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This Isn’t Christmas-Related But It’s Still a Good Idea So Fuck the Timing

December 23, 2010

Why aren’t “page poets” or “boring destitute poets” or whatever you want to call us stealing ideas from the rap champions of our time? These people have so much respect and money it’s ridiculous. Fuckin’ ridiculous, as a matter of fact, according to an album I’ve been listening to recently. Some of the cash is from past drug dealing, which I don’t necessarily recommend as a career path, but the portion of the stack that’s connected to their writing and performance ability–that’s worth studying rather carefully, right? Rappers are poets, except they have money. I can’t speak for anyone else but that scenario appeals to me. Again, not the drug-dealing part, but the rest of it. Dolla dolla billz coinz, y’all.

So every hip-hop track lately has about 14,000 guest stars. The person whose album it is has maybe one or two verses and usually takes the chorus but the rest of the track is all other people, each of whom is apparently given some sense of the track’s “thesis” and backbeat and writes some content–anywhere from a single line to a full verse–on the subject matter, in his/her personal style. It all gets arranged nicely and you end up with a pretty kickass creative collaboration. Often the guest stars represent the same label as the person whose album it is. (This is all part of the “Who are you, where are you from?” obsession that’s one of the hallmarks of both Homeric epic and modern hip-hop.) About equally often, the guest stars are less-established artists who find themselves launched into unobscurity through their effort on another person’s song.

The label gets advertising, the less known artists get advertising, and the more famous artist gets most of the credit for a kickass track that s/he couldn’t have delivered solo. It works for everyone. Regular poets should be doing this kind of thing. There’s nothing inherently hip-hoppy about the concept; poets unaffiliated with gangsta lifestyles could use it just as fruitfully. Well-known poet X conceives a poem and solicits a guest verse from comparatively–or entirely–unknown poet Y. If Y is already signed with X‘s publisher, wonderful. If not, X‘s publisher now has a new author to consider signing; also a positive development. X sets certain metrical/thematic parameters and tells Y to have at it, which Y does, delivering a glorious piece of verse that quickly secures her literary future and reputation in ways that not even an MFA ever could, which is not to say that Y won’t remain interested in pursuing one of those down the road. A reader reads the poem and is like, Y, hmm? I’ve never heard of her but this verse is kickass, and X likes her, so she must not suck. I think I’ll Google her and try to remain at least peripherally aware of her literary existence from now on. Meanwhile, X‘s poem is richer, as is X him-or-herself. Win win win win!

I think we can all agree that stealing ideas from people is what creativity is all about. Guest stars in regular poems is a fabulous idea. Single authorship is so last year. Well, no, it’s so this year. But guest verses is so next year. It may interest you to know that Jay-Z has a track about doing things that are ahead of his time, and in that track, things turn out really well for him.

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