Poetry is for wimps -- or so the stereotype goes. It's a safe haven for overly sensitive tree-huggers who bare their souls. They're not considered perceptive, or honest, or eloquent; no, these poets are labeled as rare beef: too tender and pink. Then there's slam poetry, with its young, defiant urbanites rushing and raging through rhymes about being detached from society, screwed by The Man, or just being angry with a capital-g Grrr.
Corey Cokes has busted stereotypes in both genres. He studied poetry while earning his bachelor's and master's degrees, then he found his chops as a slam poet, winning the National Poetry Championship in 1996 and being featured in the documentary SlamNation. Now, he's left slam for a more relaxed style, one derived from several sources: the storytelling traditions of grandfathers on front porches mesmerizing kids with tales of the good ol' days, hushed conversations with friends, and the rhetoric that forces men to action. His poems still hold the power of slam's smack and the bounce of hip-hop, but now he's slowed a bit, taking his time, using his rich voice to fully create powerful images.
Take "Mastablasta," a track from his new CD Coreyography. In it Cokes pays homage to Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt that killed dozens of slave owners, only to be captured and hung 60 days later. The poem begins like a laid-back talk about his life, then, as he draws the listener in, Cokes kicks into Turner's tale in first-person narrative while sounds of struggle play in the background. An a cappella version of "Go Down Moses" sung by Morris deRohn Robinson follows.
Coreyography isn't an album on which Cokes just reads his poems. The voice speaking isn't always his. There are guest readers and two musical tracks, and nearly every poem is backed by sound effects such as crickets chirping or a guitar playing softly. The CD begins with a superfasthiphop slam about dealing drugs and taking the fall, but then suddenly Cokes is on a busy street speaking slowly, rhythmically, whispering loudly about his shame when African-American boys casually address each other as "nigga." His poems focus on experiences of African-Americans, from those on slave ships to young men who spend all their money on ridiculously expensive brand-name clothing while living at home and neglecting to pay child support. Cokes isn't afraid to offend. He's frequently called controversial. But he's honest, a quality that is still the heart of all poetry.