Interviewing,  Interviews

The Democratisation of Poetry

Bob Holman (USA) became a poet in the third grade when his teacher said, “That’s a very good poem, Robert. Where did you copy it from?” He has published five books, most recently The Collect Call of the Wild and a poetry CD, In With the Out Crowd. He has also helped to put poetry on TV, producing The United States of Poetry for PBS and appearing on MTV’s Spoken Word Unplugged. Currently, he teaches a course at Bard College, “Exploding Text: Poetry in Performance.” Holman works to change traditional definitions of poetry and to broaden its audience through work that has been noted for its raw power and irreverent humor.

filling Station’s paulo da costa spoke to Bob Holman after one of his rehearsals for the Out Loud Live shows that took place during WordFest 2000 in Calgary, Canada.


Bob Holman Performance poetry is primarily a return to the oral roots of language and of poetry. Before there was the book, before there was writing, there was the human voice that created words. The sound of the language has never been separated from the meaning of words as much as now. I think that is the reason why people find poetry difficult and out of their lives. The intimacy of the spoken poem has been lost as we experiment with text as the means of transmission.

pdc: Are we asking for a different breed of poet, one who can emerge from the page and also have the skills of an actor?

BH: The presentational skills for a poet can be very different from those of an actor. A poet is never anyone but her or himself. Not assuming a role. It is also not critical that a poet be a dramatic performer to allow a listener a new way into the poem.

Some of the greatest performers in the United States include Robert Creely, a poet who never moves, whose voice rarely modulates. The crackling tamper of his voice is so emotionally laden that you feel that you are hearing the real meaning of the words. For centuries now words have become defaced by the lies of politics and the hype of commercial lingo. As our ears get tuned up, poetry can begin to drill through that wax and allow the beauty of language to be heard again. It is just a question of time in my opinion.

pdc: Perhaps never before in North America has poetry seen hundreds or thousands gather to celebrate the spoken word. What is a poetry slam?

BH: We have to have bigger memories to remember to see the shamans of Native Americans as poets of their cultures. To even see poets like Vachel

Lindsay, a poet who toured around the United States at the turned of the last century to audiences of thousands. Or to think of the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío who basically invented the idea of Nicaragua when he was in France at the beginnings of the modernist poets. When he returned to Nicaragua thousands turned to hear him read. In Russia poetry never disengaged from daily lives. That is why poets like Mayakovsky could fill arenas. And now poets like Yevtushenko too.

A poetry slam is a grassroots poetry movement, primarily in the United States, that creates a frame of competition around a poetry reading and enables people to go to a poetry reading without having to admit they are going to a poetry reading. They are going to a slam, which is a sexier event.

You go to a slam not hear a specific poet but to see an event that is audience participatory with a lot of heckling and cheering from the audience. Judges selected from the audience rate the poems between a zero – a poem that should have never been written – and a ten – a poem that causes a mutual, simultaneous orgasm throughout the audience.

The judges have no literary qualifications. In this way the idea comes back to the individual . You are the ultimate judge of the poem. A poem need not be interpreted by experts to come to you. Which is pretty much the state that poetry has devolved to in the academic circuits. You need to learn a special system to understand the poem.

There is poetry around us in the hip-hop lyrics, in the double dutch jump rope of the streets, the cordel poets of Brazil who do improvisational poems. They have little pamphlet poems which they hang from a cordel (string) in the markets. A great distribution system.

pdc: In your poem 3/2 you begin by saying: “There’s No Big Message except hope you’ve had a good time/While reading this…” Is poetry conducive to enter a competitive ring and become a loud spectacle, resembling the atmosphere around sports events? Is this a shift to capitalise on the entertainment aspect of poetry?

BH: Absolutely, both statements are true… poetry is not conducive to entertainment but these days all method of performance is entertainment to people. That is what movies and television have unfortunately given to us. Political elections are nothing but entertainment now. It´s the way the consciousness is. It is necessary in order to get poetry in front of people. Poetry differs from the other arts in having a single voice; not a committee, not a ton of money just one person with something to say, a voice using the stuff of everyday life. Words that we use to order pizza, complain to the telephone repair guy, now become art, giving a feeling of participatory art.

If you go to a slam and realise they are not so good and you say: I can do that. Then you scratch a poem on a napkin and next thing you know it is an open mike and you are reading. It busts down hierarchies. That is one reason why so many women can be found in poetry slams and in the performance poetry movement. The male hierarchy isn’t there in the mike. The women have the opportunity now to speak through the poetry, just as the minority voices that have been kept out of the dialogue in North America can now speak through the poetry too.

pdc: Do you find that it is the disenfranchised people that are embracing it?

BH: Certainly. There are a lot of dynamics that are colliding. Disenfranchised voices that have been kept out of literature are finding their way in through the immediacy of the poetry readings.

Slams and hip-hop are drawing the voices. The hip-hop itself is the most important dynamic. You have an art form connected to music in which the words are spoken. Not sung but spoken in a highly rhythmically and rhymed method. That is a definition of poetry and also its first definition. There are other elements as well: performance itself as an art. Which is to say a solo performer taking on multiple roles or using the strappings of avant-garde theatre.

In fact all of the media that looked to be the death of poetry has been the salvation of poetry. Besides printing up their little chapbooks, poets are now making cassettes, CDs, poetry videos. I have produced two series for the Public Broadcasting System. The internet is filled with poets who posted their work. And through streaming live cybercasts you are also now beginning to have slams across continents.

A project I am working on is The World of Poetry. A digital anthology that uses performance videos as well as hyperlinked text. There you can find the associations between poems, words, poets, poetic traditions. The poet I use as an example at is Cecilia VicuZ a. She is a Chilean poet who writes in Quechua, Spanish and English. She weaves these languages together. Unless you know all three, some of the languages will be just sounds. With the hyperlinks you can unravel her weavings and see what the poems are. Plus, since they are about the political situation in Chile you also have links to that. She is a visual artist as well and you can see how her visual art relates to her poetry. All of this in one entry into this digital anthology.

pdc: In the poem “The Death of Poetry” you say: “It sucked itself into the coffin spasm/It has no beauty there/It was enforced tradition of emptiness…”

Is slam poetry part of the resurrection? Has the muscle of poetry become stronger?

BH: What we are seeing now is the democratisation of poetry. We have more leisure time and, – as we see that we are giving up so much of our power not to politics so much as the corporations – it is very important people begin getting their voices working again. By accepting poetry, not as an arcane and difficult art, but something immediate, in your face, happening, smart and sexy, it gives power to the individuals. Then we begin to realise we are all artists. If we just keep at it we´ll be in much better position not to give up the power to the people who are making up new flavours of taco chips.

pdc: Has poetry left the dust of shelves and found its body again through performance poetry? Is that what you mean in the poem, What you can’t understand is Poetry is Connected to the Body Again?

BH: First of all it says, What you can´t understand. It isn’t that you are not able to understand. This kind of understanding is beyond understanding. It is in the body, not in the mind. We have been understanding so much with our minds that we have forgotten the memories which are in our bodies. That was brought to my attention most clearly by the American Sign Language poets who writing in ASL don’t use any text at all. Their poem is written with their bodies. The only way you can read it is if you see the performance or, if recorded on video, you can read the book by watching that language come before you. Also the way gestures are used in other poetry readings are subtle but important. (Bob reads the poem)


Jean allowed the body to drop

The beautiful face bluing so perfect

A fly buzzed by – but no one would believe it

She raced frantically to the offices of the National Enquirer

A reporter wrote up the story – it made the cover

Now she could get the attention of the radical newsweekly

That only told the truth

She just casually flipped it down on the desk

“Hey,” an editor reading upside-down said,

“What if this story is true? It would certainly change

Our story – maybe we should look into this.

Hey! Stop those presses!”

Jean walked away. Horns were blaring,

It was a brilliant dusty sunset and the sirens were distorting.

She didn’t hear em.

She was remembering her lover’s face,

What they’d said about how you never know

If someone else’s orgasm is better than yours

But that shoudn’t stop you

From coming together

Even if it’s not exactly

At the same time.

What I am talking about here is of course not sex. It is about how you come to understand a poem. It is the same way as making love. It is a give and take between you and the poem. You never know if someone’s way of understanding a poem is righter than yours but it doesn’t stop you from having your orgasm with that poem, with that poet.

pdc: In traditional poetry the word was the one charged, the word carried the poem. In performance poetry it seems to me it is the gesture, it is the voice that carries the words. How do you see it?

BH: I disagree. That is why I say it is important we tune up our ears. If the words are boring, trite, redundant… If they are clichéed, rhetoric, Hallmark Cards, politics without openness, people can be very excited. In the way people were very excited with Hitler – very excited to hear a great performer. But if we can tune our ears the way we can tune our eyes to see, we can hear through the bla…bla and realise at the core of this there is no poem.

But you are right, the pendulum has now swung so far that a great performance often will get over a poem. I believe that a slam´s purpose is to allow different poetrys to co-exist. If one says I don’t like music one is immediately thrown in the insane asylum, when you say I don’t like poetry you are one of the guys. You may not like Classical music but you may like Rock music, you may hate Country music but you like Jazz. There are just as many types of poetry as there are of music but we don’t give those a chance to be heard and tune up our ears.

pdc: I understand that you teach performance poetry. How does one teach performance poetry?

BH: You begin by saying there is no such thing but every poem can be performed. By doing a deep reading, a deep understanding of a poem. By becoming a partner with the poet, writing the poem yourself, your are given the tools to physicalize that understanding. That way any poem can become a performance poem. You find the way to let it out into the air.

pdc: It is also my understanding that you use the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa as a tool to teach performance poetry?

BH: Pessoa, who we are only now beginning to appreciate, is the individual who best personifies the movement into a modernist poetry, I think.

Of course Pessoa was the antithesis of a performer. His whole life was being a clerk and a translator, staying in his tiny room and inventing heteronyms. As he grew up, his imaginary friends grew up with him and he wrote their poems for them.

In a sense he gives us the tools to find the makings of performance through this quiet, shy, retiring, antisocial figure because we can bring each of those characters to life. And apart from his four major characters –– they have excavated over eighty other poets in the famous trunk in the Lisbon library whose poems he wrote, whose signatures he practised, whose books he reviewed. And there are also times when one of his poets may die but a few years later he would discover a bunch of poems that had been hidden away.

Pessoa managed to turn his whole life into a world that is peopled by poets and where the language is poetry. That is a performance that is unequalled in world literature.

pdc: A life of performance…

BH: A life of performance.

pdc: You have said the future is poetry. What do you mean?

BH: I mean that language is the essence of humanity and poetry is the essence of language. We need to let our words play so we don’t have wars. To realise that each language in our world is a way of thinking, a mode of consciousness. As the big bully English takes over the internet it is going to become more important that we don’t watch languages become extinct the same way that we try to keep species from becoming extinct.

When I say the future is poetry I speak as a utopian, as poets have always been. Now we are seeing the possibility – with all these forms of media – to finally hear that one little voice come out again. It is so sweet and joyous. It is an affirmation what humanity is: our attempt to reach out and understand each other.

Poem 3/2

There’s No Big Message except hope you’ve had a good time while reading this

While somewhere the Great Novel is being shredded

I must stand up and say my piece

Or at least a piece of my piece “Shredded Piece”

I will never sit in that class again, a stone

Eating away at the heart of existence

Plenty of homeless people want to read my poems

They are lucky I stand at the newsstand

Cursing the politicians and making faces

Maybe all I’m saying is it’s a real job

Being unemployed



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *