Sunday, December 04, 2005

Interview with Poet Michael Brown: The man is about much more than the Cantab Lounge Poetry Slam.

With Doug Holder

Michael Brown is well known as the doyen of the poetry slam, but Brown is much more than a poetry slam master. Brown is a professor of Communication at Mt. Ida College in Newton, Mass, and he holds a PhD in English from the University of Michigan where he studied with the acclaimed Afro-American poet Robert Hayden. He has several poetry collections under his literary belt, including : “Falling Wallendas,’ and “The Man Who Makes Amusement Rides.” Brown also co- founded and hosted the “Boston Poetry Slam” at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Mass., has read his poetry internationally, and has produced a number of theatrical - poetical presentations including: ‘Poetry- Off-Broadway.” He has won several “Cambridge Poetry Awards,” and has been a mentor to scores of emerging poets. I talked with Brown on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: You did your dissertation on Afro-American poets during the Harlem Renaissance. What was your interest with this period, and how is it reflected in your work?

Michael Brown: My interest didn’t start in the “period.” My interest started with Afro-American poets broadly. This was after I taught in an all- Black inner city school in Philadelphia. I owe a little bit back to the students who helped me learn. Later I went to graduate school and wrote a dissertation. I had a dual major for my PhD; English and Education. So I wrote a dissertation of Afro-American poets for teachers. The idea was to make a history of Afro-American poetry for teachers. It would make this information available to them in a way that it wasn’t. Other than Langston Hughes, many teachers had no knowledge of Harlem Renaissance poets.

Doug Holder: You were a founding member of the “Cambridge Poetry Awards,” a ceremony and festival that seems to have gone in hibernation temporarily. Can you talk about your involvement?

Michael Brown: Like with many things I got involved in poet Richard Cambridge was responsible. He’s great for knowing so many people. So Richard, Jeff Robinson, Cathy Salmons, and I formed the poet committee. James Smith of the “Cambridge Center of Adult Education,”
wanted to put up events that would raise the visibility of the Cambridge Center. The poetry awards and festival would be one of these events. We put together what I thought was a damn fine festival. We had nationally known Afro-American performance poets, and a bunch of other poets like: Ed Sanders, and Diana De-Prima. The award ceremony was hosted by Jimmy Tingle. We had a panel on community poetry with “Stone Soup Poetry” founder Jack Powers, and others. After the big “flash,” of the first festival, I got out of it. I got out because I felt there wasn’t a dedication to the program, not the award, but the program. The poets I brought in went to the workshops and panels, and participated somewhat. The poets that the committee brought in did their own thing. After that they went their own way and hung out with their friends in Cambridge. They did not enrich the festival. This seemed to be fine with everyone else. I didn’t like that. So I said to myself that I wasn’t going to do this any longer under these circumstances.

Doug Holder: You and Patricia Smith founded the poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. What is your definition of “Slam” poetry, a sub-genre in the larger “Spoken Word” scene?

Michael Brown: Slam poetry most narrowly defined is a contest where poets are judged by people selected by the audience. It is fundamentally a competition. It’s performance and poetry. Both should be equally represented. You hope with a national slam you get the best poets and the best performances.

At the Cantab we stress the poetry side. Slam is a gimmick to get people out there to hear poetry. If that gimmick falls out of style tomorrow we will still be doing poetry.

I got tired of the competition after 12 years. So I handed it over to other folks. I was never that competitive to begin with. I didn’t join in right away when the Slam started in Chicago. I am now concentrating on Poetry/Theatre because that is more collaborative rather than competitive.

Doug Holder: What do you say to critics who say Slam poetry doesn’t translate well to the page?

Michael Brown: Page poetry sometimes doesn’t translate to the voice sometimes. It works both ways. So what.

Doug Holder: You have been a teacher for 43 years. Is poetry and teaching a good fit?

Michael Brown: It’s the other way around. My teaching is me. I am so glad that I found teaching when I was young. It did great things for me. If I had to give up one thing I would give up being a poet. There are a number of things about teaching that are good for my soul. I’ve been very, very successful at it. Teaching helps my poetry in the sense I work with words and language. It helps me see more things in my own writing.

Doug Holder: Any poets in the area that excite you?

Michael Brown: Derek Walcott. In my opinion he is the greatest poet writing in English. I also like Afaa Michael Weaver, who is a great craftsman.

Doug Holder: In your collection: “The Man who Makes Amusement Rides,” you write in the poem: “In The Bag,” “Like so many of my generation/ surprised by life past fifty/ I want/whatever is left laid out/where I can see it.” How have you changed from your younger years/

Michael Brown: I don’t take chances quite the way I used to. I’ve had enough failed marriages. I have leaped first and looked later. I am much less likely to that now.

Doug Holder: You wrote a poem “Dorothy Parker,” which reads: “My lips curl at sweetness/ and seek the sour like wine. / If I could reach out, give in, I might be happy for awhile. But I am afraid of losing my edge / even if it cuts everyone I live.” Do you identify with Parker at all?

Michael Brown: There are some who say I have a caustic wit. But I would say that it is overrated. In the poem I was trying to understand what motivated Parker to be the way she was basically for her whole life: “Holding out against giving in.”

Doug Holder; Do you think you would be like a part of the Algonquin Table group of writers that Parker was a notable part of?

Michael Brown: As a young man I would have been great there. I’ve changed my life since then. I think that group of people produced an uncaring feel around that table.

I raged against the world as a young man. It was a big part of my life to be political in the 60’s. I raged against the beast… the machine. I was an “angry young man,” even when I didn’t have anything to be angry about. Now I am a sweet, mellow old man. (laughs.) I haven’t been angry with anyone… today…yet.

Doug Holder