The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Paul Beatty started his literary career as a performance poet, dazzling live audiences and readers alike. It is unsurprising, then, that each of the nineteen poems in Joker, Joker, Deuce showcases the extraordinary wit and verbal agility that often characterize the genre of performance poetry. Among other techniques, performance poetry often displays outrageous humor and compelling rhythm in an assault on traditional cultural attitudes. Many of Beatty’s poems do assail traditional culture, but they prove to be equally critical of the popular culture they seem to represent.

The poem titled “Verbal Mugging,” which begins “this is a performance piece . . . ,” is representative in several ways of the volume and of performance poetry generally. As he usually does, Beatty omits capitalization and standard punctuation (“ancestors ive never even known”), as well as the final g in gerunds and gerundives (“lookin for vibrations”). His poetry also embodies multiple meanings, as in the title “Verbal Mugging.” “Mugging” can be either a strong-arm robbery or the act of clowning before a camera. Beatty’s poems are so full of surprise and stunning shifts of meaning that listeners and readers may well feel verbally “mugged,” though this poem’s lyricism keeps one from feeling attacked outright. The poem’s main focus, though, is on the other sense of “mugging”—cultural posturing.

Beatty is unquestionably an angry young black man (thirty-two years old at the time of publication), poking fun at “North American Whitey.” He is also, however, savagely satirical...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Amber, Jeannine. “Poetry Revival.” Essence 25, no. 5 (September, 1994). Beatty is the one a cappella poet among the artists Amber discusses in the context of café performance poetry. She emphasizes their multimedia collaborations and their vast difference from the “lofty verses” of William Shakespeare and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Daniels, Karu F. “Paul Beatty Talks to BV About His Latest Book, Hokum.” AOL Black Voices. January 5, 2006. Discussion of the humor anthology Hokum and its controversial “watermelon” cover gives Beatty the opportunity to expand on his theories of humor, satire, and the inherently limiting nature of contemporary ideas about race and culture.

Hoagland, Tony. “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People.” The American Poetry Review, March/April, 2003. Hoagland celebrates poets of the past such as Juvenal, François Villon, and Jonathan Swift, for whom clearing the air of falsehood and sentiment was “a source of creative energy and pride.” He cites Beatty’s Joker, Joker, Deuce as a modern example of poetry in this vein.

Peterson, V. R. “Word Star: Paul Beatty Writing to His Own Groove.” Essence 27, no. 4 (August, 1996). Peterson—one of the reviewers who refer to Beatty as “the premier bard of hip-hop”—discusses the outrageously plotted novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996), in which Beatty satirizes racial stereotypes.

Reed, Ishmael. “Hoodwinked: Paul Beatty’s Urban Nihilists.” Village Voice, April/May, 2000. Reed enthusiastically praises Beatty’s talent and courage, comparing him with great African American authors such as Chester Himes, John O. Killens, and John A. Williams. Reed also warns about the pitfalls of “urban nihilism” in Beatty’s work and offers suggestions for Beatty’s ongoing literary development.