Whitney Pow: Bad poetry need not always be slammed

BY WHITNEY POW
Fine Arts Columnist
Published January 25, 2010

I went to the Bad Poetry Slam a couple years ago in the bar at the Heidelberg on Main Street. Each poet attempted to write and perform the most horrible poem imaginable. The winning poem was slammed by a man with a scruffy beard who was wearing an old white Hanes t-shirt and jeans. He was justifiably given the Bad Poet title with remarkable lines like “and oh the stench of your va-jay-jay” and “your thighs as white as alabaster punching bags.”

I remember this because it was that bad. Seared-into-my-mind bad.

The Bad Poetry Slam played off of what is considered “bad” art. The twist was that, instead of the writers hoisting their bad poetry to the highest of heights, the Heidelberg’s slam encouraged poets to let the poems sit dejected in the sewer and be marveled at without any pretense.

“Bad” takes on another meaning when you include the idea of awareness, from the snarky comments made behind your back to the over criticism to your face. The game is also changed when you consequently win a $20 gift certificate at a poetry slam. Suddenly, bad writing moves from the self-serving and narcissistic to the purposeful and somewhat consciously eloquent. The writer throws in a measure of mindfulness when writing about his or her lover’s alabaster punching bags. Admittedly, there has to be some kind of creativity behind lines like that.

Here, one has to make up one’s mind about what is “bad” and what is “good.” Can a poem, or any piece of art for that matter, be so purposefully bad that it is, in reality, good? The question reminds me of artist Jeff Koons, most notable for his porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson sitting with a monkey named Bubbles, titled, quite aptly, Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

Koons’s work dives into the idea of distastefulness in art. One piece he made for a series titled Made in Heaven is a billboard image depicting two figures on a set of jagged rocks overlooking the crashing waves of the sea. One of the figures is a swooning lady in lacy lingerie lying on her back, and the other, a lanky, naked man piled on top of her, is Koons himself, with hairy chest, thighs and carefully crafted coif. He looks directly into the camera, daring you to enjoy this image.

The work itself is a vanity shot, which seems entirely laughable considering it looks better suited for an old vinyl record cover in a bargain bin at Salvation Army. But the piece has been displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, rendering this horrifically self-admiring billboard into something incredibly self-aware. If done without self-consciousness, the piece would be humiliating, but when the idea of humiliation and narcissism are built by an aware mind, something worthy of a measure of praise is created.

A great deal of contemporary art works with the celebration of the tacky or grotesque. The idea of something being explicitly bad for the sake of being bad contains not only the awareness of self but the awareness of one’s work and what has come before it — Koons created art based on images that are now seen as kitschy and still survive, in one form or another, in pulp novels containing bare-chested men and busty women on boats or in valleys.

Creating something so artfully horrendous as the construction of “bad art,” whatever that might be, is really quite an elaborate process, from conceiving the idea to carrying it out. Other artists have played with this conception of the disgusting, raunchy and offensive, from Joseph Beuys’s piece Fat Chair, a triangular mound of fat heaped onto a wooden chair, to Cosimo Cavallaro’s piece Cheese Room, which is essentially a hotel room that has been covered in pounds of melted cheese — over the lamps, on the bed, on the walls. There's so much cheddar heaped everywhere that the room emits an orange glow.

Intentionally bad art does have some merit. There’s a degree of skill, creativity and gall required to create the most distasteful artwork ever. The winner of the Bad Poetry Slam had roused an entire bar full of boos from people who were not quite drunk enough to be belligerent and aimlessly boo at just anyone. On a weeknight at 8 p.m., you really have to earn those derogatory shouts. And then, like Koons after his bare-chested escapade out on the rocks, you have to be proud of your art and be able to live up to it afterward.