Recently, Chairman Bob Avakian of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA released an audio file online of his first (to my knowledge) spoken word piece, entitled "All Played Out." With the expected arrogance, the RCP decided that this poem was worthy of being sent "…to everyone you know, through e-mail, text messages and online social media," without the slightest ounce of humility or expressed desire for constructive criticism from the poetry community, or from the people in general.
Bob should write a poem about his flavor saver.
This opens up an opportunity for us to not only criticize the RCP’s cult of personality around Avakian (a phenomenon perpetuating plenty of opportunities for ridicule), but also to open a discussion around how revolutionaries can relate to art and culture, both within our movements and outside of them. Even the basic conception of revolutionary poetry is itself a contradiction which divides into two: one the one hand, we often create art with revolutionary content, but the fixation on revolutionary content often prevents us from creating and utilizing revolutionary form. How do we prevent the art from becoming simply another mechanism through which rigid ideology expresses its program?
I would imagine that most self-proclaimed poets would agree that this piece by Avakian is mediocre, at best, from an artistic standpoint, though I am interested in hearing others chime in with their opinions. I spent a few years around the slam poetry scene, and this piece is unimpressive in terms of rhyme, cadence, symbolism, and depth. Even more problematic is this poem’s hostility toward the people who, rather than being encouraged into artistic expression or glorified as the driving force of revolution, are chided for not reading Bob Avakian’s books. Avakian even goes so far as to say that those who refuse to read his work are, just like imperialism and capitalism, “all played out.”
Where’s Stephen Colbert to give Bob a “wag of the finger” when you need him?
I have seen and heard many poems like this one. I have written and performed poems like this one. But the more time I spent around talented poets, the more I began to realize that poetry, and art in general, is not a crude mechanism that we can simply utilize as a form for our propaganda. Poetry has no purpose if it cannot connect with its audience on a deeper (or at least different) level than prose, if it cannot evoke emotions or access the furthest recesses of it’s audience’s imagination.
Anybody can approach a microphone and rail against capitalism while making a couple of rhymes in the process; that is not difficult. What is difficult, however, is allowing one’s poetry to run wild and escape the horizons of her/his initial intentions, to allow one’s audience to envision the poem in ways beyond the inherent creative limitations of the artist.
Suheir Hammad let’s her poetry, and hair, run awesomely wild.
For art to be revolutionary, it cannot be confined to the narrow parameters of our existing ideology. It must always push the envelope of what is acceptable not only to the state or society, but also what is acceptable to us as communists and, even further, what is acceptable to the poet herself. The most beautiful poetry is that in which the artist crosses even self-imposed boundaries to creative expression; that which we refuse to admit to ourselves in prose is often that which most yearns to be told in a poem. But if our poetry is merely a vehicle for an existing political platform, what does that tell us about our willingness to doubt, or our willingness to dream? Even more importantly, what does this tell us about the lifeless culture our movement promotes?
Great political poetry can paint an experience onto canvas. It can embody ideas in the characters it creates. It can view the history of our people like the wrinkles on an elder’s face. It can portray the struggle of ideas as a battle between tigers. It can even see the revolution as a prairie fire.
But great political poetry is not scientific, even when it flows from the pen of a scientist. It is not Marxist, regardless of whether it is spoken from the same lips that quote Capital. Revolutionary art does not follow a party line. It does not recognize infallible leaders. It does not have a “New Synthesis.” Revolutionary poetry is subversive and rebellious, not stale and predictable. It can be the highest expression of the people’s aspirations, fears, and realities, not a bombastic expression of one’s value.
That’s not to say that Bob shouldn’t continue trying; nobody starts off as a great poet and few are near their full potential when they first begin performing. The spoken word poetry community is nothing if not supportive of new poets, while giving artists suggestions and encouragement to improve. What is not tolerated in that community, however, are new artists with inflated egos. The attitude of the RCP that this poem is necessarily fantastic is egotistical and disrespectful to the vibrant poetry community that prides itself on humility and mutual support, not grandiose pronouncements of one’s own talent and vision.
I have no doubt that this note will be summarily dismissed as counter-revolutionary; I have become accustomed to this sort of treatment from the RCP, and I have come to wear the badge of banishment from Berkeley Revolution Books with pride, a symbol of my low tolerance for bullshit. If I am to choose between the struggle for communist revolution and cultish tomfoolery, between genuine artistic expressions of the people and hackneyed cultural appropriation about the “homies in the hood,” I obviously choose the former of each.
Go to the Nuyorican, Bob.
Regardless, I hope Party supporters understand the offense I take to this
campaign poem, both as a poet and as a communist. I hope the RCP realizes that Bob Avakian is not God’s gift to the spoken word. I hope Bob Avakian goes to see Suheir Hammad or Oveous Maximus. I hope he talks to my brothers Chilo and Wordz, who have spent years sharing their gifts, both by performing and teaching. And in all honesty, I hope he improves. There are not enough communist poets in this country, and there are fewer good ones. The ability to inspire through the spoken word is precious, but we need more than good politics to touch the heart of the people. One’s artistic relationship to the people is dialectical; we must both be inspired by and inspire, gain hope from and give hope to. It is in this continuous, back and forth process that both artist and audience are transformed into a more powerful voice, a more clenched fist, a more sanguine eye on the future.