canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

On Our Own Spoke
by Penn Kemp
Penn Kemp/Pendas Productions, 2000

Unheard Of...
by Various Artists
Tupperware Sandpiper Spoken Word, 2000

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

This past July (2000), Bob Dylan played in Toronto on a double bill with ex-Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh. Dylan opened with a set punctuated mostly with his classic songs from the 1960s, performing many of them in new arrangements, often with a country acoustic flair. Dylan presented his new arrangements with the help of his tight backing unit, perhaps the best touring band he's ever played with. It was hard not to arrive at the conclusion that Dylan was pushing his songs through new arrangements to show both their versatility and their value. The sounds may change, but the song remains the same. The structure of the words is strong enough to support various interpretations.

Following Dylan, Lesh led his band through a series of extended jam sessions, which did their best to erase all of Dylan's subtle nuances. If Dylan was Formalism, Lesh was Post-Structuralism. If Dylan was a speaker, Lesh was a shouter. If Dylan was a bard, Lesh was a self-indulgent poet. Dylan spoke with clarity about me, you and them - he sang "Song To Woody" and was once again attempting to be a dust-bowl ballader worthy enough to fill Guthrie's shoes. On the other hand, Lesh invited the audience to worship (however paradoxical this may seem) the communal "I". The 1970s were not called the "Me-Decade" for nothing. Lesh showed again where it all started, and how the community of Martin Luther King's dream descended into the individualist spiritualism of New Age ninnies and other California dreamers.

Which brings us to the two spoken word CDs under review here: the Tupperware Sandpiper anthology, Unheard Of..., and Penn Kemp's On Our Own Spoke. Which one is Dylan and which one is Lesh? Well, first, a qualification - it would be unfair to draw hard lines here and make such simplistic comparisons; there is a little of Dylan and a little of Lesh in each. That said, however, Kemp is more distinctly Lesh-like, and many of the contributors to Unheard Of... appear more inspired to track Dylan's formalism.

Kemp's CD is subtitled "performance poetry". The first track on the CD is an introductory monologue which outlines the "theory" behind Kemp's approach. She says her sound poetry is related to the babble of babies. It is an attempt to return language to its early stages of discovery, and that is exactly what many of the tracks on the CD sound like: babbling babies.

Kemp takes a phase and breaks it into its most basic verbal sounding blocks. She then improvises other sounds off these blocks, and repeats and repeats and repeats them, moving ever closer to the original or destination phrase. An audience is employed on some of the tracks to introduce a "call and response" aspect to the exercise. The audience appears to be having fun, as Kemp asks them: "Isn't this just like being six years old again?"

There are 15 tracks on On Our Own Spoke, although only 9 titles listed in the index. This makes following along with the babble difficult, as the titles of the pieces are also difficult to match up with the sound poetry once it's in progress.

Is there an audience for this material? Personally, I resisted Kemp's emphasis on returning language to its infantile beginnings. It seems to me that we've all been there and done that, and now it is time to grow up and live in the real world. Which isn't to say that there are no longer times for play - or even babble - but poetry is not an inner child workshop; it is not an early childhood education seminar; and the 1970s were over twenty years ago and fading. I could say that this would be a good CD for children, and perhaps it would be, but it appears Kemp wants this to be an adult project which encourages people to re-live their childhood. However well-intentioned that may be, I cannot support it. Poetry needs more adult readers - educated readers willing to do the hard work of literary comprehension - thus any association between poetry and the babble of infants strikes me as a severe step in the wrong direction.

Being an anthology, Unheard Of... presents a variety of approaches to spoken word as an art form. The CD includes 26 tracks, representing 19 artists performing solo or in collaboration. The pieces run the gamut from narrative prose (Monica S. Kuebler), to Kerouac inspired jazz poetry (J Dennie), to pieces that emphasize line breaks as on a printed page (Cynthia Gould).

The contributions to Unheard Of... repeat no common motif, unless it is the voice of a new generation pushing up through the cracks of a degrading older culture. However, like contemporary haircuts, none of the sounds or voices on this CD is particularly new. Perhaps nothing is new under the sun. Perhaps all rhetorical strategies have been attempted and exhausted, and it is now only left to each new generation to ape the strategies and positions of the past. Old Kerouac was pushing against the culture of Eisenhower's America, trying to create a separate space. What does it mean to adopt Kerouac's strategies now, when Kerouac's image is used to sell Gap jeans and On the Road became a hippie mantra almost a quarter-century ago?

Tom Waits successfully infused Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Zappa. Hip hop spun it in new - and sometimes disturbing (misogynistic, nihilistic, hyper-violent) - directions. Unheard Of... presents an impressive crop of urban hipsters working their art on the margins of Toronto's Wannbe-American Neo-Con Dot-Com scene. "What does the poet make?" Mark Kozub asks on his track "Support the Poet." The question refers to a sum of money, but perhaps it is also asking: "What is the poet's purpose?" The poet makes poetry, but what is that? This CD is an excellent introduction to a new generation of poets returning like their elders once did, and others will tomorrow, back to that eternal question. Rock on.







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