It's a slowish Sunday night at Burlington's Waiting Room, and an open-mike poetry reading -- part of the bar's weekly artsProject -- is in full swing. Politics is in the air, and the mood is pretty serious. A grizzled, intense poet named Blackwing describes the Americans at Abu Ghraib as "a subhuman army of bad-ass belligerents." In a poem explaining "why I am a feminist," a college-age woman takes Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson to task for convincing young girls that it's cool to be dumb and blonde.
Then Seth Jarvis steps up to the mike. A veteran of Burlington's 5-year-old poetry-slam scene, he's here to read from his new chapbook, manipulate the world, published by Michigan's Wordsmith Press. At 29, Jarvis has the velvety, artfully modulated voice of someone who's at home onstage. He launches into a poem that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but visibly relaxes the cocktail-guzzling crowd. It's a ditty about a girl named Cynthia who carries starfish in her lunchbox.
A few poems later, Jarvis starts talking to the audience. "I got a beef with weather reporters. What other profession can you fuck up as consistently and not be fired?" he Seinfelds, after some innocuous remarks about the weather. Three beats later he's put his poet hat back on.
It soon becomes clear that Jarvis doesn't draw lines between his poetry and his patter. One moment he's describing burnt-out rebels "fighting our eyelids like we're fighting the truth." The next he's riffing on the origin of the word "chapbook," or pretending to give the audience the scoop on the concurrent "Sopranos" finale. His performance straddles improv and careful orchestration, and it definitely doesn't resemble most people's idea of a poetry reading. There are no throat-clearings, no moments of awkward earnestness, and no dog-eared notebooks. Jarvis has his material in his head.
In this non-memorizing age, it's an impressive feat -- especially when Jarvis takes requests. "There were a lot of words in my head on Sunday," he recalls with a chuckle, sitting down to talk a week later at Muddy Waters. When he first started performing poetry this way, in 1996, memorization was so unusual that "eye contact seemed to disturb the audience," Jarvis says.
While he has a practical reason for learning things by heart -- "I sometimes tend to shake, and holding a piece of paper and having it shake is terribly distracting for audiences" -- Jarvis likes the freedom memorization gives him to "drop in lines and change things according to circumstance." The benefits are enough to make him risk the possibility of "blanking," which he describes as "a horrendous feeling, like the floor has just dropped out from under your feet."
Jarvis is no stranger to the stage. A Burlington native, he studied at a number of universities and participated in theater and improvisation groups, mostly in the South. When he decided to "explore more introspective areas of artistic expression," poetry slams immediately appealed to Jarvis as a way to "combine the performance aspects with writing." He gave his first reading in Virginia in 1991.
Back in the Green Mountains, Jarvis was involved in organizing the Vermont Poetry Slam from its inception in 1999. "For about three or so years I was a slam master," he says, fondly remembering nights when the now-defunct Rhombus Gallery drew capacity crowds of 75 people, "all focused on poetry. There were no cappuccino makers in the background." Now that the gallery is "resting in peace due to urban renewal," the slams have found a new home at the artsProject, a brainchild of Jarvis' friend, Waiting Room owner Anna Rosenbloom. The weekly Sunday-night scene is both an event and a meeting place that showcases visual and performing artists.
To some, the words "poetry slam" call up a vision of anemic post-adolescents lamenting lost loves and bad parents, or street-corner evangelist manques rasping out a political agenda in painfully literal terms. Jarvis likes the fact that the slam is an open forum for self-expression, but for his own part, he steers away from both confessional and proselytizing poetry, preferring something a bit more oblique -- and funny.
"As a performer, at least in Vermont, he is unique," says Geof Hewitt, a long-time local poet who's competed twice with Jarvis in national slam competitions. "He has a laid-back style that, in an ironic sense, makes the power of his poems more dynamic. He sells it with performative understatement, but behind all his humor is a deadly seriousness."
"There's a constant struggle in creating art between honesty and imagination," Jarvis says. Before manipulate the world, he put out several chapbooks with the Minimal Press -- a "guerilla publishing collective" originally based at Rhombus. Jarvis' work resounds with the collective voice of the by-now-cliched caffeine- and disappointment-addled slacker tribe. In "shifting," they're "sitting in our makeshift apartments,/thinking of old sitcom episodes." In "brief history" they're described as "scratch[ing] their unshaven indignation."
But Jarvis also knows how to poke fun at the coffeehouse crowd. In "even when," he skewers nostalgia for an imaginary past: "yeah life was better then/even when it wasn't/.../ money was healthier/lies were better told/we respected one another/it was never this cold." A fan of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, Jarvis likes to sidestep his own earnestness with a comic aphorism. In "ready, set..." we're told cryptically, "all cats are taoists, god is an agnostic." "Sex, god, etc." proffers a tip for beginning writers: "write what you know./if that doesn't work,/make the shit up."
Jarvis isn't afraid to take his own advice in poems that veer from his own experience. An example of "making the shit up" -- with help from research -- is a poem called "swing time," which he wrote "as a nod to my dad" and to his family's long line of soldiers. Based on his grandfather's experiences in World War II, the poem contains at least one period reference -- to George Seldes, the early anti-tobacco crusader -- so obscure that he says it even perplexed an over-50 audience at another gig.
Yet this depiction of soldiers on leave and having "a root-toot root-toot-tootin' good time... singing 'farewell 1944!'" was a crowd-pleaser when Jarvis read it at The Waiting Room. His delivery brought out the internal rhymes and staccato rhythms, which imitated the frenetic pace of jitterbugging, and spoke to every generation's fight for its right to party. At the same time, the poem's darker notes -- "don't count corpses, ignore the scores" -- tapped into current anti-war sentiment.
Some of Jarvis' poems are explicitly political, like his vision of a utopian progressive future in "the great someday," which he wrote for the Burlington Legacy Project in 2000. In general, though, Jarvis likes the fact that poetry allows you to be "more subtle in your approach [to political issues] than you might be able to in more structured narrative forms. You can deal with things on almost an allegorical level if you want to."
He cites a poem in progress, "The Day Ronald Reagan Died," which features a running motif of everyday lapses in memory -- losing car keys, flicking the wrong light-switch. The underlying notion, he says, is the "collective amnesia" of a nation mourning Reagan without mentioning "his more questionable accomplishments."
Jarvis thinks that the slam form by its very nature is political: it democratizes poetry. He explains: "We're living in this exciting time when all the means of production are available to the individual. You can self-publish a novel or shoot and edit a film. I think slams are part of that general trend, whereas poetry over time had come to be thought of as something removed from everyday experience, something that had to be studied or that you needed scholars to help you interpret."
Hearing someone like Jarvis perform reminds us that there was a time when poetry was exclusively recited or sung -- that some of its roots, in fact, are in the popular ditties of troubadours and ballad singers. It's telling that, while some of Jarvis' influences are poets -- e. e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- others are singer-songwriters such as Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco. Many of his lyrics feature lines that return like refrains. It's easy to see why Jarvis identifies with musicians. Without the security blanket of the poet's traditional podium, singers and slammers alike are forced to maintain what he calls a "direct connection" with the audience.
Jarvis keeps these intersections of poetry and music in mind when he teaches performance-poetry workshops to kids, from third-graders on up. "Once you make the connection between Eminem and poetry, suddenly it's not some dusty old realm of academia," he says. "It's what I'm listening to on my headphones right now."
Like most poets, Jarvis has a day job -- as the buyer at Waterfront Video. In his spare time, he's moving forward with new projects. At The Waiting Room, Jarvis performed part of his poetry set with the three-piece Adam Cooper Wood Experience semi-improvising in the background. He expects a CD of the collaboration to come out within a few months, but says its performance phase is still "experimental." He's also acting in a film directed by Burlington College alum Rob Koier.
In his poetry, Jarvis has been moving forward, too, into formal experiments -- pasting phrases from other poets together in pieces he calls "cut-ups," or creating found poetry from Free Press headlines. Maybe his greatest strength, though, is as a poet of everyday language, where he has a comic's knack for puncturing illusions and pretensions. "He brings down some of the inflated language [of poetry]," suggests Hewitt.
Sometimes Jarvis' criticism is self-directed. A poem in the 2002 volume critical snarks, "all artists are liars, poets are the worst" -- a point the philosopher Plato, who banished poets from his ideal republic, would have seconded. But Jarvis, who has a showman's instincts, knows that sometimes a "lie" -- a metaphor or a cheesy aphorism or a great song hook -- can be a way to bring out the truth. "As [playwright] Tom Stoppard says," Jarvis points out, "'It's better to be quotable than to be honest.' I may not agree completely with that, but I like a good quote."