By Victor D. Infante
Just the other day, in a bar in New York City, I sat across from an academic poet and we talked about the common threads between slam and flarf – two sometimes redheaded stepchildren of contemporary poetry, both of which have had convulsive histories. The former has had a long slog from the fringes to carve a place for itself in contemporary poetry, the other started inside academia, and faced derision and a sometimes uncomfortably personal sort of backlash.
And yet, neither of these genres (let’s call them both that for the moment, and not quibble on details) have clearly identifiable lineages. One only needs to expand the iris of the lens a bit to see flarf’s lineage on surrealism, dada and modernist literature going back to T.S. Eliot. Likewise, it’s not terribly difficult to see slam’s antecedents in Beat and the African-American poetics of the ’60s and ’70s.
But honestly, you can play this sort of game with any of poetry’s myriad threads: punk or hip-hop, confessionalism or new formalism. It’s not terribly hard to look and see how one philosophy of poetry or another has leaped from group to group, being embraced by movements small and large as they wind down the torrent of history.
Flarf, slam, whatever else: They did not spring wholly formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. They are all points and counterpoints in a conversation that goes back longer than anyone can remember. Moreover, it’s a conversation no one can actually win. The mere act of involving one’s self in the conversation changes you. It changes the art form. Slam has changed in 20 years. So has academia.
That’s what time and history does.
A year ago, when we were introducing the third volume of Radius, we were still smarting from the passing of Jack McCarthy, one of the finest poets and people we knew. How were we to know then that the year that followed would prove to be such a mean season, with the loss of Seamus Heaney, Wanda Coleman, Lou Reed, Amiri Baraka, C.E. Chaffin, Maxine Kumin, Maggie Estep and probably more. We watched in horror as Iranian poet Hashem Shabani was executed, and tried to envision ourselves in his place. Would we have the courage to face what he did? Could we ever really know until we were in those circumstances?
Being a poet in Shabani’s world means something very different than it does to most poets in the United States and Europe. Our trials are not the ones he faced. Our petty arguments about whether slam or flarf or anything are “really poetry” are utterly ridiculous in the face of his death. Indeed, they’re absurd when held up against any of that litany of the dead, this parade of lost poets, each so different from each other, each unique, burning for a moment, and then gone.
Our art form is better for each of them having participated in it. It is better for there being a multitude of styles and voices to echo off each other. Together, we create a grand symphony that is bigger than any mere style or genre enfolded in the music. Take away any piece of that, and there is only silence where something beautiful should be.
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