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Ungghhhh. Whaaat?

January 21, 2010
tags: , ,

Ever since I left my PhD program, I have a little more confidence every day. This is due partly to the fact that after detoxing yourself from years of crackademia dependency, the initial period of disorientation, self-doubt, brain fog, terror, etc. is followed by a sunburst the likes of which you would attribute to no less immortal and creative an artist than rhododaktylos Eos, were it not one of the terms of your self-imposed sobriety contract that you would quit quoting Homeric Greek. You get out into the real world and you find out nobody understands that stuff. You look through all your poems and realize you’re going to have to edit the hell out of one of them so you’ll have something comprehensible to read to the public on February 4. You get menial jobs and you gain firsthand experience (I’m in cover letter mode this week) of the extent to which your society is not equipped to pick up what you’ve spent the past decade putting down. You find that Homer is so 750 BC; it’s all Jay-Z and Carol Ann Duffy now, and in some ways they’re not as good and in some ways they’re so much better. You have to learn how to associate with people who don’t hug and kiss you with glee when you tell them what “vanilla” really means. You have to switch your brain from an income-per-scholarship to an income-per-hour financial model.

And it all takes a while and as we all know recovery is never complete or permanent, but every day you get a little further from your old self, and that’s a nice feeling, because your old self was an insufferably desperate 65-year-old 12-year-old who never would have written any of the ca. 500,000 words your new self has written in the past two and a half years. And some of these words are, almost certainly, pretty fucking good, and the “payoff” (I put it in quotation marks because I know it’s unlikely to come in the form of actual money) of that almost-certainty is something to look forward to and keep in mind during the less rosy moments of the menial workday or menial-job search.

I’m gluing the fragments together, progressing toward cohesion, but things bring me down from time to time, and one of those things is (I swear to Zeus God) the fact of how much money background rappers make. I’m pretty sure “background rappers” isn’t what they’re called, but I mean the guys who just stand in the booth going “Unggggh” and “Whaaaat” and repeating the name and home neighbourhood and record label of the rapper and listing his friends and coworkers and sometimes echoing a phrase of the lyrics he’s reciting. (If you want to listen to an example, the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” would be a good choice.) Rap itself has had a more positive effect on my state of mind than any SSRI or MAOI or CACW ever did, but when a track with one or more background rappers comes on, I have to stop and sigh a little, because these dudes who are just saying random words and making guttural noises and giving a rundown of everyone who’s “in da house” are probably making six figures per album for their contributions. It’s almost enough to make a person question the overall fairness of capitalism.

One of the probably unintended consequences of the economic model North America considers foxiest is that from a modern financial standpoint, a (non-rapping) poet is just about the most embarrassing thing a person can be. In Canada, a book of poetry is deemed a “bestseller” when it has sold 500 copies. This means a bestselling poet makes approximately $500 per book. Broken down further, a poet whose bestseller is a 75-page book of 300-word poems earns 2.2 cents per word. Economically, it is clear that no one should ever, for any reason, write poetry. And yet, astoundingly, it keeps being produced. Even I write it, and I just wrote this paragraph. It’s not like I don’t know better. Who can understand human beings?

My theory is that this background rapper business is something that could be successfully incorporated into live poetry readings. Readings would be livened up substantially by the presence of several people on stage at once. A system similar to that employed on rap albums could be set up, such that established poets would have lesser-known ones backgrounding for them, punctuating the pieces with repeated utterance of the poet’s name, hometown, area code, and such, as well as a light dusting of “money for nothin’, chicks for free” type sentiments and occasional bursts of the time-honoured “Unghh,” “Yeah,” et al and so on. Ideally, the relationship would be symbiotic: the background poets would liven up the spectacle of the reading, while the comparatively famous spotlight poet would provide stage time and the literary equivalent of street cred (“script cred”?) to those further down the ladder. Over time, poetry readings would become more and more loud, expressive, interactive, star-studded, generally more concert-like events. If a poet could pack an arena with fans, his/her financial woes and resulting personal embarrassment would be things of the past.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2010 7:00 pm

    This is one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages. Thanks!

    • Kate permalink*
      January 24, 2010 8:48 am

      Tragedy is the best comedy.

  2. Dropsy permalink
    January 23, 2010 3:17 am

    I would rather be a poet than a homeless poet.

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