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Friday October 27, 2000

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Poetic renaissance

By Phil Leckman

De UA Poetry Center sponsors hip-hop slam

spite its academic prestige, literary poetry has long been saddled with an image problem - it is seen as staid and stuffy, the province of turtlenecked intellectuals or old men writing rhymes about snow.

But this may be changing. Modern poetry is currently in the grips of a renaissance sparked by hip-hop and slam poetry - work meant to be performed aloud.

Tucson audiences can get a taste of this new vitality tonight at the Rialto Theatre as the UA Poetry Center presents Mondo Hip-hop, a multimedia celebration of contemporary poetry. Although it is billed as part of the Poetry Center's Visiting Poets and Writers Reading Series, the event is more than just a poetry reading.

In addition to readings by nationally-established spoken-word artists Tracie Morris and DJ Renegade, Mondo Hip-hop will feature performances by local poets Heidi Haro and University of Arizona fine arts sophomore Anton Smith (see sidebar), as well as local DJs, breakdancers and African drummers.

Mondo Hip-hop is a very different type of event for the Poetry Center, said UA Poetry Center director Jim Paul. He said he hopes to reach an audience that might not usually attend a poetry reading.

"One of my important goals is to try to make the Poetry Center as broad a thing as possible," Paul said.

He added that he hopes he can make audiences appreciate the many common threads joining hip-hop and literary poetry.

"This series is called 'Poetry in the Larger World,' and you cannot do poetry in the larger world without stressing the hip-hop movement," he said.

In fact, Paul said, once hip-hop and slam poetry - or poetry meant to be spoken and performed - are taken into consideration, American poetry may be healthier than it has been in decades.

"Poetry is more popular than it has ever been - both in its traditional forms and in this new performance aspect that comes out of the hip-hop and slam movements," he said.

Headliner DJ Renegade, a Washington, D.C., artist whose real name is Joel Dias-Porter, is one example of Paul's portrait of the modern poet - existing within new movements but also deeply rooted in poetry's greater tradition.

Porter said he has been influenced by both the hip-hop and slam worlds but sees himself as a literary poet as well.

"I'm a performance poet - some of my early work is influenced by hip-hop, but I don't see myself as primarily a hip-hop artist," he said. "There's not any difference for me between hip-hop or slam and literary poetry. I write poems to be heard, but also to be seen on the page. I don't differentiate. I don't draw any distinctions."

Dias-Porter said he hopes audiences can overcome these labels as well. He said he believes good poetry can appeal to hip-hop fans and fans of traditional poetry alike.

"There's lots of literary poetry that would speak to (hip-hop fans), and some hip-hop lyrics hold up to literary scrutiny as well," he said.

"I hope people come to the show and pay attention. As long as they like words and language, they'll find a lot to dig."