Whose Words… (36) Alex Charalambides: “Look at Me!”

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alex Charalambides

Alex Charalambides, a slam star at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem next weekend, is the child of Greek refugees from Romania who settled in Worcester, Massachusetts — the town that gave the world Elizabeth Bishop.

Greek patriotic poems opened Alex’s road into poetry and performance — and kept him out of Little League baseball, he says. As a word nerd in high school, then a history major at Boston College, he found his inspiration in Charles Bukowski, the high priest of low-life; then Daniel Quinn, the anarcho-humanist-environmentalist of Ishmael, and climactically the poet and songster Saul Williams of the documentary film “Slam.”

For a decade now, Alex’s poetry has developed out of the Rand McNally School of Self-Discovery, on the long road of jams and late-night joints from Providence to Oakland where he found his fun and expressive power in slam competitions.

“Look at me!” delivered for us here, gives you the spirit of his enterprise. He’s remembering that it was “a charming 2-year-old” in Duluth who cooed “look at me,” at him! “That’s what all art says,” he answered her, laughing uncomfortably. “I guess I do kinda want your attention. All artists who dare take page or stage, we just tend to augment, like ‘Look at me: war is fundamentally wrong… Look at me: the world is in desperate need of new love songs… Look at me: Crazy!… Look at me: I dig jazz, the good kind… Look at me: I dig trenches…’ I say: ‘Look at me, ’cause I’m frantically searching for options. Look at me, ’cause I think I know some words that you don’t know.”

For Alex Charalambides no venue is too small, no national slam rivals are too big. He likes to reflect on “what someone along on a stage could do with just words. Beyond the hoopla, the competition, the small fish rock star status, a human being, alone, with their words on a stage, could change someone’s world forever.”

Q: If you weren’t a poet, what would you be?

A: A bass player

Q: What’s the talent you’d most like to have, but don’t, yet?

A: I would love to be a really great cook.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: Daniel Quinn is my favorite writer, not for the way he writes but his overall message. I have it tattooed on my arm — he wrote this book called “The Story of B.” … I have an album that is called “I am B”, that’s sort of dedicated to that. I love Tom Waits as a singer-songwriter musician. He shows such a range of emotion and style and texture of voice, I love his work.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a good poem?

A: Honesty

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I try to make my poems say yes.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “Quit your job and get to work.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

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  • The current ROS interview with Alex Charalambides mentions Whitman and Ferlinghetti as some sources or wellsprings.

    Poetry slams a la Alex Charalambides always remind me of Brechtian “rap poetry” from Weimar Germany.

    The “poetical goal” of this ilk of poetizing is something like “benevolent irritation” or “sweet vituperation” or “benignly off-putting” or “generously harsh micro-tirades.”
    Berthold Friedrich Brecht
    10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956
    One of Brecht’s most important principles was what he called the Verfremdungseffekt (translated as “defamiliarization effect”, “distancing effect”, or “estrangement effect”, and often mistranslated as “alienation effect”).
    This involved, Brecht wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them”. To this end, Brecht employed techniques such as the actor’s direct address to the audience, harsh and bright stage lighting, the use of songs to interrupt the action, explanatory placards, and, in rehearsals, the transposition of text to the third person or past tense, and speaking the stage directions out loud.
    One commentator, Peter Brooker writes that “the term ‘alienation’ is an inadequate and even misleading translation of Brecht’s Verfremdung. The terms ‘de-familiarisation’ or ‘estrangement’, when understood as more than purely formal devices, give a more accurate sense of Brecht’s intentions. A better term still would be ‘de-alienation'”.
    Brooker (1994, page 193):
    Brooker, Peter. 1994. “Key Words in Brecht’s Theory and Practice of Theatre”. In Thomson and Sacks (1994, 185–200).

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertolt_Brecht

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