Taking BA Everywhere Out to National Poetry Slam

September 15, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


I was part of a team of people taking BAE out to the annual National Poetry Slam Competition. It was an intense and engaging week that left us both exhilarated and exhausted, and people on the team felt it worth sharing.

First off, everyone agreed that the poetry itself was just awesome—intense and, at its best, insightful and inspiring. Dozens of teams from around the U.S.—hundreds of poets, women and men of all nationalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds and ages (though overwhelmingly young) coming together to compete but also to share their ideas and embrace a certain sense of community all day long and deep into the night.

And while there is a strong underlying spirit of “friendship first, competition second,” there is also some very significant struggle over the purpose of the art—is it mainly an expression of personal self-realization and empowerment, or does it serve a larger role in challenging conventional norms or unacceptable conditions; is the energy, passion, anguish, anger, and even humor on the stage simply part of the “esthetic” of the art form or an expression of deeper sentiments that correspond to the conditions of life—not simply of one individual but of millions.

Most of the poems were deeply personal in content but at their best were able to transcend the individual circumstances to embrace more universal themes. I remember from opening night a young Black woman having a conversation with various parts of her body, thanking them each in turn for their ability to support her through all the crap she had put them through. By the end she had painted this haunting image of finding her own humanity in a dehumanizing woman-hating culture in a poem which spoke volumes to the conditions of life of women throughout this society and the world.

I was also struck by an older Black man (perhaps the oldest competitor in the event) whose poem associated every stitch of clothing in his meager wardrobe—from T-shirts to belts and socks with a prison or lockup he had spent time in—“those sandals carried me into Angola Prison, this drunken belt held up my pants in a county jail in Fresno...” and later, flipped the script—reconnecting them to every performing stage he had since been on. By the end, the audience had heard the story not just of one Black man from New Orleans but of generations of Black men around the country.

A young gay man from Oklahoma talked about coming out and his compassion for all the other young gay and lesbians facing the “cuts and blows” of a society unwilling to acknowledge, let alone accept them.

Others cut right to the heart of the crimes of imperialism—one of our team members spoke of hearing an amazing solo piece on Guantánamo from the perspective of the water used in waterboarding torture and another controversial piece unmasking Obama (“the Kool-Aid is laced with strychnine”).

So this was the scene over five days—literally thousands of poems being performed, covering every imaginable topic.

It was striking that so many poems spoke to the oppression of Black people—often in extremely visceral and agonizingly explicit terms—the police murders and dehumanizing daily abuse and the anger and alienation. This has led to struggle within the Slam community that spilled out onto the stage, where one poet responded to another’s complaint about there being too many “struggle poems” and scornfully challenging the attitude that we should simply “look up at the sky...how beautiful it is.” Not when you are being brutalized by police on a daily basis, where your dreams are crushed at an early age.

This was so intense at the finals that one older white woman familiar with Revolution Books walked out. She later said she was both offended and overwhelmed by the intensity of the poets but she then commented that “if this is the sentiment that exists more broadly in the Black community, maybe you guys are not so crazy with your talk of revolution.”

At the same time, there was tremendous beauty in much of the poetry—both in its form and the people and situations it portrayed.

This was the mix that we dove into with the emancipatory vision of Bob Avakian, the necessity and possibility of revolution and of a re-envisioned pathway to a communist world of freely associating human beings. The opening night our team set up a table with BA Speaks: Revolution—Nothing Less! playing on a portable DVD outside a venue around the corner from Revolution Books. The table had piles of the DVD, along with copies of BAsics, CDs of the scored version of “All Played Out,” and the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal). We were passing out palm cards of the DVD and getting out copies of Revolution newspaper issue 312.

I have to say that the response was as varied and wild as the scene I am trying to describe with the audience including many of the poets attending the Slam—along with a broad cross-section of people—again of different nationalities and backgrounds.

The first people I talked to were a couple of young Black guys who were part of a team that had driven up from Birmingham, Alabama. Their first comments were that it was a whole different world up North but when I showed them the “Three Strikes” poster, they quickly added that it was really all the same under the surface as they demanded copies of the poster to take with them back to Birmingham.

A young woman I approached was almost incredulous that we were at the Slam at all—she couldn’t understand what revolution and especially communist revolution had to do with a poetry competition and was really intrigued by the point that BA made that you couldn’t be a revolutionary leader without a poetic spirit. She had simply accepted the commonly accepted wisdom that socialist revolution and communism were about sacrificing individuality and individual expression in the name of the “common good.” She had never really considered the difference between “individuality” and “individualism” as a world outlook. Others we met were so focused in on their own conditions that they were almost offended that we would be bringing politics into the Slam.

At the same time many were immediately attracted to the paper—This is a Criminal System! We need REVOLUTION-NOTHING LESS!—and our large poster of “Three Strikes.” One guy came up and asked: What kind of revolution? What kind of revolution? What kind of revolution? And when someone replied communist revolution, he smiled, took the paper and commented that he just wanted to make sure because a lot of people are talking about a lot of different kinds of revolution nowadays.

Some of our team discussed what we were encountering in light of the letter from a reader that appeared in Revolution—“Two Different Approaches, Two Different Epistemologies—Two Different Worlds”—and in particular the approach of basing ourselves in the necessity of “raising people’s sights to a radically different world” and based on that sorting through the mixed bag of ideas in people’s thinking—what’s correct and incorrect but also trying to figure out how they have come to the conclusions they have reached.

Everyone agreed that the scene at the Slam was a concentrated expression of the “mixed bag of ideas” and ways of looking at the world—where even the most articulated expressions of outrage or rebellion against this crushing system still lacked a real vision of a radically different world and often included an undercurrent of religiosity.

It was a real challenge not to be overwhelmed by the powerful, painful, often poignant stories unfolding on the stage—or to appreciate how so many in the audience related to these stories. One poet read a poem she had written on Emmett Till which was devastating but which also included a soulful backup singer with the line “God gave his soul.”

This lack of vision also came out on the stage from one Black poet whose team, from LA, made it to the finals. He ended another incredibly powerful poem dealing with the oppression of Black people with “sometimes just deciding to get up and keep going in the morning is the greatest act of resistance a Black person can undertake today.”

This led to a struggle among some of our team and other people deeply moved by the imagery of the poem that NO! Getting by from day to day is not the greatest act of resistance a person of any nationality can undertake today. Taking up the real scientific solution to these horrors and engaging with BA is the greatest act of resistance (actually revolution) and is both necessary and possible. One woman came back after chewing this over to say that she thought this was correct and even though she still deeply identified with many of the sentiments in the poem, she could see how this kind of thinking would disarm people and never lead to any meaningful change.

But as we did sort out these ideas, we also found a desire among many attending and participating to take a stand now, based on what they do understand—while more deeply engaging with what is really going down in the world and what it is going to take to bring a radically different world into being.

After the opening round of competition, one team of poets from Texas invited our team back to the hotel hosting the competitors to get more into “this question of revolution.” One team member recounted his experience with a young Black college student attending the finals, who responded to the comment that many in the crowd didn’t like the world as it is now but few believe it can be radically changed, by saying that this is a question he is trying to figure out himself. He bought a copy of the DVD and made plans for coming to Revolution Books when he returns to school in the fall. Another poet from Denver asked for a bundle of newspapers to take back with him and several people bought and immediately (and proudly) adorned themselves with Abortion on Demand and Without Apology stickers, getting more to take home with them. Others carved time out of the schedule to come by Revolution Books and introduce themselves to the staff.

By the end of the week, hundreds had been introduced to BAE, dozens left with copies of Revolution newspaper—sometimes multiple copies—and were going back across the country with a different understanding of the possibilities of a better world.

There was much to be learned and we are still assessing our experience but here were a few closing thoughts:

  • Lead with revolution and get to the point. It is true in any situation but especially with a small team. We talked about the point in the letter about “Two Different Approaches…” that a really a serious discussion about revolution (even if brief) can change the terms of our engagement. And it usually allowed us to quickly meet the people most interested in conditions in the world and who wanted to learn more.
  • Don’t pigeonhole people and don’t waste time on backward fools. People attending the Slam brought a tremendous amount of diversity and thought to the event. While poetry was the medium, many wanted to talk about what was going on in the world—a number were both amazed and filled with satisfaction to find out about the abortion rights freedom ride and serious in their interest about the California prisoners’ hunger strike. At the same time, there were certainly an element of backward fools—dismissive in their attitudes even before they reached our team. One young guy attending the finals thought he knew everything there was to know about the Cultural Revolution in China and wanted to prove this to his friends by debating people on our team. Someone just told him to come back when he had something intelligent to say and moved on.
  • Have fun and involve friends. BA Everywhere team members invited friends who are supportive of the movement for revolution but not at the point of being out there around BA Everywhere. We went into the competition venues to listen to the poetry (and in one case were part of a team of judges). It was a very rich experience, struggling over the poetry but also struggling over the basis on which we were able to connect BA Everywhere to various sections of the crowd.
  • Don’t underestimate the impact that a small number of revolutionaries can have in transforming the situation. We only had three people on our team and sometimes only two but by the end of the week many in the line for the finals knew about BA, Revolution newspaper, and the movement for revolution—if only a beginning way.


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