BUDDY WAKEFIELD: SPEAKING TO THE YOUNG AND FOREVER YOUNG
Buddy Wakefield’s performance as a spoken-word poet on May 28th at the Capitol Theatre began before he even opened his mouth. He stepped from behind the curtain and onto the stage carrying a suitcase (suggestive of just having arrived or a readiness for a quick departure) and curled up, more or less, on a stool. He went through a number of interesting contortions on the stool, apropos of nothing, it seemed, except to maybe unsettle his audience. I was reminded of reading of how Mark Twain, a renowned lecturer as well as a great writer, before launching into his comic monologues, liked to loosen up his audience by simply staring at the assembly until, by way of relief, it broke into laughter.
Wakefield achieved something like that effect by tying himself into knots on the stool that served as a prop throughout much of his performance. His performance included several personal, not to say confessional, asides which, seamlessly, led into the impassioned, often brilliant rants that comprise his poetry. His poetry, prize-winning examples of the new exclamatory kind called “slam,” goes back to the Beat Generation of the 1950s and poets and writers like Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who recited, or rather chanted, their work before audiences to the beat of a drum or a cool jazz backup. Ginsberg’s incendiary poem“Howl,” for instance, is a precursor of slam poetry of the kind Wakefield excels at. Like Ginsberg, Wakefield cries out, to the young and the forever young, in a raw, impassioned, eloquent voice at once angry, funny and hopeful. Politically astute, it speaks of the glory of life in the face of pain and struggle, prejudice and injustice, official short-sightedness and destructive vested interests.
“Grow up!” he shouts to the rich and powerful, the self-serving and corrupted. “Reach up, or look up, and see us winking!” He mentions God. Punctuates with profanity. (“Swearing provides relief unknown even to prayer,” Twain has told us.) “The war on terror [is] as effective as the war on drugs!” Wakefield shouts, to shouts of endorsement from his audience.
He starts one poem: “After over 300,000 miles, twelve dozen breakdowns nervous . . . one too many midnights and a bunch of broken laws later, I’ve come here, from out of the rain to this rest area, caught 22 miles between you and me, watching the information man, behind his information booth, juggling predictable conversation with folks who look like iceberg lettuce and who believe that somehow the flat-lines of small talk will give us life. I want them to leave!” In other poems, breathlessly, in measured bursts, he tells us: “I have not yet rested! . . . It takes a long time to make love to someone who hates themself . . . Return to your mediocrity, plug it into an amplifier, and (stuttering for emphasis) rethink yourself!” And: “Stop inviting all these walls to all this space!”
Buddy Wakefield was born in 1974 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and raised in Baytown, Texas—which explains his occasional “y’all” and the vaguely Southern sound of his speech. He calls Seattle home now but retains at least some of where he came from. Wakefield’s event in Nelson opened with a poem each by three local slam poets, Mayari Ayala-Wiebe, William Klatte, and Samuel Stevenson, who introduced the headliner. Will Klatte, in fact, brought Wakefield to Nelson at his own expense and lost money on the deal because the audience (enthusiastic but disappointing) turned out to be less than half of what he needed to break even. (Buddy graciously lopped $500 off his fee by way of easing Will’s burden.)
Will, who happens to be my son, introduced this reviewer to slam poetry, and to many of its young practitioners in the Nelson area, and I am grateful to him—and to them—for the gift of their youthful intelligence and fire. They’ve given me hope in this seemingly hopeless time.