Academia is not the street.
Forget whatever you learned in college about Tennyson or Longfellow. Modern urban poetry is fast, unfussy, forceful. You don’t give readings, you compete in “slams.” You don’t recite your verses, you “spit” them.
And if the audience sits there silently – then you know you’ve lost. If you’re really connecting, then they’re performing too – laughing, clapping, hollering back.
It’s its own scene, and the documentary P.E.N.S. – Poetic Energy Needed in Society examines one vibrant part of it, in Houston, Texas.
The film has a few problems, starting with that title (wouldn’t the obvious, albeit awkward acronym for “Poetic Energy Needed in Society” be “P.E.N.I.S.”?) It’s also, at nearly two-and-a-quarter-hours, far too slow.
There’s no shortage of good material here, though, or good poetry. A hit on the festival circuit, it’s a film guaranteed to reward the patient home viewer.
Boasting crisp cinematography and – apart from some occasionally dodgy sound – excellent production values, the film introduces us to a wide array of Black performers. They’re diverse in age, background and artistic approaches but they have a couple of things in common.
They love Houston’s spoken-word scene. And they love being part of it.
One by one they hold forth on various topics – mentorships and rivalries, audience reactions, money. In between, we get glimpses of these artists in action, some of them performing political pieces, others sharing more intimate moments. (“I like my men like I like my liquor,” snaps Felicia “Miracle” Hankins. “Brown and straight.”)
Some poets are better than others, of course, but the moments linger.
Like Damon “MC Lyro” Sounders promoting the power of poetry, seeing it as a rich alternative to pop culture. “Children need something other than rap songs about cars and clothes and women and guns,” he insists. And Ebony “Ebony Rose” Smith fondly saluting her city, “Houston, H-Town, The H, Home.”
Those moments would stand out more, though, if there were less surrounding them.
The ratio – a minute or two of performance, surrounded by five or six or seven minutes of interview – feels upside-down. If – as the poets themselves insist – they express themselves best on stage, then why aren’t we spending most of our time up there with them? Why all this meandering chit-chat?
And if a great part of this art’s power comes from polishing and paring down – getting just the right emotion out of the fewest possible words – why is the movie itself so self-indulgent? Thirty minutes could be cut from it without any harm at all – starting with the various, interspersed “dramatizations” in which some writers act out (badly) their verses.
Watch it at home, though – with your finger near the fast-forward button – and P.E.N.S. is full of entertainment, and encouragement. Not only is poetry alive and well, it is loud and proud. And calling out to a new generation.