Poetry for Southern California
Our Senior Editor G. Murray Thomas has put together the latest CD's in our craft for your ultimate listening pleasure (once you get the CD that is). We will provide listening selections when available. And from time to time Murray may review books, or broadsides or god knows what...
Video by Enduser
Featuring Rachel Kann
CDs by Rachel Kann
Enduser’s video of Rachel Kann’s poem “Familiar Taste of Blood” is a stunning visual delight. A montage of disconnected images—flowers, a parking garage, extreme close-ups of Kann’s face as she recites—pulsate to the beat of the poem. Distortions of the images, as they are run through a variety of filters, further disorient the viewer. But eventually the images start to make sense, or at least a pattern emerges—beauty vs. ugliness (flowers vs. the industrial ugliness of the parking garage)—which fits with the words “All I do is rise to fall.” The closing images of a skeletal hand (foot? fin?) superimposed over a lily push the tension farther; this is all about life vs. death.
Unluckily, the imagery is so powerful that the actual poem fades into the background. It is a real challenge to focus on the words when your eyes are constantly being jolted by the visions of this video. Even in repeated viewings, I found myself swept away by the visuals. But maybe that’s okay, the poem still seeps into your subconscious.
Luckily, Rachel Kann has plenty of recorded spoken word available, giving you plenty of opportunity to concentrate on and enjoy her words. Of the two CDs reviewed here, I believe .Rachel Kann. is the more official release, but I believe both of them are available through her website, inspirachel.com.
Kann is a poet who has truly developed her own voice. While you can trace influences in her poetry, she does not sound like anyone else. She has forged that voice by challenging herself, through the competition of slams and the cooperation of her Co-lab:Oration project (where poets are required to collaborate with musicians and/or other poets), through hours and hours of stage time in any venue she can find.
As befits a unique voice, Kann’s poetry is not easy to classify. It straddles the line between hip-hop and coffeehouse. From hip-hop she draws a sense of both wordplay and rhythm, an emphasis on how her poems sound. She works very well with the various musicians and producers on these CDs, fitting her words smoothly and tightly around the beats they provide (and vice-versa, the beats are also fitted around the words). At the same time, her own rhythms are organic, and tied to her own speech patterns. She never submits to the tyranny of the beat and the rhyme which often dominates hip-hop poetry.
From the coffeehouse and literary tradition, Kann takes a clear use of imagery, and, as I have said, a rhythm drawn from patterns of everyday speech. Again, she blends the two sources of style into her own voice.
Actually, the major weakness of Kann’s poetry is an occasional over-reliance on not just the patterns of everyday speech, but its diction as well. At times she veers into flat statement, as if she didn’t take the time to find just the right poetic words, as if what she was saying became more important than how she said it.
But what she says is obviously important to her. As she says in “Words Fail Me,” “This [writing] is how I breathe.” If I were to put a label on Kann’s poetry, it would be to call her a metaphysical poet (despite the possibility that makes her sound desperately old-fashioned). Kann’s primary concerns, as expressed in such pieces as “My Priority,“ “Maybe” and “I Know This”, are metaphysical. She works on such big questions as the meaning of life, and our place in the universe.
her love poems often turn philosophical (and she does write plenty of
love poems). Poems such as “12 Days” and “Your Drawing” explore the
dichotomy of attraction and repulsion, of love/hate. She lays full claim
to the tension of this conflict, and understands just how sexy that
tension can be. In “Fight Me” she writes:
I want to fuck you when you fight me
I kind of need the type that spites me
I want to feed the hand that bites me
The two CDs complement each other well. If there is a particular distinction between them, the untitled CD is a little more musical. This is a fine distinction, as both CDs, as I have stated, blend backing tracks very well with her poetry. But on .Rachel Kann. there is a slightly greater emphasis on the words, whereas on the untitled CD, the words and music approach parity. Maybe all I’m trying to say is that you can listen to the untitled CD almost as a piece of music, whereas on .Rachel Kann. you never forget you’re listening to poetry.
—G. Murray Thomas
I’m sorry, but when a CD kicks off with a cut titled “World’s Greatest Poem”, it throws up a huge red flag to me. It warns me that the CD is going to be filled with ego and/or a bunch of poems about writing. Probably both. And the combination of those two usually means I’m not going to hear much I haven’t heard before.
Kahn Davison’s version of the “World’s Greatest Poem” does have a good point, that said poem “is written in everything you do/ and everything you live.” Although it does seem as interested in name-checking Langston Hughes and slammers as in developing its point. More, it highlights the tension and dichotomy of this CD: living your life vs. writing about it.
About a third of Nothing But Kahn is about writing poetry or about jazz, another form of creativity. And listening to them, I find myself asking, do I really need to hear another poem about writing poetry? About how I am really a better poet than those poets who win slams? About how great John Coltrane was? And the answer is no, I don’t need to hear them again.
What I haven’t heard is your life (whoever you are). Davison is definitely best when he describes his actual life. Cuts like “Running” and “A Mother’s Love”, while still presenting well-trod morals, at least build those morals on concrete, original details.
Which brings me to what I consider the biggest flaw of this CD—Davison buries his best, most moving work as “hidden tracks” at the end of the CD. In these pieces, titled “The My Story Montage”, Davison presents a mini-autobiography, exploring the specific pains of his life and how that life has made him the man he is, and created the values he lives by. And further, how he attempts to pass his knowledge and values on to others. I have to wonder why he buried these poems like this. Were they too personal? Did he not have faith in them? Were they not the pieces which earned applause? Or was he consciously saving the best for last?
My advice to Kahn Davison is, trust your own advice. Tells us more about your own life. And put it right up front.
—G. Murray Thomas
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