Rebecca Gambale, Festival Assistant
Flip over Michael Cirelli’s debut collection, Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and you’ll see an interesting combination: a blurb by The Best American Poetry editor and founder David Lehman, alongside one by Grammy-award winning rapper and producer Kanye West. Delve into Cirelli’s writing or see him read, and you’ll see why this could not be more appropriate.
This crossroad of culture is Cirelli’s circus; he sees an inseparable relationship between the literary and performative qualities of hip-hop and poetry. This makes him not only an exciting poet to watch, but an accomplished writer on the page. Cirelli has been a National Poetry Slam individual finalist and, during his time on the West Coast, the only person to make all three Bay area slam teams in the same year, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley. On the East Coast, he has earned an MFA from the New School, where he studied with Lehman.
Penning sonnets about rappers such as Ol’ Dirty, Common, Talib Kweli and Kanye West, and writing answer poems to Walt Whitman and Jack Gilbert in the same collection, Cirelli brings together the worlds of hip-hop and academia through his unabashed love for the word. Equally inspired by music, he states in Poets and Writers, “Writing based on music has almost become a compulsion of mine…I could take a song…and spend hours trying to dissect each line, each metaphor, each double and triple entendre. The stuff of good hip-hop puts language in a rocket ship!” This approach to poetry puts Cirelli in the same category as the ancient poets, emphasizing that poetry is an oral/aural art. However, he makes no sacrifices in terms of form, as he gives careful attention to how his poems stand alone on the page.
Through his work, Cirelli embraces and also questions the lifestyle, imagery and issues of hip-hop culture. This is yet another crossroads, if you consider his Italian upbringing in Rhode Island and being told he looks “all Nascar,” mentioned in his poem “I Am Hip Hop”. In his newest book, Vacations on the Black Star Line, based on an album by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Cirelli explores the idea of race and privilege, also including a few pieces to rapper T-Pain, featured here on the online literary journal Segue.
But you don’t have to be familiar with the rap allusions to appreciate Cirelli. His carefully crafted poems candidly describe human experiences of all sorts; for instance, his poem “Dearest workshop” offers his take on a familiar writing workshop experience.
Perhaps what keeps Cirelli’s poetry fresh is his work with youth. Cirelli says in his piece in Segue (featured above) “I work with teens on a daily basis, so poetry is about so many things. For them (and me), it can be about saving lives.” He is the Executive Director of Urban Word NYC, a grassroots non-profit organization that provides free, safe, uncensored and ongoing writing and performance opportunities for New York City teens. Stated in their mission is the goal to “promote active literacy, critical thought, and positive social dialogue across boundaries of age, race, class, gender, culture, and sexuality.” Central to their operation is the idea that teenagers should speak for themselves, and they provide free writing workshops and college prep year round, in addition to teen poetry slams. Through his work with teens, Cirelli has also developed teaching curriculum using hip-hop, called Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics.
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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark is October 7 – 10
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