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Robert Karimi at Mad Bar

17 April 2000 | Chicago IL
review filed by Jason Pettus

"This one is for everyone of color who got misunderstood because they were into punk rock."

That statement, uttered near the beginning of California poet Robert Karimi's recent Chicago Mad Bar performance, describes not only one of the poems heard that night but the very man himself. The show was a fascinating portrait of the new face of American performance poetry - at once both politically correct and incorrect, multiethnic yet suburban, respectful of literary convention yet fiercely unapologetic in its reliance on the performing arts to make its points.

Karimi, a member of the Silicon Valley poetry slam team which won last year's national championships, comes from a mix of ethnic backgrounds - part Iranian, part Guatemalan, raised both as a Muslim and a Catholic, shunning them all as a teenager to delve into the world of punk rock and skater culture. Faced with such a multitude of options in which to define himself, the writer chooses to reject them all, focusing instead on the individual and very interesting stories of his own unique life. Yet in a way Karimi embraces them all at the same time, too. He makes it clear that his life and work would not be what it is without the entire range of diverse experiences he has had over the years - in an introduction to a piece about a Spanish-speaking punk show, for instance, he explains "in 1979 I discovered that it wasn't so cool to be Iranian, so I decided to be Latino for awhile instead."

This kind of casual attitude about race and self-definition is the antithesis of the modern American poetry scene as most audience members and even fellow poets know it. The trend for confessionalism and political awareness has had a polarizing effect on the poetry scene in more recent years, forcing performers to create an easily definable "persona" with which their audience can readily recognize them - "Oh, he's the angry black poet.
Karimi's refusal to pigeonhole himself marks a new trend in the modern poetry scene...
She's the seductress. He's the nerd." Many open mics, especially here in Chicago, have been turned into elongated and pointless sitcoms, where the very people who had turned to the scene originally to get away from unfair stereotypes and generalizations are now the ones perpetrating the generalizations for a variety of reasons, from gaining a greater foothold of the audience's repeated memories all the way to the attempt to bring in higher scores during slams.

Karimi's refusal to pigeonhole either himself or anyone else into these labels marks a new trend in the modern poetry scene, an ever-greater influx of young, racially diverse writers raised in a global culture and swaying along throughout their childhoods to the complex rhythms of hiphop and rap. This global attitude infuses itself into both his writing and his performance, in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. One of the more popular pieces of the evening, entitled "Get Down With Your Muslim Catholic Self!," was a fairly obvious example, but other pieces got to the heart of the matter in a way that stealthily slipped into the subconscious. In a remarkable poem about Los Angeles, for instance, Karimi chose a formal and elegant metaphor about colors to describe the city, evoking the immediate image of David Hockney's gorgeous oversized paintings of the same topic...whether he deliberately meant to evoke it or not. Quite a disparate picture to pop into one's head from an Iranian-Latino-Muslim-Catholic-punk-skater-hiphop-slam poet, and quite enjoyable because of its surprise.

Robert Karimi
Robert Karimi
photo by David Huang, 2000

The other thoroughly delightful surprise about Karimi, of course, is his rather black and barbed sense of humor. It's difficult enough to write poetry about race and politics that is deliberately funny, although God knows we've all heard enough non-deliberately funny ones. The challenge becomes even larger when considering the collective lack of a sense of humor found in most poets currently dedicated to writing about issues of race and politics. Karimi treads a fine line here, gently poking fun of the politics of race without out-and-out accusations or insults. Indeed, the way he does this is precisely by focusing in on the common emotions, joys and frustrations inherent to all of humanity, displaying those traits in his overly politicized characters to show us, the audience, how complicated these poor people are making it for themselves. In what was the funniest and most poignant piece of the night, Karimi shows us the flirtation of two student radicals, how they hide behind platitudes and banners and black armbands to mask the simple fact that the male wants a booty call and that the woman does not. (Or doesn't she?) It's impossible to be offended by the piece, because all it is simply pointing out is that sometimes our dangerously healthy sense of doing what we believe is right severely overshadows the very basic signals our bodies are telling us, things like "I like you" or "I'm afraid."

At this point in his career Karimi is perhaps most well-known for his actions of inclusion at last year's National Poetry Slam (NPS), culminating in his San Jose-based team sharing the top prize of the tournament with the San Francisco team after both freakishly receiving the same exact score in the final round. The sincere love that Karimi has for both his fellow poets, as well as the capacity audience that had come out to see him that night, were obvious. Pulling Chicago wunderkind Dennis Kim on stage halfway through the set, Karimi told a thoroughly charming story of meeting and bonding with the politically-aware Asian-American poet the previous summer, comparing their collaborative performance during a NPS day event to "having a spiritual experience" and sharing the stage with him yet again that night.

This kind of "share the love" attitude, both from him and his younger cohorts, has not been sitting well recently with the older, more competitive-oriented wing of the national poetry slam organization, and the question of how even the tournament itself will be run in upcoming years is coming under direct fire because of the continued success of this new wave of performance poetry.

The fact of the matter is that the loosely-defined "performance poetry scene" in America has now been formally organized for a long enough period (roughly ten years) to have an entirely new generation step in, a group with very different ideas about what poetry is, what it can be, and what that self-appointed "community's" role should be within that world. The executives of Slam Inc. have never had to contemplate their own obsolescence before, and it is hoped that the transition to the new guard will eventually be a smooth and friendly one, not the fractious and mean-spirited event this year's Slammasters meetings in Chicago last March turned out to be. The entire poetry community could take a few lessons on diversity and cooperation from Karimi. The crowd at Mad Bar on Monday certainly did appreciate them.

- Jason Pettus, for e-poets network, Chicago

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