Photo by Alex Brook Lynn
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz: I work in poetry and nonfiction and poetry is sort of the way that I participate in my community of artists. I'm from a poetry slam background and the poetry slam community is all about giving a soapbox to people who perhaps otherwise would not think that they have a role in poetry. So I began working with that community when I was 19. I was at NYU and I started the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam when I was still underage and we later moved to CBGBs and later moved to the Bowery Poetry Club where we're still held every single week and you can watch it live on the web at bowerypoetrylive.com Tuesday nights at seven. And it's just a way for me to engage with the local community. So rarely do you have a chance to have someone get up and tell their story from their own mouth from any corner of the city, any age. We've had 12-year-olds, we've had 90-year-olds, and I really find that to be hugely heartening and compelling and I get to witness things I would otherwise never see.
Jo Reed: That was poet and 2011 NEA Poetry Fellow, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz is something of a legend in NYC's slam poetry scene, she is lively, thoughtful, and approachable looking to engage the audience with her work and deeply committed to the community that art in general and slam poetry in particular can create.
She performs both nationally and internationally, at venues ranging from Joe's Pub (at NYC's Public Theatre), to the Culver Academy in Indiana to the Sydney Opera House, where she served as the overseas mentor for Mouth Off!, a youth poetry show. She is the author of five books of poetry and of the nonfiction book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, Aptowicz is currently serving as the ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
I spoke with Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz at the Association of Writers and Writing programs conference in Washington DC. And I asked her to tell me more about performance poetry
Cristin O"Keefe Aptowicz: Performance poetry as we like to say, it was oral poetry before it was print poetry. All of the early poets, Homer, they all performed it live and to me I think that there is an accessibility there and the invitation there for voices that traditionally wouldn't feel comfortable with print poetry, and to some extent that is also their comfortability with the written word. One of the most moving things that I've heard about performance poetry was an interview I did for my book, Words in Your Face, I interviewed the woman who runs Urban Word and Urban Word reaches out to inner city teenagers and has them write their own work and perform their own work, and I said to her, "Are you expecting these students to then follow this path and become writers?" And she said, "That's not really the goal of our project. The goal of our project is to empower these kids to know that they have a voice, to know that they can share a story." If you're doing a poetry course in a traditional high school, you might ask them to write the poem, right, and you get it back and the teacher has to, to a certain extent, correct all the grammar, correct all the spelling, and sort of misses the point of what the kid is trying to share. So this kid gets back this page that's got red all over it saying all the things he did wrong and it sends a message that is not encouraging. When you take that away and you just say, "Tell your story in your own words" and you get to be in front of an audience and share it exactly as you want to say it, spelling doesn't matter, grammar doesn't matter because again you're talking about regionalism. And she says the impact of Urban Word and Urban Word projects such as Youth Speaks Louder Than a Bomb in Chicago is not so much that we're creating a generation of poets but that we're creating a generation of kids who have come from disadvantaged neighborhoods who know they can stand in front of a room and tell strangers their story and what they think, what they believe in and the things, the changes they want to have happen. And she's like "That's going to have a tremendous impact for entire communities" and to me that is what draws me to performance poetry is people telling their own stories, sharing it to their community and then sometimes sharing it to communities that otherwise would never have heard them. And I find that extraordinarily compelling, and it's such a live medium that it's hard sometimes if you're not familiar with these communities to have access to them. They tend not to publish in literary journals. The books frequently are handmade though publishers like Write Bloody Publishing, Penmanship Books and Cypher Books are reaching out to these communities to publish some of their better known poets, but it's an accessibility issue for the other side. So my, one of my big passions as a poet is to bridge those worlds, to both showcase great traditional poets in to these communities so that they're familiar with some of our great poets and then also showcase the work being done in these communities which can be so eye opening to sort of the traditional and academic poetry worlds. And so I'm thrilled to have the NEA be a little guardian angel to help me do that at a larger level than I ever thought I could be able to do.
Jo Reed: You talk about wanting to examine the way performance poetry shifts from region to region, what's authentic and organic I guessâ¦
Cristin O"Keefe Aptowicz: Yes.
Jo Reed: â¦in each particular region and you've been in New York for a while.
Jo Reed: So describe what the New York experience is like in performance poetry.
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz: Yeah. We're very churchy as I like to say. There's a lot of "uh huhs" and "say words" and you are very vocal to the performer on stage. There's a huge diversity in terms of who is comfortable performing. I'm in the poetry slam community and the poetry slam frequently venues do slams all year to form teams of poets who then compete at a national poetry slam and if anyone's interested in more of this they can go to poetryslam.com, but the first team I was on was an Asian American- Chinese American kid from Oklahoma who was 21, Beau Sia, a South African man in his 60s, and another NYU coed poet named Amanda Nazario. And so to work together we created group work and multi-voice work and then you come down and you meet all of these little pods of poets that represent their communities, is just amazing. And so there's a lot of feeling of representation for New York. You want to represent New York really well. The last team I was on was actually this past year, 2010, and the team that I was on was an African-American guy in his mid 20s who's considered a BLERD as they call it, a black nerd. And so he had very nerdy poetry. I had an NYU professor, Brian Dillon, who sometimes goes by the stage name Omni, and I have a wonderful poet named Elliot D. Smith who actually is transgendered and transitioned on the stage, not literally on one stage but when we first were introduced to Elliott he was a woman and over the course of the last few years came to the realization that he was transgendered, transitioned on stage and wrote poetry about every step of that process. And to witness that firsthand was such a gift and then to be able to take that poet and bring them to a national stage and say, "Share your story with a community that you don't know" was to watch a person be that brave was incredible, and perhaps this talks about the progressiveness of the poetry slam community but Elliott was not the only transgendered poet who performed at that national poetry slam. So there was numerous transgendered poets who feel that they have a home in this community, and that to me makes me feel really proud and that they get to go to different cities every year and explain, "Hey, Palm Beach, Florida, hey, Minneapolis," next year is going to be in Boston "here's who we are and this is the story that we're going to show" with a community that's behind them. So I'm really proud of New York but I'm also proud of the national community.
Jo Reed: This is putting you on the spot but can you give us a poem?
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz: Yes. Yes. I'll try to do it from memory so let's see. This poem was written, inspired by actually a Best American Poetry blog entry that spoke about there has been a recent rash of suicides in our community- in the writing community- the larger writing community, and this poet named I think Jennifer Hecht spoke about how the number one predictor of suicide is knowing someone who's committed suicide. So she was making this plea to the writing community saying, "We need to not commit suicide. I know you're feeling bad but this is becoming a trigger effect" so inspired by that and we'll see if I can remember it. It was this poem called "Op Ed for the Sad Sack Review Regarding News of Another Rash of Writer Suicides."
"In a fit of gloom I Googled the word 'failure' just to see if my name would come up in the results. Instead Google let me know that I had misspelled the word 'failure,' that I had failed to spell it correctly. Recounting this story makes me feel like I'm beginning a very weepy poem or a very boring suicide note. You should never begin your wedding toast with the dictionary definition of marriage and you should never begin your suicide note by saying you Googled failure. If I'm being honest here, the number one thing preventing me from killing myself these days is likely the idea of people finding out about it via Facebook status update. There is no dignity in that eulogy consisting mostly of sad-faced emoticons studded with apostrophe tears. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to keep living but it is a reason and I'm sure you other sad sacks have your reasons too. So let's all cling to them. Let's agree that it is better to live for a stupid reason than to kill yourself for one. Let's feed our tears to the dragons of misery but let's never crawl in their mouths. Let's write terrible poetry, dress like late era Rothkos. Let's wear out the relentless hate machines of our brains but let's never break. Let's just keep living. We can do this. Trust me.
me, a poet who doesn't even know how to spell the word 'failure.'"
Jo Reed: Bravo. So now I want to go through how you put it together. Now because it's performance poetry do you find that it actually evolves on the stage as you're performing? Clearly, you go. It's something written or something that you've wrestled with but I would imagine, and I could be wrong, that there's a certain amount of spontaneity that comes in to a piece as well. Is that true?
Cristin O"Keefe Aptowicz: Absolutely. I know that performance poets in general tend to have different ways of approaching it. Sometimes performance poets have a gesture that they want to do on stage or they realize they can do something cool within the context of a room and they use that in the creation of their piece. I'm sort of from a more traditional background. I have five books of poetry out, I like publishing literary journals, so in the last few years because I run a performance venue, NYC-Urbana at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I'm on stage- have an opportunity to be on stage every week I try to do this challenge to myself which actually proved very helpful, which is every poem I had to perform on stage had to be a new piece so constant debuts. And then I would either have to have submitted it to a literary journal already or submitted it within a week, and the reason I have to submit it within a week is because you can learn so much by performing in front of a live audience. Frequently, if you're comfortable on stage and you realize something isn't hitting right you can couch it in some different language or soften blows or sharpen blows. And when you perform it in front of an audience and you let that organic experience happen you can go back very quickly and write the notes of what changed, change the poem in that way and submit that, but more frequently I've discovered that I've written a poem that, and submitted it to a literary journal and felt like oh, that's the- that is beautiful and obscure and I'm leaving it sort of open ended. And then when I'm about to perform it and I'm rereading it I realized that I had actually copped out, that I had totally chickened out of writing a real ending, that I had missed the core of what that poem was trying to say because I was allowing it to be this beautiful, transparent thing when it wanted to be much more brutal. And there's many stanzas- final stanzas of poems that were written at the venue that I perform at minutes before I got on stage, and when I perform it and I hit that final stanza you could feel it all click in to place so much better. And that's the final version of the poem that ends up going to print. I usually get rejections for the thing and then I submit it with the new stanza that I would never have written if I didn't know I was performing it in front of an audience and then it gets picked up. So both tools for me I think are really important, both submitting it to literary journals and having that critical eye of knowing that someone's going to be reading it on a page without my voice helping them along and then also knowing that I'm going to be held accountable for my work. So if I read a poem and I look down and the audience goes "What was that?" you know that so much better when it's a room full of New Yorkers, believe me, so the balance between the two I think has really helped forge my writing in a way that I'm really grateful to have both of those communities.
Jo Reed: Okay, but in final analysis are you writing for the ear or are you writing for the page?
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz: I am writing for the page. I will say that. I am aware of the stage and I like performing but there are people who they're- they love being on stage. They love it and they- you- they just are tearing like terriers to try to get on that microphone and I am not that. I'm someone who I know can do it and I know that traditionally women are much more shy about being aggressive in the arts. I see more women who in their bios write that they dabble in poetry. You never hear a man say that, right? And so I know that it's important for me if I have the skill set to do it to do it and to make that space more comfortable and accessible for other women who might want to do it but feel reticent. So my performance is somethingâ¦I love being a part of the community but I don't have that performance hunger but I- I'm a book reader and I love books so I definitely feel like if my legacy is going to be viewed from the future I want it to be my books and not necessarily You Tube videos. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You know we don't normally think of slam poetry and the NEA in the same breath. And the NEA has only funded a handful of slam poets. Tell me your thinking in applying for the NEA fellowship.
Cristin O"Keefe Aptowicz: As per applying, I did not think that I was- had a chance at all but our community tends to not feel like other people will understand us and I'm always telling people- poets from my community, "Go out there. Apply. Submit. Take a chance. It's not your job to reject you. It's your job to put yourself out there." So as the deadline loomed, I felt like I would be a huge hypocrite if I didn't at least try, and I remember one of my favorite poets, Denise Duhamel, applied 13 times before she won her NEA. So in my head I thought okay, I'm going to apply for my one and get started on my 13 and it's like a little punch card and maybe by the time I get 13 I'll feel a little stronger about my chances so actually winning wasâ¦ I don't think I will ever be as surprised in my life and I was one of the people who when they received the phone call avoided it thinking it might be a creditor or aggressive telemarketer because they weren't leaving messages and they kept calling. So I- when I picked up the phone I was actually on the street expecting to be like "All right. Who is this?" and it was the NEA so hugely surprising. <laughs>
Jo Reed: What does the fellowship enable you to do?
Cristin O"Keefe Aptowicz: This year is the first year I've ever left traditional office life. I paid my way through college with office jobs and I was eight years at the office job that I was left prior to this writer in residency, and my vision for my residency year was take the year and then go right back in to the office because I'm from a working class background. Making a living purely through the arts is not something that anyone does so having this launch pad of this year residency and now getting this fellowship is allowing me to really explore options that I didn't think were possible for me, touring more extensively, being able to do art colonies, and being able to continue the residency year past my residency year and to really focus on my writing and the work that I want to do. The two main things I want to do are finish the project I'm working on right now, which is a nonfiction book about Thomas Dent Mutter, the founder of the Mutter Museum which in Philadelphia people know is a cult destination. It's a museum of mid nineteenth-century medical oddities so you can imagine the surprise on the faces of my office mates back at my old job when then they said, "You're leaving us to go where? Where now?" So I want to finish that for the first year and thankfully the NEA allows you to split it over two years and the second year I want to tour around and record regionalism in poetry- performance poetry. There is an energy and a rhythm that happens in certain cities so a performance spot in Boston is going to have a vastly different feel and experience than one in Austin, Texas, which is going to be different than one from Fargo, which is different from one in San Francisco. And I think in performance poetry and slam poetry there's a bid for legitimacy. We want to be considered as relevant as traditional print poetry and in doing that we are less likely when a dialog about discrepancies. We want to have our best known poets represent us and I think it's time for us to also explore regionalism and our lesser known voices and what what feeds us as performers in this community as being able to explore another city through their poetry. And I want to be able to share that with a larger audience so year two that is hopefully what I'll be able to do is hit the road with a recorder and go around and showcase and produce content that showcases all these wonderful regional voices that don't normally get aired to the larger public.
Jo Reed: Finally what goes in to creating a life that supports writing?
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz: I think that you need to erase judgment about what you should be doing or need to be doing or how people need to be reacting to your work or acclaim that you should be getting, especially with women. I have a real soft spot for women 'cause I feel like they can feel like they've gotten too far away. I've met many women who they leave let's say an MFA program and they start working in a certain industry and then they have a few children and then they feel like they've gotten too far away from writing to ever come back, and writing is always there for you. You need to embolden yourself to keep writing and there's many examples surprisingly with women of people who created and didn't think that anyone would ever notice them. You have Emily Dickinson obviously who had this chest of poetry. You have Frida Kahlo who worked in her husband's shadow and never thought that she would be seen as an equal and now I feel like more people are familiar with Frida's work than Diego Rivera's work. And most recently photography you have a photographer named Vivian Maier. I'm not sure if you've heard of her but someone bought a box of her photographs in an auction and now she's become this phenomenon in the photography world of being a street photographer that no one ever knew of. So you need to constantly create and describe the world that you're living in, to describe what you're doing, be a advocate for your community, and put yourself out there. Take the chances but don't ever stop creating or feel like creating is not something that you have access to, and then just get bolder and bolder and bolder but always create, always, always create.
Jo Reed: That was poet and the recipient of 2011 NEA Poetry Fellowship, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "City Life Remix" by DJ Spooky, from his album The Secret Song, used courtesy of Music and Art Management, Inc.
"City Life Remix," from the album Universal Sound / Subliminal Minded, remixed by DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid from the Steve Reich original, used courtesy of Nonesuch Records . Used by permission of Boosey and Hawkes.
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To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Poet Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz talks about slam poetry and community. [22:05]