Navigating resistance, resisting labels

lupe fiascoSteven Karl reports from a Brooklyn BookFest panel that included rapper Lupe Fiasco, rocker Thurston Moore,  culture critic Toure and poets Matthew Zapruder and Tracie Morris.

This weekend I attended a panel discussion on poetry, pop and hip-hop for the Brooklyn Book Festival.  The panelists were Lupe Fiasco, Thurston Moore, Tracie Morris, Matthew Zapruder and Toure as moderator.  As I suspected, the largest and loudest contingent of the audience was there for Lupe Fiasco. Rob Casper from Poetry Society of America began moderating, as Toure didn’t arrive until the session was already half-over. 

The first question was about the similarites and differences in the ways that words are applied to poetry and music.  Tracie Morris (armed with her laptop) answered first and suggested that the words differ depending on their purpose.  Lupe Fiasco then explained that he often had a plethora of words covering pages and pages (he cited Mos Def and Ghostface Killah, whose lyrics he likened to “abstract paint splatter,” as inspiration), and that these words were written in absence of a beat.  He sometimes has to change his words in order to make them work as rhymes, he said. 

This prompted Tracie Morris and Matthew Zapruder to discuss how poetry is often about the words left out, whereas lyrics are often about what words to put in.  Zapruder reflected on how all forms of art function against resistance and how resistance—that is, writing in form or against a form or writing to a beat—really shapes the piece.  Thurston Moore discussed how Bob Dylan’s lyrics for Blonde on Blonde were first printed in Esquire but they didn’t look or feel like “poetry” until you heard Bob Dylan sing them. 

Tracie Morris agreed and brought up a Carpenters song, “Superstar.”  (The song’s otherwise banal lyrics are offered weight and purpose in Sonic Youth’s cover; the sounds and the lyricist’s delivery manipulate the words themselves.) The entire panel spoke about how structure is both liberating and constraining.  The idea of constraints and liberation really struck a chord with the audience, which consisted mostly of younger kids who were still navigating their notions of poetry and poetics.

At one point Toure interjected that guys wanted to play in rock bands to get girls and that hip-hoppers rapped to get respect from guys.  This caused the audience to burst into an uproarious laugh, but Tracie Morris, the only woman on the panel, quickly dismissed Toure’s notion and said that a lot of the hip-hop generation came from bad neighborhoods where even straight-A students received a bad education.

Hip-hop, she said, was a need to find a means of expression in a language understood by others in the same environment. She spoke of that language coming from a “distressed environment.”  Zapruder added that lyricists and poets are similar in that whether intellectual or physical, “this distress is the source of motivation and the words are used as the means of expression.”

Toure opened the panel up to the audience and one girl asked how they felt about Harold Bloom saying that “slam poetry” was not poetry and the fact that Mark Strand said it was ruining academic poetry.  Zapruder was swift in demolishing the idea of “academic poetry” and told the audience to resist labeling and resist those that label. 

Zapruder added that Harold Bloom was “evil.”  This was both a humorous and pivotal point in the discussion; a lot of the kids in the audience might have been seeking validation or recognition for what they do, and Harold Bloom, it seems, represents an empirical force that seeks to invalidate them. Tracie Morris then spoke about how every group has a poetic tradition. As the hour expired, she left us to embrace ours.