Slingshots (A Hip-Hop Poetica)

Kevin Coval

(EM Press)

Is each of us alone with the words or are we together around a common stage when we encounter a poem? The question has been beaten half to death in contemporary poetry, but it rises and staggers back into the ring when a spoken-word artist like Kevin Coval comes out with a book. Coval’s a regular on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry; he’s also the artistic director of Young Chicago Authors and cofounder of YCA’s Louder Than a Bomb teen slam competition. His writing has appeared in any number of publications, but there’s no doubt which side of the divide he hails from. “I write to plan what I’m going to say,” poet and rapper Saul Williams once said, as though the creative act wasn’t complete until the reading. With tons of time spent performing in classrooms, galleries, and clubs, Coval would appear to agree.

His new book, Slingshots (A Hip-Hop Poetica), is an ambitious thing, at once memoir, search for identity, and bitch fest about the society that makes that search both imperative and damn near impossible. The speaker of these poems is, like Coval, a Jewish kid from the Chicago suburbs. More suburban than Jewish, he wandered that desert alone until, in the 1980s, he discovered KRS-One and Jam Master Jay and, he writes, putting a Jewish spin on Afrika Bambaataa, “breakbeats let my g-dSelf loose.” It was his discovery of hip-hop, with its incessant rhythms and its insistence that one represent–be true to oneself and let others know who you are–that led him back to a Judaism he could fully embrace. One night after watching prayers in a synagogue, he writes, “for the first time I davened / with the energy and ecstasy of a b-boy in battle.”

No longer alone, Coval found himself a member of a tribe united by the values of “peace, love, unity, and having fun,” as Bambaataa put it. As with any tribe there are common enemies: gentrification, political machines, uncaring schools, big business, the cops. But through language the tribe can hold itself together and prevail: “uplift n unite like we wuz cousins / speak with common tongue and purpose,” Coval says in “plea for the wack emcee.”

Coval’s common tongue is the language of hip-hop–stuttering staccato lines breaking against what follows, internal rhymes tripping through the verse like falling dominoes, diction and syntax slurring person and tense. And the puns. My god, the puns. It all adds up to a verse that demands to be chanted, but in print just stares up accusingly from the page. The distorted spelling and grammar that mark Slingshots comes across like a sort of wigger ebonics, surely not the impression Coval’s going for, while the broad political poems, of which there are many, seem to exist in a limbo of insecurity and arrogance. Thus, he calls out the other kids at Hebrew school: “and all these sons of lawyers driving around in holocaust death camp machines all classist / thinkin they slick cuz they could afford the new jordans / while I gotta work at a hot dog stand to save up for the payless generic brand.” I might think he was making a joke or trying to illustrate the acquisitive middle-American adolescent mind-set, if Air Jordans didn’t turn up again in “what moms had to do for a michael jordan autographed shoe.” Damn those Air Jordans, the root of all evil.

Rhetoric like this, not much more than righteous anger and self-satisfaction, can’t be expected to sway anyone to its cause. Rather, as the CD of live performances that comes with the book makes clear, it’s public speech, meant to rally the faithful. On the CD, a low-key beat in the background establishes a sinister atmosphere for Coval’s reading of “elegy for Lit X”–a paean to the long-lost Wicker Park venue–and a crowd at HotHouse cheers him on through “pieces of shalom,” the book’s first poem, which sets forth his theme of suburban death and urban resurrection. The crowd grows more animated as he recites in first-person plural how rough things were growing up. Lines like “walt disney / hard-core gangster corporate reality raps” get appreciative hoots, and when he says “and I don’t know / Hebrew / but did learn / hip-hop,” hoots of “hip-hop!” punctuate the air. This is communion for the crowd; it’s as if Coval is narrating their life. But the poems resist the solitary contemplation that the printed page invites.

Where Slingshots does work is when Coval speaks for himself and not the tribe, in quiet poems like one about his barber (“RAZOR RAMON’S”) and “return train from Indiana,” a half wistful look at the poet he’s not, knowing he’ll never “invent forms / get an mfa, read Lowell, chuckle with Billy Collins over parsnips.”

I don’t know why he thinks he can’t do dinner with the vastly amusing Collins. Maybe it’s the parsnips. Or maybe this “baggy pants Carl Sandburg” (as he calls himself in “heB-boy poetica: travel/in man”) feels they come from camps too different to break bread together, and maybe that’s so. But if there’s little peace, love, or unity between the two, that leaves having fun. So choose your pleasure–hit the open mike or curl up with a good book. Either way you’ll be OK, as long as you don’t stay home with Slingshots.

Kevin Coval and Jeff Chang

When: Tue 2/28, 7:30 PM

Where: 826CHI, 1331 N. Milwaukee

Info: 773-772-8108