Since the early ’90s, café habitués have been exposed to poetry and performance with a hip-hop aesthetic dubbed “spoken word.” As anthologies published during this “word movement” go, A Def Poetry Jam is more inclusive than Kevin Young’s largely neo-traditionalist M.F.A. mafia anthology, Giant Steps, and more focalized than Kevin Powell’s literary potpourri, Step Into a World. This 222-poem collection is elegiac, multigenerational, egalitarian—African American, Latino, gay, white, and Asian American works are interspersed—and textured in terms of tone, form, and themes.
Medina’s perspicacious intro decries “canon shapers” who “insist that poetry and politics should not mix.” However, his sweeping vitriol about “angst-ridden anglophiliacs” and “dry poets shitted out of the bowels of Ivy League schools” sounds as ridiculous as a sheltered suburbanite exclaiming that Harlem residents are either welfare mothers or crackheads. Def‘s strident voices and socially conscious motifs are frequently overlooked by academic journals. The reasons are manifold. One rationale is that art is political but it shouldn’t be partisan. Partisan art just preaches to the choir or psychologically snuffs out the naysayers.
That said, one-fourth of this volume scintillates: Peep Reverend Pedro Pietri’s absurdist love poem “January Hangover,” or Reggie Cabico’s muted surrealism in “In Bed With James Tate,” or Jessica Care Moore’s polyrhythmic tsunami “I’m a Hip-Hop Cheerleader.” But half of this anthology roves through a “there’s nothing wrong, but nothing terribly revelatory” terrain.
The remaining selections are at turns cliché-ridden, jejune, or overwritten. Rha G-ddess’s self-aggrandizing “I Be a Goddess” underscores these inadequacies: “I be a Goddess./And I maintain my domain./Exercise my brain . . . Why?/’Cause I said so.” And? Which highlights an editorial boo-boo: Almost every poet contributes only one poem, leaving the reader wondering what else these writers scribble about. And why wordsmiths like Mums and Saul Williams are conspicuously absent.
Even with its shortcomings, Def Poetry‘s cris de coeur deserve a venue if for no other reason than the canonical Bobbies’ often traditional biases. That does not mean that Def‘s voices should be coddled, however. Some of these bards could benefit from analyzing how Paul Beatty addresses mass media marginalization in his poem “Truth, Justice and Vomit,” or Cornelius Eady’s supernal take on racist stereotypes in his book Brutal Imagination. ‘Cause it ain’t what you slay, but how you slay it.