Before we worried about the effect of the digital word on the printed word, we worried about the effect of writing on speech. This debate, as old as Plato’s Phaedrus, is kept alive by Page Meets Stage, a New York arts event where two poets from the two traditions square off against each other. Since its launch in 2005, the event has hosted such “page” notables as Billy Collins, Dana Gioia, and Philip Levine, as well as a tier-one lineup of stage poets that includes Bob Holman, Sarah Kay, and Andrea Gibson. If you are concerned with the future of literary traditions, it’s an event worth checking out.
The most recent session featured Saul Williams (stage) and Carolyn Forché (page). Williamsan actor, alternative rapper, and award-winning slam poetcame armed with a Shakespearian presence acquired during his theater training and all the swagger of his beloved hip-hop. But Forché, an acclaimed poet and translator (and winner of the 2013 Academy of American Poets Fellowship), was no slouch either.
Williams’s first piece scored no points for slam poetry. Bringing an “old journal” to the stage, Williams said he intended to read a few poems he’d written over the years. The choice was disastroushe read hesitantly, stumbled, and restarted halfway through. “Got to learn to read my handwriting,” he joked, adding that, as the stage poet, his job was to lower the bar.
Forché did not need that bar lowered. Overcoming her visible anxiety, she recited one of her most famous poems, “The Colonel.” Based on her experience doing human rights work in El Salvador during the 1970s, the poem begins with a nod to the hearsay of oral tradition:
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. . . .
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.
This is Forché’s famed “poetry of witness.” Since her political awakening in the 1970s, her work has focused largely on her experience in war-torn countries. Her poetry is profoundly political, though she is quick to clarify what she means by the term: “In the US, the ‘political’ means oppositional and resistant. I’m accused of being a political poet because I said something I wasn’t supposed to say.”
Forché’s poetry is personal, not because it is emotional, but because her subjective testimony is the medium through which she relates the horrors she has seen. With an almost religious understanding of witnessmost likely from her Catholic upbringingshe shares the news of what she has seen, heard, and touched with her hands.
A poem about severed ears might seem to rely too much on shock value, but Forché mitigates the emotional effect of her story as much as she can. The poem apologizes“there is no other way to say this”but that apology brings a certainty that only the printed word can carry. These words and no others are the truth; they must be preserved just this way for posterity.
Fortunately for the stage, Williams came into his own with his third poem. He recited “Children of the Night,” a poem inspired by the birth of his daughter seventeen years ago. His Shakespearean training finally on display, he performed at his famously high speed:
And now I’m a fish called father
with gills type dizzy,
blowing blood and liquid lullabies through the spine of time to tranquilize the
nervous system’s defeat.
Forché spoke for the crowd when she burst out, “How does he do that?”
From then on, the distinction between Williams and Forché seemed less one of medium and more one of maturity and raw energy. Forché, in her sixties, has been honing her craft for longer than Williams has been alive. While his energy far surpasses hers, his lack of seasoning shows in his over-reliance upon anger.
More so than Williams, Forché has seen atrocities that should stir righteous indignation. Her poetry does not shrink back from pointing out injustice, but rage doesn’t seem to be part of her palate. Even in “The Garden Shukkei-en,” a poem written in the voice of a woman she met who survived Hiroshima, her anger is restrained, letting the account speak for itself.
I don’t like this particular red flower because
it reminds me of a woman’s brain crushed under a roof
Perhaps my language is too precise, and therefore difficult to understand?
Williams’ poetry is at no risk of over-precision. He rails against white hegemony, the patriarchy, and all the usual suspects, making full use of the harsher four-letter words and driving them home with repetition and rhyme. A closer listen, however, reveals a masterful skill behind some of the shouted lines. Take this selection from an excerpt of The Dead Emcee Scrollsperformed by Williams near the end of the evening:
Caught in the crossfire. The KKK
had you caught in the crossfire.
Prayed every day, you were caught
in the crossfire. In Jesus name, you
were caught in the crossfire. The
Here “crossfire” is used to refer to: a battle of words, the flaming symbol of white supremacists, burning religious fervor, Christ’s crucifix, and the actual path of bullets. When delivered in a staccato mimicking machine-gun fire, the poem stood up to Forche’s best work.
Williams’ references to Christ are not an anomaly. A preacher’s kid, he credits his Baptist father with his fearlessness in performance. Though today he is far from orthodox Christianity, he fills his poems with religious imagery. He “licks at forbidden fruit,” has “psalms etched in his palms,” is a “survivor of the flood,” and drops religious metaphors to the point that fundamentalist Christians sometimes mistake him for one of their own.
Forché’s religious influences are also strong. Trained by “very mean Catholic nuns,” today she describes herself as a “junkheap Catholic” attracted to the Church’s teachings on social justice. To use Flannery O’Connor’s term, Forché’s poetry is more Christ-haunted than Christian, the atrocities she has seen pointing her toward an absence she mourns.
In Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture, published ten years ago, Dana Gioia wrote that “as long as humanity faces mortality and uses language to describe its existence, poetry will remain one of its essential spiritual resources. . . . Even if there are fewer readers, people will be listening.” If Forché and Williams keep up their work, and if Page Meets Stage has anything to say about it, Gioia’s prediction will hold true.
Both spoken and written poetry are here to stay. Plato would be pleased, even if the conversation is being had by poets and not philosophers.
Bria Sandford is an assistant editor at the Portfolio, Sentinel, and Current imprints of Penguin Random House.