The concept of a popular poet seems contrary to the tradition of moping, lonely self-deprecants that has historically typified the art. But we are now in the age of poets such as Saul Williams, who bewitches large audiences out of their money by intoning spiritual fluff.
No, no, wait a minute. To criticize poetry in the face of the fact that poetry defies criticism would be superfluous. Let me try a different, more quotidian hook.
Tonight, Portland State University’s School of Fine and Performing Arts (FPA) will host the popular poet Al Letson Jr. His appearance at PSU is part of the FPA’s Poetry Off The Page series. On April 7, the series featured Walidah Imarisha, a young black activist, organizer and performance poet whose family military history helped shape her political views. In 2001, she co-edited a book on responses to the Sept. 11 attacks, titled “Another World Is Possible.”
Letson’s credentials are also impressive. They include a victory in the 2000 Atlanta Grand Slam, third place in the 2000 National Poetry Slam and participation in Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam.”
Letson’s poem “Philadelphia” was made into a short film called “Stoplights,” which was an official selection of the 2001 Urban World Film Festival.
His one-man, eight-character performance piece, “Essential Personnel,” has been performed across the nation, notably in the third NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival. He also teaches writing and performance poetry to grade school and college students. His Web site gave me a chance to shirk my duties as a critic by posting this statement:
“For those of you new to my work, this is what I believe: The art that chooses me as a conduit is not for my own glorification. I’m no saint, just like the next man, it makes me feel good when someone enjoys my work, but ultimately, it’s about you, the reader, the listener, you are the one that this work has manifested itself for. Everyday, we are surrounded by these forces of darkness that would attempt to steal away bits and pieces of our soul. What I feel my mission as an artist is to constantly remind us all that regardless of race, religion or sexual preference, we all have that common humanity that binds us.”
His attempt to praise feminine qualities in the face of a patriarchal society is in danger of becoming a parody of itself or, worse, an after-school special. His proud declaration of gender sensitivity relies on the strength of his voice and the depth of his material for its conviction and authenticity.
Indiscriminate fans of Hollywood blockbusters and three-minute chart toppers may find this voice to be irrelevant and effeminate, while socially conscious bookworms and granola-eating activists may be more convinced by his plea for compassion.