Vulnerable AF by Tarriona Ball

So you know how operas are transcendent experiences, with the music and the singing and the acting (well, sometimes the acting) coming together to create a wondrous whole that you can’t stop thinking about or humming for days? But then you get it into your head to look up the lyrics you’ve been singing and you’re like “oh no, what is this?” Because the big aria is basically the singer repeating “I am dying! I am dying!” while the hero goes “You are dying! Oh no, you are dying!” and it all suddenly seems so banal in comparison with all the majesty and romance of the production, such so that you’re resolved never to read a libretto again? Well, it can be like that with slam poetry too.

Tarriona Ball is a brilliant performer, whether on her own or with her band Tank And The Bangas. Slam poetry, her forte, is as much about repetition and elocution and performance as opera is, gaining much needed emotional nuance from the choices of the performer as from the words themselves. You can compare the basis for the excellent song Boxes And Squares (the first track in the video I linked to above) with the poem For the Body, for the Heart included in this collection. The poem provides the (ironically prosaic) bones that the brilliant track hangs from, like a hanger that shows off a gorgeous dress. Doesn’t matter whether the hanger is padded or velvet tho, it’s still just a hanger, and nothing compared to what it supports.

And that’s the trouble with this collection, at least in it’s written version: it’s just scaffolding. It’s there. It’s fine. The poems Be Bee and Adam show potential for being silently readable, and the pieces of short prose are engaging, but everything else reads as if it needs more, whether expansion into longer essays or Ms Ball’s inimitable voice to give the words life. Please don’t tell me that all poetry needs to be read aloud to be properly appreciated: I can love words on the page without hearing them said in my ear. But I do think that, if given the chance, you should experience this collection in audiobook form. Ms Ball narrates that, which I’m sure does far more for this poetry than my simple interpretation — guided entirely by what’s on the page, because I am here to read and receive, not to inject my own overtones or fillips — could possibly do.

One advantage the printed book has over the audiobook tho is Shonte Young Williams’ lovely artwork, drawn and colored in neo-pop fashion to perfectly illustrate the contents of this slim volume. Tho for all I know, the art comes in the audiobook jacket as well: I have very little experience with audiobooks and even less interest in expanding same. What I do know is that this book is more of a showcase for Ms Young Williams’ works than for Ms Ball’s words, which is a shame, as both are emerging Black artists who deserve widespread recognition for their talent. As with most singers and performers, tho, I’d much rather watch Ms Ball perform than read her lyrics or poems. This book is great for fans, but I’d strongly recommend becoming one by watching her performances first.

Vulnerable AF by Tarriona Ball was published June 8 2021 by Andrews McMeel Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including

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