What if, instead of a jazz combo, Kenneth Rexroth had sat in the 1940s with a mandolin player instead? That’s a thought I sometimes have, and one that returned to me the other night when I finally watched a DVD of a performance by Minton Sparks entitled Open Casket. Minton Sparks is a poet who is really more of a story teller than anything else – her shows look like a cross between a standup comedy routine & that of a country singer – she has a touch of Minnie Pearl in her backwoods persona, even if Sparks’ occasional rhymes remind you more of Elizabeth Bishop. She’s played the Bowery Poetry Club, and opened at the Bowery Ballroom for Ben Folds, and Sparks’ has gotten more than a little attention for her work, given that she’s never published a book and had relatively few things in actual print. A Grammy nomination for one thing, as well as a “Spoken Word Record of the Year” award for This Dress, her second of three CDs. She’s collaborated on these CDs with everyone from Waylon Jennings to Keb’ Mo’. But tho she’s taught in high schools & prisons in Tennessee, this adjunct psych professor from Vanderbilt largely has built a career by making her poetry – which is the absolute center of her craft – more or less invisible to her audience. It’s an intriguing proposition.
Open Casket is a series of 16 short works all told as little stand-up monologs with musical accompaniment – it ranges from mandolin to accordion & keyboards – organized around the idea of describing who might have come to a relative’s funeral. Each work tends to be the portrait of one or another wayward & idiosyncratic soul – the most significant exception is one of three pieces in the “Deleted Scenes” portion of the CD, where Sparks has tucked some of her best work, apparently out of the fear that the material might prove offensive to, say, PBS audiences in the Deep South, which is where this DVD seems targeted.
On the page this would look a lot like Spoon River Anthology, albeit a bawdier version with more rhyme than was used by Edgar Lee Masters. But on the stage is where this work is really aimed, and where Sparks herself reigns with the ease of a veteran of standup comedy competitions. She uses props – that purse in the photo above deserves a supporting actor’s nomination – and is an effective square dancer when the occasion calls for it. But these really aren’t comedy routines & Sparks seriously wants you to hear the rhyme when it occurs, luxuriate in the language because that’s what language is for, & you feel certain there’s not one of syllable of improvisation on the disk. Sparks goes beyond the sort of memorized presentation one expects from, say, Jane Miller (or a Russian poet like Ivan Zhdanov, for that matter). It’s a routine, the musicians actually have music sheets, nothing is left to chance.
Is Sparks a great writer? Hardly. But she’s not that far from being a great performer & she’s got the savvy to know this about herself. If placed into some backwoods Poetry Slam, she would blow the likes of Robert Bly right off the stage. So she’s set about reviving – or maybe just “viving” in the first place – the spoken word format, as such, without the slightest hint of any relation to Def Jam or hip-hop poetics. Hearing her is a reminder of just how vast & regionally diverse this country still is. If you should get a chance to see her, you might be bemused, you might be mystified, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.