Thoughts on HBO’s “Brave New Voices”

For a couple of years after I left the national slam scene, I stayed involved with the Brave New Voices festival. And for a year or two, that festival seemed on track to become everything I’d always imagined the “adult” slam could be.

The first year I went as one of Providences coaches, and ended up totally dumbstruck by how great it all was. Huge cyphers outside every event (which I always see as a sign that the crowds are leaving charged up,) all night gatherings of kids in the rooms of the youth hostel… kids and adults taking turns reading stuff for each other out of notebookes until the sun came up…

I sat in the front row on finals night and heard some of the best work I’ve ever come across. Made eye contact a few times with saul williams, who was hosting, and shared multiple looks of “jesus christ. Are you hearing this?’

The competition that night ended with a team being in a position to win, and choosing instead to spontaneously invite every single youth poet in attendence onstage to chant ‘its not all about the competition’ and shut down the fucking show. Far and away the most incredible poetry show I’ve ever witnessed.

In the years since, I’ve watched the Brave New Voices festival be taken over by one of the organizations within it, Youthspeaks.

Youthspeaks’ annual budget is well over a million dollars at this point, and they’ve used the money and staff avaliable to them to completely take over BNV. The guy who runs Youthspeaks, James Kass, is literally Crackah Smiley. He sounds like Whitey McCEO talking to youth mentors and coaches about budgets in the backroom, then gets onstage in front of the youth on some “Yo yo yo you ready for some bomb ass poets or what yawl?”

Evil cocksucker. The result has been the introduction of big money into something that was meant to be about community and creating space for kids. Now it seems to have become another self contained creativity vacuum, where lame poets can get their ego stroked and play rockstar for an audience of equally deluded peers. Just like the “adult” slam.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Crackah Jimmy sold the whole show to Russel Simmons, who hasn’t let the fact that he barey understands what performance poetry is stop him from degrading it while banking off it for almost a decade.

The tragedy is that it becomes increasingly unlikely anyones going to have the kinds of exeriences that used to be found at those shows.

Jared and I have debated this within the past week actually, but I’m still pretty firm in my assertion that the good poets have all moved on from poetry slam, and any new good ones will do the same shortly. From where I’m standing, any poet that hangs around that scene is either delusional or addicted to having their ass patted. You win again, champ! 10!

So, felt the need to air that out. I have some friends in the community still, who I enjoy getting to see and talk to, but for the most part I’ll continue quietly hoping for the collapse of Poetry Slam International, Youthspeaks, and the sham national competitions they run.


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Andrew says

Man, the same thing has happened way down here in Knoxville, TN - the slam scene used to be engaging, crowded and inspirational. Now it's mostly teens and church-goers, and they moved it from a bar to a Ben and Jerry's! I was thinking about pretending an ice cream cone was a mic and just slamming my fucking heart out right in there faces anyway. But maybe I'll just stay home and write raps.

Colin says

I've gone to two Youth Speaks performances here in the Bay Area, and to be honest, they've been amazing. One was for Dr. Martin Luther King on MLK day, the other was the final for northern california. The poetry was great.
However, I think Simmons' show is bullshit. They only show small parts of poems, then cut away and play overly dramatic music to back the struggles and hardship of everyone involved. It's way too dramatic for me. Their poems can speak for themselves, they don't need cameras following them constantly and symphonies to back their histories.

Zack Wolk says

I was there too - spoke with James, and got a lot of footage from the event, he won't let me release it - fine by me, but that "not about the competition" footage hasn't seen the light of day - anywhere. That's a real tragedy.

Adrian says

A year ago, I slammed for the first time in my life. It's been quite the journey since then. For me, it's not about who's the best poet. My first ever slam score from a judge? 3.9! What that judge and many in the audience will never know is what it took for me to get up there. As a kid, my parents consistently reacted with emotional or physical violence to almost any expression of anger or passionate conviction. Through word and deed, they trained me bad things were going to happen if I spoke my mind, especially about family secrets. It took me a year and a half to feel brave enough to even sit in the audience of a poetry slam, (because I felt so drawn to it). Then on the night I finally got up there, I was on page with my face buried in the page. I spoke so softly it turned out one of the judges couldn't even hear me. When I finished reading, I looked at the first row of the audience. It seemed to include many intimidating, early twenty-something artists, one of whom was looking at me like I just wasted his time. I know people want to be entertained and yet, even if by poetry slam standards it sucked, for me, it was one of the most important things I've ever done for my own growth. I was able to hear that first judge's 3.9 without feeling like I should quit. Yes, my ego frowned, but my heart and soul were happy. Just getting up there and getting the words out was victory. And I felt like I'd won the biggest prize of all...opening the gate to future expression.

I continue to go to my local slam. I'm not a fan of the points, because numbers, like weight, height, grades, etc. just fuck with my head. I do feel supported there though. When poets draw blanks/have pauses, people yell out "Keep going" and "You can do it!" It helps and feels good to be encouraged. And every time I hear a poet speak from their soul, I am inspired to dig deeper.

Ego is like bacteria. It seems to spread wherever it can, dissolving soul expression like toxic ooze, squeezing the magic right out of things. In a country ruled by lack mentality, (both corporate and family instituted) what does it take to keep things pure, love-based? I like what you said about community and creating space. Sounds like both were present during those all night gatherings at the hostel and at the finals night.

Still learning. Thanks for the blog.

albinored says

@ Adrian - much truth.

Ulyses says

That was my first youth nationals that I went to in LA in 2004 that I think you're talking about. The energy was mind blowing. There was love from every single poet for every other poet at that week-long event. We completely took over that little hotel too! It was so amazing that I sunk into this huge depression on returning home to a life where no one close to me supported my expression outside the members of the slam team, and we didn't hang out aside from the slams and the team practices.

I hungered to be inspired by the creative expressions of my peers. So much so, that I created a summer youth poetry program with my coach, in a way, just to make sure that my own need for social creativity was satisfied. The energy of the slams is highly addictive to the right mindset, I would say. Not just the scores and winning, but for me, it was also having a room full of people listening to me. Whether they understood, sympathized, or not; and whether I really was still as alone with the emotions that inspired my poetry, or not; at least I had gotten it off of my chest, and with such an adrenaline rush! On a side note, that's actually one of the crazy things I learned about poetry slams, is all of the psychic and emotional energy being carelessly and intentionally thrown onto the audience. Some people (me being one of them) are pretty sensitive to that shit and it can really fuck with you. Anyways, my involvement with the youth and adult poetry slam events on the local and national levels was a 4 year period from which I got a really good strong look at a lot of people heavily involved in the scene.

My conclusion: Poetry slams and the entire community surrounding them are not the god-send that people and organizations like Youth Speaks tend to make them out to be. Yes, they can be an excellent vehicle for growth and catharsis for many people from all backgrounds and lifestyles. But they also bring out the worst in many people from all backgrounds and lifestyles. The people of the poetry slam community are of course, not perfect (i.e. James Kass, anyone who hosts and runs a local slam), therefore their creations (i.e. Youth Speaks and PSI) will be marked by all of their imperfections.

We all leave our vibrational fingerprints on anything we do, and the way I would sum up the general mentality of people involved in the slam scene is that they often present themselves as and/or think that they are vibrating a whole lot higher than they probably actually are . . . I mean, for such creative, cutting edge thinkers, you'd think we'd be at least a little bit fucking innovative with our work as a community. Often not so, mostly because of this format of judging where people don't want to go over anyone's heads. That's sort of the rub though isn't it. Sell yourself and the entire audience short for a victory. Not everyone is like that, but it does tend to make up the majority.

That whole 4 year experience was unlike anything I would've experienced elsewhere, so I'm definitely not ungrateful for the whole thing. It definitely had a profound impact on my life, and in fact (whether it sounds good or bad to you; it was good for me) kept me from going to college after high school to pursue a career teaching and performing poetry for others. But I left it completely behind 2 years ago, and I haven't really missed it. For me, like for many others, Poetry Slam was just another stop on the road. Some of us stop longer than others. Some of us leave with a sour taste in our mouths. Some of us fall in love with the landscape and decide to settle down.

How poetry slam develops, or fails to develop and actually recede as Bernard is suggesting and which I will second, is up to all of those that continue to be involved in it. However, I don't pray for its demise. I welcome those newcomers to the pit stop and invite them to find all that I found there and much more. Fulfill yourselves off the fat of the Russell Simmons cash cow children, for it won't be there forever! Hopefully soon thereafter, you will all heal your fucking wounds and grow up already. You know you can leave the pain in the past and live in the present moment. Just take a deep fucking breath and realize that you're alive and okay. And even if you're not okay, you're just a bacteria on this planet in this solar system in this galaxy in this universe, etc. etc. etc. and this life TOO is just a fucking road stop in your journey . . . . . . . . . . . I mean to me, that's actually pretty awesome. But that's just me . . . .

albinored says

@ Ulyses - Thank You Sir...

"Whether they understood, sympathized, or not; and whether I really was still as alone with the emotions that inspired my poetry, or not; at least I had gotten it off of my chest, and with such an adrenaline rush!"

"Hopefully soon thereafter, you will all heal your fucking wounds and grow up already. You know you can leave the pain in the past and live in the present moment. Just take a deep fucking breath and realize that you’re alive and okay."