chapter  1
22 Pages

Respirating Resistance: Suheir Hammad’s Invocation of Breath

For me watching on television, it was a profound moment because Suheir Hammad voiced what it meant to be an Arab American woman watching “those / buildings collapse on themselves like a broken heart.” 2 She spoke poignantly about being simultaneously politically aware and grief-stricken. She also alerted everyone listening to the necessity of affi rming life at a time when ideology and rhetoric could overcome compassion and critical thinking. Moreover, she reminded mourning Americans of the danger posed by permitting “the obsessive focus on the Self in the United States [to obscure] the violence against the Other.” 3

The DEF Poetry stage emerged as a multicultural and multiethnic site of artistic and political collaboration. The show, which would last six seasons and spark the Tony Award-winning Broadway production, featured a cast of poets who represented a variety of gender presentations, ages, sexual identities, geographies, races, ethnicities, occupations, and, broadly speaking, life experiences. During the fi rst episode, Hammad performed after Nikki Giovanni and Benjamin Bratt, the latter of whom performed a poem by the late Miguel Piñero entitled “Lower East Side.” She also performed after Steve Colman, Georgia Me, Lemon, and Black Ice, all of whom would become her costars on Russell Simmons Presents DEF Poetry on Broadway . 4

By featuring Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) as its host and foregrounding Russell Simmons as its producer, DEF Poetry (and the later Broadway production) championed the poetic traditions of hip hop and slam as culturally and commercially viable forms of art. One critic and slam poet commented that with DEF Poetry “the marriage between hip-hop and spoken word was fi nally consummated.” 5 Despite the clear multicultural infl uences within hip hop and slam, the two art forms have been understood as Black American music and poetry. The show fought against that by encouraging various traditions and poetic forms from its artists. The fi rst episode’s multicultural lineup serves as a testament to that endeavor, 6 even though critics like John S. Hall felt that DEF Poetry was simply slam poetry without scoring. 7 DEF Poetry sought to craft a layered and multifaceted defi nition of poetry and poets for the future while creating a capacious genealogy of multiethnic forebears.