Slam poets Ken Arkind and Panama Soweto come together to form poetry’s Dynamic Duo. The two recently kicked off a tour starting at Coe College and brought a great crowd of slam poetry lovers to watch them as they performed. I got a chance to sit down with them and talk about poetry, comic books, and MTV.
Coe Review: Why slam poetry/spoken word?
Ken: “Why” is always interesting. You can answer why you keep doing it, but why you get into it, specifically – it’s like most art forms and mediums, it finds you during a time that you need it. If you keep doing it, that “why” changes with every person. I know for us to keep touring, it’s because it’s fun. We get to meet people and do all sorts of awesome stuff. From my standpoint, it’s an arts education tool at this point. I really like young people and really like helping them out with slam. It’s a great way to find a voice for the first time. I just coached an adult team, and that was kind of fun, too, but it’s the big show, you know? It’s exciting.
Panama: I think slam is the jazz of our generation. It’s a revolutionary type of art form that people get to voice their true selves with, and we just don’t have that anymore. There isn’t that passion that there was back in the 20’s and the 30’s for that art form, and the passion for popular music – like rock and roll and hip hop – is all over-popularized right now. As far as a true, gritty art form that allows people to speak their voice in the truest way, I think slam and performance poetry does that close to other mediums right now.
CR: What would you say are the pros and cons of making a life out of words?
Ken: I think there’s a million different ways to make a life out of words, and I think it’s different for each individual. Like, publishing is a very different world than what we do. For us, the views are incredible, but getting there sometimes is a pain in the butt. Personalities can be a pain in the butt when you’re working with people, but that’s going to be true in any situation. I think that’s increasingly true when you have an artistic vision involved. But we worked hard to make a living off of what we love, so why should we try to belittle that or be upset about that? Even if there is an issue, you have to be grateful. We wouldn’t be hanging out in a coffee shop doing an interview with you if either of us were working desk jobs. There are sides of a desk job that are sometimes appealing, like the quiet, but the loud is fun, too.
CR: How does your writing process work, both together and separately?
Panama: Individually, my writing process is absolutely neurotic. I’ll find ideas and lines that stick out to me about certain topics. Then I’ll write sticky notes to myself and then I’ll lose those sticky notes, and maybe I’ll find those sticky notes later and I’ll build from there. I do admire the editing process a lot. I usually start off with as much as possible and kind of whittle my way back. When we work together, we just have fun. We talk shit about stuff, put it down on paper, and figure out how to make it work in front of people and that’s it.
Ken: I never know how to answer that question because it’s different every time. But I write every day, that’s the big thing. It’s important to know that you’re doing something, even if that writing isn’t necessarily “creative.” Even if I’m designing curriculum, at least I’m doing something that’s involved in the art form and I’m putting words on paper in some way, shape, or form. But the joint process is pretty much what Panama said – we just talk a lot of shit. And one of my big motivators is deadlines. I run a magazine in Denver and I’ll collect submissions from other people, get those to the head editor, and start designing my sections, but when it comes to my own work, I always panic at the last minute. I found out for this last issue that our editor-in-chief always tells me a week early what my deadline is. But then I’ll produce some of my favorite stuff I’ll ever written. It’s like, “Oh! It’s coming!”
Panama: My favorite artist of all time, Todd McFarlane – he’s a comic book guy, he developed McFarlane toys, and he was responsible for The Amazing Spiderman when the Venom series was released – he gave a really cool workshop for writers last year, and he got criticized and people said he wasn’t actually a writer. People said his stuff was sub-par and that the story for Spawn wasn’t good enough and that he had his own Spiderman title and it wasn’t good enough. He was constantly battling against industry guys with his work, but he said one thing that I thought was really incredible: Regardless of what kind of art you do, make your deadlines. Always make your deadlines. Doesn’t matter if you’re the best or the worst, if you make your deadlines, you’ll always have work. That’s how he got so much work coming into the game, he always made his deadlines.
CR: Speaking of comics, and your opening poem, “Press Continue,” how much of an influence is nerd culture on both personally and in your work?
Panama: There’s one line in “Family Values” that really rings true every time we say it together, and it really hits me, it’s “We were co-raised by television, comics, and movies.” As far as how we were both raised, pop culture has been this vehicle that’s allowed us to express ourselves through the stories of others. We’ve been able to find ourselves in the pages of Tolkien, or Stan Lee, or Jack Kirby. I mean, Spiderman was my guy – here’s a smart, nerdy kid whose family isn’t really the way that he wants it, but he’s still able to make it. And having cool superpowers is awesome, too. But those stories resonated with me, and we could both find ourselves in those pages.
Ken: It’s finding a space to belong in. If you don’t find that in real life, you find that with a superhero team that wants you to join it. Especially if you’re lonely or a latchkey kid. I’m just going to go on record and say I don’t think Tolkien is nerd culture, though. It’s the third highest selling book in human history. There’s 500 million copies in print, that’s insane! Harry Potter might catch up to it one day, but at that point it’s stops being nerd culture and just becomes culture. There’s a sensibility in all that stuff, though, and it’s a viable space to find yourself in. I think that those kinds of nerdy things are going to be recognized more as real art in the future. A hundred years from now, people are going to study comics because that’s our modern mythology. People are already doing it, but I think that’s really important to look at.
CR: What do you think of differences between poetry spoken out loud and poetry printed on a page?
Panama: Oh, you want to start that war? I think there are some viable differences, and there have been some pretty heated debates between the academic world and the performance world as far as poetry is concerned. I think they’re two different, very distinct art forms. I think what a good performance poet does is focus on both accessible writing and stage presence, and what I think the academic poet does is focus on being clever and things like figurative language and the writing process. I think that’s cool, but I don’t think that they both do the same thing. I like both for different reasons. While I like watching a video by Andrea Gibson on YouTube, I still like picking Whitman, or Maya Angelou, or Zora Neal Hurston or whoever I’m into at the time. They’re two different art forms and people who focus on whatever one’s better isn’t looking at it with a wide enough view.
Ken: At least from the artist’s standpoint, I think the lines are extremely blurred. The poets that are popular and that are winning the grants, they’re all young. These are all cats that were raised on slam. If the academy wants to be upset about that, or if slam poets want to take a stance that’s anti-establishment, it’s not going to work. At this point, it’s just poetry. Being able to read well is starting to become a requirement. Look at Danez Smith, or Aaron Samuels, or Franny Choi. These are all cats that have done slam pretty excessively growing up, whether it’s in Brave New Voices or other things, and now they’re winning things like arts grants in Minnesota or getting books published by YesYes Books or University of Austin Press. Honestly, the lines are more blurred than either side wants to admit and that’s what the future is. I think the biggest thing to remember about slam is that slam’s original intent was not to be an art form. It was just a medium and a venue and a machine to get people interested in poetry, and it worked extremely well. Of course, people want to explore that into its deepest depths and the place you do that is the academy. That’s where you stretch yourself. That’s kind of where the negatives can come up, too – where technique can be more important than the intent, but that’s just exploring the art form. When you start putting definitions on things, that takes the fun out of it for everybody. Just write it, scream it, package it up, pee on it if you want, read it out loud, sample it, loop it, fuck it, spit it out loud. Do it.
Panama: Bop it.
Ken: Bop it. Do it all. You can go back and forth on that for hours.
Panama: I think a lot of the opposition to the idea of academic vs. performance poetry comes from the academic side, and I think that comes from the availability and the visibility of performance poetry. It’s very trendy on YouTube, it’s million-plus view stuff. If you’re writing your heart out and you don’t get a million reads, then it’s probably a little upsetting. A lot of that comes that from that attitude of, “Oh, they didn’t put the work in, YouTube made them popular,” or something like that. It’s petty in some ways. And you can spread that media so quickly to millions of people in a heartbeat, and I think that is a disservice to academia because it would be nice if books could go out that quickly and millions of people could read them. It’s unfortunate that that kind of media isn’t available.
Ken: That media is helping them sell books. It’s making them more popular. But there’s something that’s happening, the “MTV-ization” of poetry.
Panama: The “HBO-ism” of poetry.
Ken: It’s different with HBO, because HBO had to be curated by somebody. But YouTube is in a position where they have these young kids that get three or four million views and they’re suddenly the superstars of poetry, when in all honesty – I’m not going to say their work is derivative. Some of them are. There’s a young woman in Britain who got in trouble from directly stealing from American poets. She won this big scholarship and it got taken away. But it’s also weird to be an older cat in this game and to be working your ass off for years and suddenly see someone who can become the most famous poet because they happen to be cute and on YouTube and they say something with some verve. And that’s great, and I’m happy for them, and being involved with youth programs, that’s what I want to see happen. But they shouldn’t be steering the art form. But that’s what America does – America treasures the young. They treasure youth. They treasure that vibrancy. The greatest thing about being a poet is that your work gets better as you get older. I’m under the belief that I’m not going to write a decent poem until I’m 60. It just gets better. But we just want to MTV everything. Look at MTV when it first starts up: You’ve got Genesis, Deo – all these weird looking dudes, not particularly attractive people. But they were great musicians, right? You heard them on the radio and you were like, “That’s awesome!” But then over time, when we started having the visual cue involved as well, it kept getting younger and younger and younger, and now there’s nobody on MTV over the age of 22 with the exception of Beyonce.
Panama: And then there’s U2.
Ken: Everybody fuckin’ hates U2! Look at the iPhones and shit! But actually, some of that album’s pretty good! I felt a little violated, I’m not gonna lie.
CR: Anything else you’d like to say?
Ken: No, I’m good.
Panama: Anything? Yes. And I’ll leave it at yes for you to figure out.
Check out Dynamic Duo on Twitter (@DynamicDuoPoetr) or find some of their slam poetry on YouTube.
By Kirsten Nelson