Pure Poetry Week Starts Now! With Pure Poetry Post #1: Def Jam

Sometimes one human being’s love for poetry is so immense, and one’s frustration at the rest of the universe for saying, “I don’t get poetry” is so enormous, that one decides for no real reason to declare this week The First Annual Pure Poetry Week on Autostraddle.com. February 23rd –> March 2nd, 2011.

Because poetry is true and nobody makes money writing it, not really, not anymore. So in that sense there’s less commercial invasion than there might be in other things. Think about all the things you do that nobody cares about. Imagine if they secretly mattered more than everything else you’ve ever done. I think that’s how poets feel. I think that’s why we all care so much about poetry because we’re hoping that everything undervalued is secretly the most amazing thing to ever happen to the world.

During “Pure Poetry Week,” the entire team will be consistently talking about poets that we like a lot and trying to make you like them. Yup, we’ve done 10 Lesbian & Bisexual Poets To Fall in Love With and we’ve told you to read Eileen Myles at least 5,000 times. But this is SERIOUS.

“The material of poems is energy itself, not even language. Words come later.”

– Eileen Myles

But this won’t be gay-lady exclusive, because our love is too POETIC to be thrown back in our faces. Because schools fuck up about teaching poetry sometimes. Because we want to talk about Stephen Dunn as often and dearly as possible. Because some people don’t like National Poetry Month. Because a ton of you love poetry and want to talk about it too. So that’s what we’re gonna do.

“If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth.”

– Rilke

“I don’t want to read poetry that will make a 12-year-old feel stupid. I don’t want to read poetry that will make someone who works at Kmart and has never read poetry feel stupid. I don’t want to read poetry that has the power to make anyone feel stupid.”

-Tao Lin


Pure Poetry Week:

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Def Poetry Jam

(by Riese)

In 1997, I shipped off to a boarding school in the woods to study writing but the only books I brought with me were an anthology called Drinking, Smoking and Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times and a poetry anthology called ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I don’t know why I didn’t bring more books or how I intended to write anything there without more books.

Over the next two years I’d be beaten over the head with Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder until I learned to stop hating and love ALL THE POETRY but before that the only stuff I could really get into was Slam and Spoken Word Poetry, it was the only thing that seemed to have any energy to me and you know, my friends did it, though in retrospect most of them sucked. But I really like that anthology from the Nuyorican. I like everything about it.

“The new poetry, or rather the poetry of the nineties, seeks to promote a tolerance and understanding between people. The aim is to dissolve the social, cultural, and political boundaries that generalize the human experience and make it meaningless.”

– Miguel Algarin, in the introduction to Aloud!

So on that spoken-word tip — just in case you have doubts about poetry we’re gonna start with some of our favorite women from Def Poetry Jam. (We’re not saying that Def Poetry Jam = Nuyorican, because that’s not true/reductive, but hopefully that segue was relatively effective just the same.) Def Poetry Jam is this miracle of life where Russel Simmons got a shit-ton of poets on the teevee AND I LOVED THE F*CK OUT OF IT. The Mos Def-hosted HBO series featured spots from celebrities like Dave Chapelle and Kanye West and Lauryn Hill and Ani DiFranco but also from your established spoken word poets and also from your very famous poets like Nikki Giovanni and Saul Williams.

Some say Def Jam was good for poetry and slam poetry in particular and some say it’s been totally shitty for slam poetry. Marc Smith, the founder of the Poetry Slam Movement, said it’s “an exploitive entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry” but Nuyorican Poets Cafe founder Bob Holman said “I’m real happy poetry is on television… it gives [Russel Simmons] the back credentials for his hip-hop label, and at the same time he’s magnanimous towards the art of poetry, giving us a place like that. It’s a great, great moment, just as Def Poetry Jam on Broadway was a great moment, too. Not since Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf has a poem like that been on the stage.”

Either way, it’s fun to watch! Also! Later this week Gabby is gonna talk about two of her favorite up-and-coming spoken word poets and YES my little butterflies, Carmen is writing about your lovechild Andrea Gibson, don’t stress.

Put your headphones on!


10 Women of Def Jam


1. Shannon Matesky – “My Space”


2. Alicia Keys – “P.O.W”


3. Amalia Oritz – “some days”


4. Staceyann Chin – “If only out of vanity”


5. Maggie Estep – “I’m an Emotional Idiot”

You lesbians will love this b/c you are also emotional idiots.


6. Erykah Badu – “Friends, fans, and artists must meet.”


7. Yellow Rage – “Listen asshole”

This is maybe my favorite


8. Sarah Kay – “hands”


9. Sarah Jones – “Your Revolution Will Not Happen Between These Thighs”

This piece, which critiques the misogyny of hip-hop, adapted from the 1970s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was fined by the FCC for indecency, which is pretty f*cking ironic, right?


10. Kendra Urdang: “To Every Man Who Never Called Himself a Feminist”

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3201 articles for us.


  1. I will totally watch these later. However ATM my mom is sitting across from me, and I’m supposed to be working on a journalism paper.

  2. OMG, I loved Def Poetry Jam when I was in high school! I have a couple of these (and a bunch of others) recorded on various VHS tapes somewhere, along with all of my favorite SNL and MADtv skits.

    I used to think Mos Def was really cute, too. I guess I still think he is.

  3. I can’t wait to get home and get into this. I have a LOT of feelings about poetry. Especially spoken word.

    • PLEASE YES THIS, 87% of all the poetry I read is written by people who live in the same city as me (which is actually pretty cool but also kind of white middle-class MFA grads but fuck it jenny bornholdt IS amazing) BUT YEAH, I need some more people, please.

    • i wrote a sentence for you in the intro to the list right above “put your headphones on!”, i wrote it for youuuuuuuuuu

  4. Haha, I love this.
    These were all fine works. The woman from Jamaica had me laughing at the line about settling down with a man, and Yellow Rage definitely spoke truth.
    Well they all spoke truth.
    I just have a lot of feelings right now

  5. omg poetry week. finally! i love this. all of this. it’s like Christmas up in here. thanks Riese et al.

  6. This is so great!! I’m excited to check out all of these videos.
    If anyone is interested, The Poetry Archive (www.poetryarchive.org) is a really awesome website. It’s an archive of poets reading their own work, and I’ve been able to find some fantastic poems and poets on there!

      • OMG UNIS on Autostraddle! Worlds colliding!

        I graduated before kids started coming out for reals in HS, so I have no idea who you might be, but its a super small school and Sarah and I played soccer together so I know you and I must have been there at the same time…

        My curiosity has been piqued…have we met?

        • I don’t think we have! I graduated in ’08. I was definitely out (I even had a girlfriend in T3. It was real cute.) My name is Samara, find me on facebook!

  7. Thank you for posting Yellow Rage! They are my new favorite slam poets. I love poets who speak truth and incite rage with their words.

  8. So much new found love for that Alicia Keys piece. It’s hard to find truth like that, let alone express it the way she did. I can’t get it out of my head; it’s what I’ve been feeling lately. Thank you for an awesome article!

  9. I didn’t think I could love this website any more. I love poetry, but slam poetry especially, (but Staceyann Chin especially she is so hot oh my god).

    I know Sarah Kay’s Hands off by heart and so does everyone I consider a best friends. My other friends have movie nights but we get together and recite Anis Mojgani and Shane Koyczan.

  10. I am in love with this. I’m so glad you are doing this! I often feel as much as I love writing poetry, what can I really do with it.
    I am incredibly inspired. Again i thank thee. :)

  11. I’m gonna be back, because I don’t have time to read this right now. However, I wanted to let you know just how fucking excited I am about this. I HAVE ALL THE EXCITEMENT.

  12. Oh my Gods I love this so very, very much! I have a hard time connecting to poetry when it’s just written on a page. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t. But seeing people read it live, especially the people who wrote the poem being performed, is another thing altogether. Every single one of these vids gave me goosebumps. So awesome!

    And I’m now madly in love with Staceyann Chinn.

  13. YAY spoken word! I do spoken word. I’m not as dope as these ladies but I do OK.

    You should check out indiefeed. It has podcasts of some of the dopest spoken word artists out there right now: http://www.indiefeedpp.libsyn.com/

    Also this (I love when women perform sex poems): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZ9zt5fUS00

    Jeanann Verlee, Marty McConnell, Andrea Gibson (who’s coming to my event in April!), Rachel McKibbens, Mayda del Valle

    I’m so giddy right now!

  14. Badu’s was my favorite and I can assure you it isn’t because I want her to wrap me up all clingy-octopus-like in that amazing hair. Nope.

    *shifty eyes*

    • This has nothing to do with poetry, but I love your avatar picture. Very Potter Musical just got you all kinds of cool points.

  15. thank you so much again, i watched and loved all of these, these are amazing and its great that these are being spread here and on youtube just great !


  16. Who is the woman 2nd from the right in the picture with a bunch of poets? It looks like Suheir Hammad… powerful woman and poet!

  17. I have mixed feelings about spoken word poetry sometimes. I agree with whoever said that some artists are pure personality and performance with nothing at all to say. Def Jam showcased more than a few of them but when it was good it was sooo good. But, I also agree with whoever said “Yes a lot of spoken word poetry is bad but that doesn’t distinguish it from a lot of written poetry.”

    One of my favorites was Skim. I can’t find a direct link to her poem “Your Eyes” on the show. but she starts performing it about halfway through this clip. I love her. And before I started googling her, I’ll be honest, the Asian Hip Hop scene was not a thing I knew existed.

    I enjoyed too many performances to link here. But, I keep these on my laptop and I watch them whenever I’m about to write:

    Suheir Hammad – First Writing Since (Revision)

    Jill Scott – Ain’t a Ceiling

    Lemon – Experience

    Tahani Salah – Hate

    Daniel Beatty – Knock Knock

    Bonafide Rojas – In Front of the Class

  18. Y’all, I know Sarah Kay! And she is incredibly talented and awesome.

    Also, my love for Staceyann Chin and everything she writes/speaks knows no bounds.

  19. i am late to poetry week (please forgive/indulge). i heart spoken word poetry soooo hard. one day i was lucky enough to find four seasons of Def Poetry Jam on DVD for sale and then i marathoned it…so much goodness.

    i own “Aloud!” and have a boy-crush on Beau Sia.

    Alix Olson is a goddess. She’s gay, a feminist, powerful, and oh, so poetic. Please see her DVD “Left Lane.” it’s amazing, and features musician Chris Pureka.

    that is all. danke.

  20. If Lucille Clifton going to be the subject of one of these? Reading her is so great, on so many levels.

  21. thank you for this, for finally getting me to watch some spoken word. I never really have before, and now I don’t know why.

    both Sarahs were just … sort of magical. like it didn’t even matter what they were saying because if you just listened to the sound of their voices and the way that they were saying you would get the message anyway. or something.

  22. I only really got into poetry after stumbling upon some translations of Sappho’s poetry when I was a teenager. Her poetry is always so lyrical and beautiful because, I think, almost all of it is in incomplete fragments so it probably shouldn’t make sense or form very clear images but manages to somehow.

    I hope Autostraddle does a post on Sappho’s poetry. :)

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