Kevin Coval: L-Vis Lives!

L-Vis Lives! RaceMusic Poems by Kevin Coval, Haymarket Books, 2011.


Chicago-native Kevin Coval’s new book L-Vis Lives, is braver than any poetry book I’ve read recently. Coval tackles head-on the intersection of race, music and appropriation of hip-hop culture by using a central figure named “L-vis” to represent a collage of artists who have used and misused Black Music.  “L-vis lives at the center of the American experiment,” Coval writes in the Preface. The honest account of race and identity presented in the work “reads like heavily syruped pancakes,” writes the Coup’s Boots Riley.  Coval’s Preface explains the book’s context in these opening lines:

“this is an old story, depending on who you ask. Here is Elvis Presley, Vanilla Ice, Eminem, me, the Beastie Boys, and other whiteboys who consider themselves down, mashed into one character: a contemporary L-vis, a whiteboy who uses and misuses Black cultural production, who is at times appropriate and appropriates, who blurs the lines and crosses it carelessly.”

Five sections divide the book: 1) life side, 2) quarters in the don’t play arcade, 3) death side, 4) broke/////////beat/////////intermezzo, and 5) whiteboy I could’ve been: a suite for John Walker Lindh.  Through the course of these five sections Coval discusses race and music via cultural touchstones like Elvis Presley, the Beastie Boys, Eminem, Vanilla Ice, Rick Rubin, Tupac, Etheridge Knight.

This book is a poetic novella. The 52 pieces over 102 pages form a field of narrative addressing questions on multiple levels of reality. Race, Music, Politics, American Studies, pop culture, cinema, the allusions alone are an education for the uninitiated. In Coval’s poem “Cracking the Code,” he writes, “the code is coded in its decoding.” The many author and musical names, historical facts, sports trivia and geography lessons embedded in the text serve the author’s purpose to open up the conversation about race in America.

Clean, short lines comprise many of the poems. There are a few short prose pieces, but the longest piece is a seven page poem. Coval is well versed in Hip Hop History and each vignette presents a snapshot. In the poem, “Rick Rubin’s (Black) Magic Act,” Coval captures Rubin wonderfully in five stanzas. Here’s an excerpt from the third stanza:

His nyu dorm room became a laboratory. Desks pushed together

to hold turntables, attempting to mash scenes thru the speakers.

The desire to connect the city, Uptown and Downtown

Coval’s poetic portraits of figures like Rick Rubin, Joe Strummer and the Beastie Boys oppose the poems composed about Elvis and Vanilla Ice. There is sarcasm and dark humor embedded within a collection of comical and emotional poems. The longest poem in the book is, “What the Whiteboy Wants.”  The poem is both a meditation and lament simultaneously. One of the final stanzas:

The whiteboy wants

To be special, to transcend

His race, the white-

Boy wants to be John Brown

Cuz that is the only whiteboy

In history worth being

The poem, “White Art,” is one of the boldest.  Check the opening line:

poems about birchwood are bullshit

unless forests of mercantilists burn

tied to tree trunks..

The two page poem follows the form of Amiri Baraka’s legendary poem “Black Art,” the 1965 poem that launched the Black Arts Movement. Coval’s poem keeps Baraka’s tone, “we want poems to stop lying.” Poet Thomas Sayers Ellis writes, “the figure at the center of L-Vis Lives! Is part Norman Mailer’s White Negro and part social aesthetic-activist determined to continue the Unfinished, Collected Works of John Brown.”  Especially in these four lines:

we want poems that tie billy collins to a chair

and beat him. We’ll see how pretty, witty and meaningless

it all is: a million stanza march ready to flood his organ

alternate multi-culti cannons shoved in his paternalism

Coval’s social commentary on race in America culminates with the final nine poems, the cycle of poems for John Walker Lindh titled, “whiteboy I could’ve been.” “Last Letter Home,” is a short prose piece that begins, “I am going. You must have known this day would come.” Eight lines later he writes,” I have allied myself with the proletariat who drive your cabs, press your clothes, slice your kebabs, who silence beneath the weight missiles close on their throats.”

Clearly much of the book is also autobiographical. Coval’s been featured on four seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and is a central figure in Chicago’s musical and literary underground.  He’s the cofounder of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival and veteran language arts educator in Chicago High Schools. Coval lives his ideals and knows intimately what he writes about. L-Vis Lives addresses race and music in America with insight and candor.

L-Vis Lives! RaceMusic Poems by Kevin Coval, Haymarket Books, 2011. ISBN: 9781608461516

Mike Sonksen, aka Mike the Poet, is a 3rd generation Los Angeles native. Mike is a Poet/Journalist/Historian widely acclaimed for his live performances, contributions to international publications, and legendary city tours.

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