Rhetoric

rhetoric

In which I critique what I have observed to be the nature of slam poetry.

A woman gets on stage.
She is prepared—has memorized—
Her meticulously structured words
Her carefully crafted work
Her delicately formatted poem.
It took her ten minutes to write
And sixteen hours to revise.
She is prepared
And excited
Nerves all jangling with the thrill of it
To share
This so deeply embedded narrative.
It is the fable her family has told her
About their near mythologized dysfunctions
The things that have shaped her to be.
And so she steps up on stage
Ready to crack through her sternum
And pry open her ribs like macabre butterfly wings
And let you, Audience, peek at what’s inside.

But this poem does not lift you, Audience, in applause
Or call you to snap your fingers
Or place a well-timed “mm-hm.”
Nor do these things rise for the man
Who stands up on stage to recite
Lyrically woven odes to the mountains he loved
As a child
When he was still learning to be a man
The emotion of those words so strong
They brim like quicksilver
At the rims of his eyes.

No.
Such applause, such finger-snapping praise rise only
To the call of the Rhetoric.
Those poems that are carried away as though on horse-drawn sleds
Into the ever-descending sunsets
By the power of their politicization
And social commentary.
All else be damned, the rise of the praise would seem to say—
Be damned such lyricism
Such beautifully and precisely chosen words
Or the order in which they’ve been so meticulously placed
To create rhythm and rhyme—
No.
We—you, the Audience seems to say—rise only to the call of the Rhetoric
While these poets left behind cry:
“I am more than my boisterous, over-eager,
grotesquely laced with horror-drive metaphor
Rhetoric!
My poetry is more than its Rhetoric—
We are more than our
Rhetoric.”

As to me
I stand by such poets to say:
I will not be carried away on the carriage
Of flamboyant rhetoric—
My poems are not grotesqueties
Dreaming up idealized female-powered fantasies
Populated with eugenics and
Enslaved men
That is not my feminism
That is merely a turning of the coin
From heads
To tails
Dragging next-level, patriarchal oppression
Into a mockery of matriarchal fantasy
With a side of Philipp Bouhler if not Viktor Brack
And an ignorance of the cruelty
The so-called “fairer sex”
Is oh so capable of.

These are not my poems.
If letting my rhetoric get carried away with me
Is what it takes to keep those numbers up
Perhaps I’ll write about rape—my own rape.
Exploiting horror
For an activist gold star
And a good score
Is what we’re here for
Right?
Slam poetry became something less
About exploring the depths
Of one’s soul and challenging
The self
Than it did about the rhetoric
And I showed up.
I missed the memo but I’ll play the game—
Then here it is:

Worst night
Of my life
What more colorful
Metaphoric words
Or fragments and details
Grotesque
Need you
To take the concept home—
To make it clear?

***

This is another response poem, being half in response to a specific poem that was read at a poetry slam two months ago and a response to that slam itself. I’ve noticed a trend: the audience at poetry slams seems to care less for the poetry itself and more for the rhetoric therein, hence this poem. This is such that, at this particular slam, poems that were truly beautiful and moving albeit not very political or commentate-y received low scores while one poem in particular received a very high score primarily as a result of 1) its shock value and 2) the degree to which the poet let himself get carried away with his rhetoric (if you were wondering, yes — this is the same poet I wrote Not Your Metaphor in response to, but not the same poem. He just has a habit of letting his rhetoric get away from him in a very predictable way).

So obviously I take issue with the degree to which some poets let their rhetoric carry them away, and I am very tired of people using over-wrought metaphors for the sake of shock value. I am especially tired of people appropriating the experiences of others — especially truly horrific, traumatizing experiences — for the sake of making a point. It cheapens that person’s experience, it speaks for them instead of giving them space for their own voice, and it’s just fucking disrespectful and demeaning. Obviously I can’t tell someone what they can and cannot write and even I could, I wouldn’t, but I find it entirely unacceptable to not call out patterns of self-righteous and frankly entitled appropriation of people’s real life experiences and traumas, especially when it is so clear that the author has little to no understanding or real empathy for that experience.

“But Tahni,” you might be inclined to say, “haven’t you let your rhetoric get away with you in this here poem? I mean, you just compared this poem to Nazis.” Well, maybe in a way my poetry got away from me a bit, but let me explain that line:

The poem this is in response to literally talked about selectively breeding men for the purposes of keeping them as pets, not unlike dogs. Only…sex pets. Weird, freakish, fetishized sex pets. The Nazis I specifically reference in this poem are ones who were involved in the eugenics programs, because breeding people for specific traits while weeding out the traits you don’t like is called eugenics, and it’s scary and morally and ethically fucked five ways from Sunday. Furthermore, keeping people as pets (sex pets) is called slavery (sex slavery) and this is not in any way okay, right? The audience at the slam was either unaware of the implications of this rhetoric or so swept up in said rhetoric that they were incapable of seeing what they were cheering for.

And to make it worse, this poem (performed and written by a male poet, I feel inclined to note) was wrapped up and presented in the guise of feminism. To which I’m inclined to say, “Fuck you sir, this bullshit is why people keep believing that feminists are these so-called ‘man-hating feminazis’ regardless of what the majority of feminists say and believe and even fight for — regardless of how much effort feminists have put into supporting men in their similarly unhealthy relationship to the Patriarchy.” Instead I wrote a poem. Two, actually — I’ll post the second tomorrow, but back to the subject at hand: this poem, the poet purports, was written in response to a friend telling him that she had been raped.

Here comes the appropriating behavior I was talking about previously. Supposedly a friend told him about this trauma she had survived and he had a reaction to it. Of course he would — we all would, we all do. That is normal and healthy and acceptable. But his poem hardly touched on his emotional experience of learning his friend had been raped (except for to bemoan the horribleness of his gender, because that’s how you get feminist gold stars, right? WRONG.) Rather, using the experience of his friend’s rape as a platform, he dove head first into this bizarre fantasy that 1) idolizes women as innately superior and thus strips them of their faults and with those faults their basic humanity in the name of placing them on a pedestal and 2) degrades men, literally using eugenics to reduce them to purse-dog-esque sex slaves and 3) primarily served to shock and titillate the audience rather than challenging them to think about something in a new way or even really saying anything new and thought provoking at all.

Hence this poem. I promise I didn’t mean to write this big ass essay to follow up, I just wanted to lay out in plainer speech why I wanted to write and perform this poem in critique of the nature of slam poetry and why I was talking about these specific subjects.

So there you are.

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