Performing the Academy

The second in a series examining the divide between the page and the stage.

Ishle Yi Park and Bob Holman interviewed by Jeremy Richards
Conceits can be more convincing when they rhyme. But, “page versus stage,” a phrase often used to compare academic poetry with slam poetry, is as tired as it is misleading. Are all page poems stuffy and abstruse? Are all poetry slams loud and sweaty, full of “rant and nonsense,” as Harold Bloom famously wrote in The Paris Review? Well, those stereotypes do ring true occasionally, but after 21 years of poetry slams, we need a better model than “page versus stage.” How about “headlock versus buttercup”? (I won’t say which is which.)

In the match between headlock and buttercup poems, an increasing number of poets have blurred the boundaries and rubbed sweet, sweet butter all over the angular holds of both forms. To illustrate this trend, editors asked me to curate a series about poets who are accomplished as writers and performers, academics and slammers, lockers of head and cuppers of butter. In short, a series not about “slam poets,” per se, but about poets who slam and why.

* * *

Ishle Yi Park

One subgenre popular among slam audiences is the political poem, a style often stereotyped as a guilt-inducing rant to manipulate crowds. These three-minute missives on war, poverty, gender, and race attempt to push beyond our cynical view that poetry can’t matter. Many of these performance poems, though, resemble rhetoric more than poetry, and are more tuned to a sympathetic crowd than attentive to the craft.

Then there are poets such as Ishle Yi Park. Before I read her work, I saw Park perform as part of New York’s Louder Arts Team in a fierce competition at the 2001 National Poetry Slam. Park found her strength in grappling with her experience as a second-generation Korean immigrant; her subtle and precise narratives do not belabor a moral so much as let the force of her imagery and stories speak.

1. What first attracted you to poetry slams?
I loved the raw, visceral energy of the artists. The hunger, the desire, the training, the competition, the heart. Oh, and the crazy people. You could write a Manic D book about each one, including myself.

2. Does your writing change when you cast it for performance over publication?
Yes, my poems become more visual, narrative, and rhythmic when I perform them, because I want my audience members to be spellbound, hooked on the flow, and able to understand the poem in one sitting. Most of my performance poems are like little drive-in movies for the mind.

3. How is slam influencing academia?
Sorry, I don’t know, and I don’t care. :) I’m trying to learn how to be a peaceful human being in this world, how to be a woman turning 30, how to love myself honestly and fully. I can’t concern myself with questions like this right now.

4. What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?
One popular misconception about performance poetry is that it all sucks. There are a lot of incredible performers who can also stun you on the page, from Tyehimba Jess, Pat Rosal, and Jeff McDaniel to Chinaka Hodge, Lynne Procope, and Rachel McKibbens.

5. What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?
Slam poets can learn how to sit down and write from the academy, and the academy can learn how to loosen up and laugh from slam poets.

6. Headlock or buttercup: Where do you stand?
Depends. Sunday afternoons, always buttercup. Thursday night, maybe a headlock once in a while.

by Ishle Yi Park

June. A white heat.
Two schoolgirls with crisp collars
tread home on a red road.
Two young boys with
cuts yawn in the third tank,
from five hours sleep.
Blue dragonflies, girlsweat,
orange dust on Adidases...
Green interior. Boysweat.
A twist of knobs and dials.
Down the road,
a shack holds miyuk guk
for a classmate's birthday...
After this last run, they'll play spades,
stare out at the green nothing.
They laugh, skirt the road's lip,
arms out like tiny drunks.
A Bradley throws signs, shouts
three times into headphones
stings bare calves,
(the boys forgot
to check mikes
before load-out)
girls scramble,
but the tank
swallows all road
shoelaces a blue skirt hem



a green field
shush shush shush

black hair fans
like a torn fish fin

June 13th, 2002:
2 Korean girls
run over on the smaller
road to Mansu-ri
at the girl's party
mi sun & ho soon's warm rice
bowls cool. harden.
Army officials
answer press: No comment. No
comment. No comment.

mi sun's umma hurls her body
over her daughter's crushed body
No one pleads guilty.
No one convicted.
midnight in seoul
50,000 gold candles
ring the embassy
(One soldier can't sleep—
types online grief-notes to
one placard reads:
for 50 years, you claim the throne.
yankeee, please — go home.

Two boys fly back home.
Play spades, stare into nothing.
Tell their girls nothing.
tank treads crushed steams
an abandoned red road
june a white heat

Copyright Ishle Yi Park.

Ishle is a Korean American woman who is the poet laureate of Queens, New York. She has performed her unique blend of poetry and song across the United States, Cuba, New Zealand, Singapore, and Korea. Her first book, The Temperature of This Water, won three literary awards, including the PEN America Beyond Margins Award for Outstanding Writers of Color. Ishle has opened for artists such as KRS-One, Ben Harper, De La Soul, and Saul Williams. The New York Times wrote, “Ms. Park has an angelic face and the soul of a rock star.”

* * *

Bob Holman

When Bob Holman first wrangled hundreds of poets for New York’s People’s Poetry Gathering, the late Stanley Kunitz called it a “populist bacchanal.” That’s an apt metaphor, casting Holman as the whirling spoken-word deity of wine and theater and the culture of poetry as celebration. But Holman the mortal cultivates a solitary source. His elegy for longtime friend Spalding Gray reveals a shared divide of manic inspiration and inward turns, “Swimming / upstream to Green / Point, the icy flow and corduroy / ferrying home.”

1. What first attracted you to poetry slams?
Being able to say “I’m going to the slam” instead of “I am going to the poetry reading.” You go to a slam for poetry, not specific poets. That I like. Audience interaction is encouraged—where else can you learn heckling? I hate earnestness in mock interviews, but I still see slams as the great and simple metaphor against the Horrific Triumph of Capitalism: that the audience is encouraged to rate the poets as they like, not as an expert explains; that the experts (judges) are not experts; that you must give a score to something unrateable; and that the competition in slam is a sham (isn't it?).

2. Does your writing change when you cast it for performance over publication?
Hmm. I just write ’em as I hear ’em, then use both literary red pencil and performance of work-in-progress to edit.

3. How is slam influencing academia?
Well, my job at Columbia is to teach “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” and I have been involved with slam since the early days; is that slam influencing the academy? The academy is opening up to orality: Sapphire teaches. There is Naropa and its Outrigger Traditions, a curriculum we also follow at Study Abroad on the Bowery!, the certificate program in poetics affiliated with the Bowery Poetry Club. But are there Big Ten slam teams with cheerleaders? That would be slam influencing academia.

4. What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?
That these forms are anti-intellectual. That these are improvisational forms. That slam is a form of poetry instead of what it is: a mock Olympics of poetry, a performance template, with judges picked whimsically from the audience who rate the poem between 0, a poem that should never have been written, and a 10!, a poem that causes mutual simultaneous orgasm throughout the audience.

5. What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?
Slam poets can learn that they didn’t invent oral presentation—in fact, oral poetry predates the written form by thousands of years. Academic poets get their lineage(s). From the Slam, the academy can learn that poetry is a force, not a pastime.

6. Headlock or buttercup: Where do you stand?
I stand before you to sit behind you to tell you something I know nothing about: next Good Friday (on Thursday) there will be a Ladies’ Meeting for Gentlemen Only! Free admission (pay at the door). Pick up a chair, sit on the floor. I will be STANDING by a round table with four corners. On my left-hand side will be a book entitled How Christopher Cucumber Sailed Up the Mississloppi River. On my right, the Declaration of Indigestion. I will be waving the Star-Spangled Bananner!

by Bob Holman

“Help Me
I Can See”

—sign on Pedro Pietri’s begging can

Spalding and I in No Exit. He is just dead
as I am age 56 today, living. “Sartre says,” Spalding says
“Buñuel,” continue I, “Exterminating Angel”
To die in water, to be hauled to air
I walk the earth fair who cares
“It is spring again, I wonder
why,” as James Schuyler once said
wrote to no one
in particular and always
the empty chair and table with full glass

What can I say
write? Swimming
upstream to Green
Point, the icy flow and corduroy
ferrying home. You can’t
sleep with the fishes cause
the fishes don’t sleep as Nick
Jones says
sings. Spuddy’s solid strokes pulling
even with his dragging foot
and head plate, towing me
to shore where we rest for a while.

As I was saying and saying
I was saying as and as I was
and as I was saying what I
was saying was what I was

The doors and windows of Romero’s
Night of the Living Dead conveniently
open in one direction but they open
and the zombies are everywhere. Spalding

is dancing with them, Buddha doing a soft
shoe round the empty chair on the empty table
brandishing the full glass and I am trying
to write it down down
like time sinks. “Good line!” tosses Spalding over
his shoulder. Then, “Who can rhyme
sublime with sublime and love with
doubt’s the bottom line?” He whoops,
red-faced & leering ecstatic and never
dead, straight into his name.

Now we are here forever someone mentions (OK, me)
trying to make the lines that add
up not
down dissolving chair into table all into glass
Only I am breathing. “Awfully
parochial,” says my man Spalding
who is talking so fast I can’t write it pure
sound highest-speed synapse crackle
“I can’t sleep I can’t sleep” sings
Spalding remembering everything

Just a couple more: how ancestors become family
causing to escape the word Happiness
which will be poem with no metaphors allowed
not one word poem but one life poem
as zombies
scale the walls in Sag Harbor
busting in as the room breathes
axes in the windows they are singing
Happy Birthday to you, surprise,
but the words are Auld Lang Syne.

Copyright Bob Holman.

Bob Holman is the proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club and a visiting professor of writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Recently dubbed a member of the “Poetry Pantheon” by The New York Times Magazine and featured in a Henry Louis Gates Jr. profile in The New Yorker, Holman has previously been crowned “Ringmaster of the Spoken Word” (New York Daily News), “Poetry Czar” (Village Voice), and “Dean of the Scene” (Seventeen). Holman is a currently performing off-Broadway in Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell.
Originally Published: September 28, 2007


On September 28, 2007 at 1:06pm Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz wrote:
Another wonderful piece in this series! I love how much the poems seem to echo the energy and spirit found in the interviews -- it makes it very easy to imagining how wonderful the performances of these pieces would be!

On November 8, 2007 at 12:00pm Michael Martin wrote:
Amazing. I have heard of Park but not of Holman. To read a professor referencing Romero brought a smile to my lips. I am going to go out and buy a book from both these poets. Much credit to Richards for asking the right questions. And also making me hungry at work when I can't go get food while feeding my literary soul. To quote Homer "Mmmmmmm." (ha!)

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Performing the Academy


Jeremy Richards is a poet and journalist living in Seattle. His work has appeared widely, including in The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, McSweeney's, Rattle, The Morning News, and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Day to Day, and All Things Considered. "Nietzsche! The Musical," for which he wrote the book and lyrics, premiered at Seattle's Market Theater in June 2010. Richards holds a BA from Gonzaga University and an . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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