken word in the Twin Cities, I worked with what was both a series and a collective of sorts, called Cacophony Chorus, which was founded by Bob Gale. One of the last performances I did with them was at First Avenue. Actually a number of our performances were at First Avenue, opening for Jim Carroll or Lydia Lunch, and others. I pulled together a drummer, a guitarist and a saxophonist, and we performed a spoken word rock piece about a wandering preacher during slavery, interpolating an excerpt from Emily Dickinson as the chorus. This was after Sirius B, a Black male performance collective I worked with for a few years, but before Arkology, a spoken word and music band that I cofounded. But I think it really planted the seeds for Arkology, which was to come together a year or more later. For me Cacophony Chorus was all about experimentation. How far can we push the boundaries of this art form? It was so new to us, or at least to me at that time, I wanted to know what you could do with it. And the more I explored, the more I realized that you can do almost anything with it; the possibilities are endless. But the foundation was in spoken word and music, spoken word and theatre. It's what I've practiced the longest and what I get the most jazzed about. Fifteen years later, I'm still working on it, trying to figure it out. The new band, Madiba2013, which I also like to refer to as, and is an outgrowth of, god's pager, is also an extension what we were trying to do with Arkology. I sometimes think of it as Arkology for the 21st century. It's sonically more intense, grittier and more urgent. It's reflective of what we're going through right now. Even though it hasn't been that long, the 90s seem like a whole different world. It almost seems quaint and nostalgic when you look back on it now.
So music has always been an integral part of spoken word for me. Even in terms of when I started writing poetry; it was largely inspired by music. Pain and music. I would raid my father's record collection. It was a great mix of artists and styles. It seemed like he had everything. All of it somehow seemed linked to each other. It was like a history of music. I was constantly making mixtapes, when they were actual tapes. But everything opened wide when I discovered Jim Morrison and the Doors. They were my first real consciousness engagement with poetry and music. Not just the well known songs of the Doors, which showcased Morrison's poetry, but the fact that they would take these poetic excursions like 'Celebration of the Lizard King', 'Horse Latitudes' or 'Texas Radio + The Big Beat.' They weren't part of my father's collection. Instead I found them through a book, a biography of Morrison, and proceeded to get every Doors album I could find. I had done the same earlier with Prince and the Beatles. Then it was New Wave and U2, then R.E.M. College was hip hop, jazz and R+B mixed with Pink Floyd and alternative rock. But somewhere along the way, a classmate, Fred Tombar, gave me a Last Poets mixtape, and a professor played Nina Simone. I remember both of those as being very visceral experiences, that experience of things becoming clear and falling into place. It was like that when I read Larry Neal and Baraka. I had already worked my way from Morrison to the Beats and existentialism, and was getting introduced to the Black Arts Movement. Little did I know how much all this would become a part of my life and my work. Seeing how Baraka connected to the Beat and the Black Arts Movement, and how the Last Poets and Gil Scott grew out of that, and how they, and the movement, served as part of the foundation for what would become hip hop, made sense to me. Not just the musical traditions and relationships but also the socio-political history that grows out of those traditions, became more clear. I don't know if it's some kind of ancestral memory, because if you look at my personal history it doesn't necessarily make logical sense as to why I focus on these things, but it's this history that I've been dealing with in my work for sometime now. It grows out of, and intertwines with, a tradition of literature and music that is both a history of a people and a history of America. That's what the album I recently finished, American Afrikan, is all about, but told through spoken word and music.
Q. How did you learn about TLAN?
A. I learned about TLAN through an email from a friend. It was a great experience. There was something very organic about the practices that were being taught and shared. It was a side of performance poetry/spoken word that I don't always get to engage with. It was great to talk to Kim Rosen about her improvisational process and I enjoyed S. Pearl Sharp's performance. It reminded me of my wife's work. We also discovered we shared a love for Kamau Daaood, and that she had once filmed a documentary on Kamau. One of the highlights was engaging with Gregory Orr, a poetry professor at the University of Virginia. I appreciated his ideas about creating your own sacred books because it's the kind of thing I used to do when I was younger, create these compilations of text that were important to me. Though his foothold was clearly in the academic arena, he was very open to being introduced to new ideas about spoken word and the interplay of rhythm with text. This was also reflective of much of the response from participants, many who had not experienced spoken word before or whose experiences of spoken word were limited. But I think that's the value of conferences like TLAN, where these kinds of cross-pollination can happen. It's all part of the art of performative language. We all engage in it in many ways and at different levels, depending on the artistic or cultural context. Some focus more on text and others on rhythm, all of us with different questions and concerns, but all of us trying to give more life to the word, to poetry.
Q. Is it harder to find time to devote to spoken word with a growing family? Do you plan to include your family in your work with it if you don't already?
A. Time becomes very complex when you have a family but I don't think a family has to interfere with the work you do. I think it's about including your family in what you do. It allows you to have more time together. The more that you separate it from your work, which is such a large part of your life, the more difficult it gets.
There is an organization in the Twin Cities, called Intermedia Arts. Years ago, it had a project, or a series, called 'Art is a Family Value'. I was thinking about that the other day when I was at rehearsal, watching my son play the drums. My wife and I began our relationship as artists. There are many sides to our relationship but art is at the heart of it; it's what we do, what we practice everyday. So it's only natural that our children will be enveloped in it. What they will take from it I don't know. My parents were teachers, but I became an artist, though I still teach. I just want them to find their passion and do what they love. My oldest son, Jordan, is also very mechanical, he's always unscrewing things, trying to figure out how they go together. And he loves drawing and writing and taking pictures. But what he loves most right now is drumming. It's a constant for him. It comes from his love for music, which he's loved from the beginning. But I was the kind of parent that always plays music for their baby. When we found out we were having a baby, I made mixtapes for Jordan and special headphones for Sha. His favorite was a jazz cd I made for him, which we still play around the house. He also loves Bill Withers and has been requesting Prince. He gets attached to certain songs from cds I'm listening to and keeps requesting them. For him, hip hop is Lupe Fiasco and the Roots. When he says 'I want hip hop', I know exactly what song he's talking about. We were directing a play when he was born, so he's been coming to rehearsals with us since he was weeks old. He especially loves the band rehearsals; he always watches the drummers. One of the drummers, Kahlil, started putting a snare and a cymbal out for him to play. Now he joins in while we practice. I prefer getting him engaged in what we're doing than to have him sitting there, bored.
There is a family in the Twin Cities, the Washingtons, who are all musicians, artists. I've worked with the father and son on several different projects. Often at gatherings and functions they would play together as a family. It's beautiful to see a family of artists like that. I don't know if my family will be a family of artists because the children are too young at this time to know. But I think that art teaches and instills values, and is as vital to any community as civil leadership or entrepreneurship. The kind of values that art embodies are the kinds of values that I want my children to carry with them. If they gain that from it I will be more than happy.
Awesome! I have a feeling you will be more than happy. Thank you for taking time to talk with us and respond in such detail to these questions.
A Senior at Fort Kent Community High School in Maine, Jessica was born in South Carolina, and has also lived in Arkansas and Virginia. She has a Black Belt in Uechi Ryu (Okinawan) Karate. Some of her other interests include reading, writing and drawing. She is currently planning to attend SCAD in Atlanta, Georgia, and become a sequential artist.
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