On HBO, poetry's 'Brave New Voices' are engaging -- if less than artful

By Troy Jollimore
Saturday, October 23, 2010

"To have great poets," Walt Whitman wrote, "there must be great audiences."

If "great" implies "large," he was wrong: We live in a golden age of poetry in which there is hardly any audience for it. And when big crowds do gather for poetry, the results are not always pretty.

Saturday night's "Brave New Voices 2010" on HBO is a one-hour follow-up to last year's seven-part series "Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices," which chronicled the efforts of contestants in the 2008 National Youth Poetry Slam. "Brave New Voices 2010" skips the reality-show lead-up of the original series and jumps straight to the climax: the grand slam finals that took place this summer in Los Angeles with teams from New York, Denver, Albuquerque and the Bay Area.

The show, co-hosted by Common and Rosario Dawson, is a slightly awkward mix of showbiz glitz and adolescent literary angst. But then again, slam poetry has always occupied an unusual position, having more in common with rap music and stand-up comedy than with literature. For the most part, it's loud, fast and emotionally simple. It emphasizes the performance over the text, and seeks the strongest possible audience reaction, often at the expense of subtlety and complexity. It's sometimes delivered so quickly that you can't even make out the actual words, which doesn't really matter because it isn't the words so much as the feeling conveyed that signals the poem's success.

We know what we are in for, then, when Dawson immediately asks the crowd, "You all ready to cry tonight?" And the answer is yes! Many in the audience -- and many of the poets -- are ready to cry, and to laugh, and to jump out of their chairs, and to loudly let it be known when they like what they hear. The illusionist Penn Jillette, who serves as one of the judges, observes that slam poetry blurs the distinction between liking a poem because it's well written and liking a poem because you agree with its message. And the messages of these poems are, of course, uniformly unobjectionable: There should be peace; human beings should stop destroying the planet; blood relatives should love one another; sexism and racism are bad. Who could possibly demur?

But by the same token, who could possibly get excited about such sentiments? Well, this auditorium full of teenagers could. But viewers will hear some flat lines, some predictable lines and, well, some memorably awful lines, such as "Music is magic and magic music" or "You were so young then, mischievously playing in my puddles" or -- brace yourself -- "See their songs suckle on society like the stained lips of rape children to their wavering mother's breast."

Still, these young poets have worked hard -- more on their delivery than on their literary skills, perhaps, but the performances are energetic, heartfelt and frequently impressive. And even if the poetry is not, for the most part, very good, it is encouraging to see several hundred young people gathered to hear and appreciate poetry of any quality.

But it's impossible to watch "Brave New Voices 2010" without mixed feelings. This is particularly true near the end, when the night's highest scores are bestowed on a young woman who is so eager to start crying that she does so before she begins reading her piece -- indeed, her face is streaked with tears even before she makes it onto the stage.

Dawson does all she can to enforce the feel-good atmosphere, at one point describing the gathering as a "sea of poets, who are just loving each other and supporting each other." As the evening moves along, she encourages higher and higher scores from the judges, more than once making comments like "We got a garbage 8.9 -- we're going to throw that out." She shakes her head disdainfully at any judge who dares to deliver anything less than an out-and-out rave.

But viewers who persevere will see something rather wonderful. The Denver team, in the evening's final performance, changes the emotional tone of the evening radically by delivering a poem called "Score," which directly confronts the problem of insisting that every poem be recognized as a masterpiece. "I dare you to give this poem a 7," they shout at the judges. "I would rather have your respect than your applause." And to the audience: "If you weren't cheering so loud then you would hear the point behind the poetry."

At that moment, for the first time all evening, I felt like jumping out of my chair and cheering.

Brave New Voices 2010

(one hour) airs Saturday at 11 p.m. on HBO.

Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry for 2006.

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