*Link to video of Bethsheba A. Rem spoken word poem. We claim no rights to it.
Life refuses to fit itself into neat files on computers. Poetry mimics life, illustrating stories and emotions traditional writing cannot adequately contain. Poetry is a genre that has lost popularity, partly due to competition with other genres.
Getting readers interested in poetry is tough. Paperbound chapbooks don’t appeal as well as hardbacks. Most publishers admit chapbooks rarely sell well. But if making money were the only measure of value, most writers would be in jeopardy. The reason many writers turn to poetry isn’t for economic potential but because poetry is a creative outlet that allows for less defined expression than prose. That freedom makes sense to writers.
Atlanta-based poet Bethsheba A. Rem, a.k.a Queen Sheba, optimizes the benefits of poetry. She will not allow her creativity to be stilted by conventional grammar, construction, or propriety rules. Influenced by the Atlanta music culture, Rem has become a true master of spoken word, exploding on the stage with passion and lyricism.
Her debut poetry collection Long Story Short: from foster care to fame packs her best work into an unusual blend of noxious psychological stirring. From funny haikus to punching short stories and narrative poems, each page surprises.
For those unfamiliar with performance poetry, Rem’s poem “ESPN- extra special poets network” parodies the experience, allowing readers to appreciate it but also examine its flaws. In the poem, the sports network has decided to host a poetry slam, complete with sponsors such as “Composition Notepads- if you’ve never written in a composition, you’ve never written!” The goofy premise falls apart when the announcers censor the audacious poets. At the conclusion, readers are left with questions about integrity and the value of self-expression.
In the small but expanding world of poetry, an exceptional chap book such as Rem’s gives poets traction. But Rem is not the only poet to watch right now. To separate the wheat from the chaff, we’ve selected a few titles worth adding to bookshelves.
E. Kristin Anderson takes after Rem in some respects, tackling the theme of music with notable melodic style. Anderson’s Pray, Pray, Pray: poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the Night attempts to put music to the page, and the result is stunning. “How an Echo Feels” starts the book with a drumroll, building anticipation and contemplation.
“What is more American than art for the sake of art? More human than love for the sake of love?” The sentiment of these lines in “How an Echo Feels” echo throughout the chapbook, and speak to the heart of poetry. Poetry for the sake of poetry is downright patriotic, the life song of the eclectic artist’s heart.
And no one knows the modern poet’s heart like Allison Joseph, author of Mercurial. A superb poet can turn anything into a poem. Joseph turns ordinary circumstances into sublimity, from the harsh beauty of a New York ballgame to a childhood fear of dolls to an entire poem touting the benefits of sandals. Finding excitement in the mundane is a skill few poets fully master like Joseph has. In “Somewhere in the North Bronx, Late Seventies”, Joseph transforms a common father-daughter scene of watching a Yankees game into a brilliant critique on a parent’s unpredictable sways between sternness and indifference.
“Balls and strikes, hits and losses, the girl knows them all,” the poem reads. The success or failure of the Yankees directly correlates to the success or failure of the relationship, a silly but common scenario. Tackling everyday situations with new angles sets Joseph apart from competing writers.
One such writer that might garner attention is Melissa Carroll, author of The Pretty Machine. In these succinct pages, the poet explores what it means to be a woman, giving some beautiful answers but even more exquisite questions. Carroll covers issues that women face daily, and no topic is off limits. Carroll holds back nothing when talking about the plight of women. The book discusses pressures to perform sexually, expectations to fulfill traditional housewife roles, and most importantly what it means to be beautiful in the feminine sense.
The title poem, “The Pretty Machine” depicts women as fodder for a giant wood chipper that sucks up all uniqueness of an individual and buffs it out until she becomes a shiny Barbie void of character. The narrator escapes the fate of her fellow women, watching in horror as the machine erases all traces of unconventional beauty. Though Carroll takes creative license, her “Pretty Machine” illustrates the constant constraints put on women that ultimately lead to death of individuality. Carroll’s book encapsulates a complex topic lesser writers couldn’t handle.
Poetry is a genre as complicated and literary as the writers that devote their lives to this art. Don’t assume poetry equals sappy red roses wilting in Hallmark cards. Modern poetry has expanded beyond that trivial realm. There are stories that must be told, where the standard structure doesn’t fit. Poetry will stretch our world and our narrow minds, if given room to do so.
*Links to interesting articles that helped inform this post, discussing the current state of the poetry genre.