March 19, 2009

Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

CAN SLAM POETRY MATTER?

It wasn’t too long ago that poetry critics were decrying the decline of American poetry’s public audience. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia declared poetry dead to the average reader (the former in his essay “Who Killed Poetry?” and the latter in “Can Poetry Matter?”). Aided by the rise of MFA programs and the insularity of the academy, poetry, they argued, had been forced into an academic ghetto. Both critics reasoned that if poetry were to be resuscitated from its deathbed, it would have to present a new public face to the general reader.

At the same time critics were lamenting its death, poetry was indeed finding a new kind of public venue. In 1984, in a working-class Chicago barroom called the Get Me High Lounge, an ex-construction worker by the name of Marc Smith was experimenting with poetry and cabaret-style performance art. When he ran out of material to complete a set during an ensemble show, Smith stumbled upon a competitive format that has lasted two decades. He let the audience judge—at first with boos and applause, and later with numeric scores—the poems performed on stage. Two years later, Marc Smith took his poetry competition to The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, one of Al Capone’s favorite haunts. It was there on July 25, 1986, among the clinking of beer bottles and the thick haze of cigarette smoke, that the Uptown Poetry Slam was born.

Simply put, a poetry slam is a competitive poetry reading in which poets perform their own writing for scores. Slams are open and democratic in nature; anyone who wishes to sign up for the competition can. The scores, which range from 0.0 to 10.0, are assigned by volunteer judges (typically five of them) selected from the audience. The highest and the lowest scores for a poem are dropped and the three remaining scores are added together for a maximum total of 30 points. There is also a time limit of three minutes and ten seconds per performance; poets may and do go over this limit, but a time penalty is assessed and figured into their scores. Poets are also restricted in how they perform; no “props, costumes, or animal acts” are allowed. Musical accompaniment, except for that which poets can make with their own body, is also usually excluded. Beyond that, poets are free to use the microphone and any other items on stage to perform their poems. At stake are titles, small cash prizes, and even gag prizes. From the winners of local and regional slams, representative teams from cities across the U.S. and Canada (and some international teams) are certified to compete at the National Poetry Slam, which takes place annually in August.

The slam has grown exponentially since its humble Chicago beginnings. In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam was held with two teams of poets from Chicago and San Francisco. Now in its 18th year, the National Poetry Slam has expanded to accommodate 80 teams from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and its tournament structure is not unlike a national forensics meet. The slam’s rapid national expansion has inspired a number of competition regulations, governed and enforced by a non-profit organization, Poetry Slam, Inc. It has also spawned other international competitions that vary in structure and membership, including the Individual World Poetry Slam, established in 2004, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which will hold its first competition in 2007. Still, the poetry slam remains at its core a grassroots practice; the Uptown Poetry Slam, for example, still takes place every Sunday night at the Green Mill, and Poetry Slam, Inc. boasts over 100 certified local slam venues internationally.

Local poetry slams have reached a vast array of audiences. Today, slams attract audiences not only in urban centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but also in areas as distant as Singapore and the U.K. or as remote as Fargo, North Dakota. They are held in bars, bookstores, coffeehouses, universities, street corners, and theaters. Slams have surfaced in most U.S. states and slam poets have performed their work in feature films, in documentaries, on cable television, and on Broadway stages. Slam poetry has even had the dubious honor of becoming the subject of a book in The Complete Idiot’s Guide series. The Nuyorican Poets’ Café, the legendary den of poetic activity on New York City’s Lower East Side, is consistently packed for its Friday night slam. And although there may appear to be a consistent tension between the academy and slam, more and more poets are ferrying the divide between the two camps. Former and current slam competitors are now studying or teaching in MFA programs; likewise, winners of academic poetry’s most prestigious honors—the Yale Younger Poets Series, the National Poetry Series, and the Pulitzer Prize to name a few—have performed on the slam stage to acclaim. Still other slam competitors have taken their poetry to larger mainstream audiences, namely through commercial ventures such as the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry or through spoken word albums.

The growing history and influence of the poetry slam, especially on a younger generation of writers, suggests that the practice is not just a passing fad. The serious critic must cease treating the slam as a literary novelty or oddity and recognize it for what it is: a movement which combines (and at times exploits) the literary, the performative, and the social potential of verse, and which does so with the audience as its judge and guide.

The poetry slam was born in a bar. Now, 21 years later, it is finally old enough to drink there.

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The metaphor of legality is an apt one to apply to the slam, since the legitimacy of the poetry performed there has been debated by the literary elite since the slam’s inception. In the Spring 2000 issue of The Paris Review, for example, Harold Bloom called the work performed at poetry slams “rant and nonsense” and coined their judgment by audience members “the death of art.” On the other hand, nearly fifteen years after he warned poetry not to walk into the divine white light, Dana Gioia declared the popularity of poetry slams evidence of a populist revival of verse, inspired by the oral culture of radio, television, film, and Internet media. Although such claims may be hyperbolic—and in Bloom’s case, clearly reductive—they do highlight some myths and truths about
what slam poetry is and does.

One myth is that all slam poetry is overtly political, loud, confrontational, or performed exclusively in the hip-hop idiom. Although such tones and language may be de rigueur at many slams, sometimes tiringly so, there exists a variety of poetry being practiced on the slam stage—comedic, dramatic, sensual, personal, and political. This is not to say that the slam community isn’t a politically motivated one; slam poets and their audiences are by and large committed to celebrating ethnic, gender, and sexual diversity. But it is to say that there is more than one poetic approach used at the slam to state one’s convictions. The poets and poetry represented in this issue, all of whom have been involved with the slam in some way, are indicative of slam poetry’s many faces. The sheer variety of work performed in competitions signals that slam poetry—if we can think about it as a body of work—is not defined by tone, form, or subject matter, but by what it wishes to achieve: a more intimate and authentic connection with its audience through performance.

This sense of authentic connection reveals a truth: that the poetry performed at slams courts its audience, and diligently so. Whether for scores, applause, or mere power of persuasion, slam poets actively attempt to engage and elicit a reaction from their audiences. This marks a distinction between the poetry slam and the poetry reading: the poetry reading, with its hushed and reverent tones, remains a largely private and passive act, where the poetry slam evokes a more active relationship in the public display of applause, whistles, boos, and hissing from its audience. The slam invites the audience to assess the poem and its performance in a public context. Whereas the audience of a poetry reading usually offers no reaction other than the occasional “grunt and nod” of poetic acknowledgement, the audience of a slam does not hesitate to applaud or heckle each poet or poem. In this respect, slam poetry resembles not a form of poetry, but a rhetorical mode of address, one that woos its audience by making an argument, softly or loudly.

Some critics of the slam cite this emphasis on pleasing the audience as its tragic flaw. Amiri Baraka, for example, lamented in The New Yorker what he saw as the carnivalesque nature of the poetry slam, calling it the “strong-man act” of the poetry world. Indeed, there are times in slam competition where attempts to entertain the audience are reaching and obvious. But lest one think of poetry slams as mere popularity contests or a poetic version of American Idol, know that slam audiences are savvy and quick to dismiss poets whose performances are cloying or not up to their standards. In this regard, even when a poet woos his or her judges too assiduously, the slam’s focus on audience marks a profound shift in poetry’s critical reception. A slam, much to the chagrin of some literary critics, puts its audience in the seat of critical power—and an audience who has come to see poetry performed at 8PM on a Friday night is not one whose intelligence we should insult.

Another misconception about slam poetry is that it exists only as a spontaneous performance. Although some slam poets freestyle or otherwise improvise on stage, most verse performed there is carefully composed and written down. Some poets bring their texts on the stage with them; others feel that memorizing their poetry allows them to focus on the performative elements of live presentation. Likewise, slam poets showcase their poetry through CDs, DVDs, and chapbooks alike. So, although some slam poetry is best appreciated in the context of live performance, it exists in and through a variety of media—print, oral broadcast, recorded performance, and live performance—and in many cases is a true hybrid of these different types of media. To make matters more complicated, the printed version of a slam poet’s work is not necessarily the most definitive—the same slam poem can exist in different versions across different media and alter many times in the live context. In this respect, slam poetry raises the question of what verse’s native technology should be.

Still others have tried to understand slam poetry’s impact by citing Greek poetry competitions and the legacy of the bard or troubadour, saying the poetry slam reclaims poetry’s long-lost origins in oral culture. A visit to any poetry slam will reveal that the primary emphasis here is not on the oral or aural—on speaking or listening—but on performance. Of course, orality is a part of what makes the poetry slam popular and unique—outside of the slam’s competitive framework, such work is known as “spoken word poetry,” after all. Still, the most significant aspect of slam poetry is its performativity—its emphasis on presence and the body, its enactment of the authentic, and its performance of the self, identity, and authorship. It’s not the sounding of words that a slam audience craves, but rather a personal experience that affirms to them what poetry is and does, regardless of the poet’s (or their own) pedigree.

This last impulse is why Miguel Algarín, former Rutgers University professor and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, dubbed practice of the poetry slam “the democratization of verse.” As an open venue, the poetry slam is continually welcoming new audiences and practitioners into its ranks, all of whom can have a say in what is rewarded at the slam and where the artform is going. Poetry slams create communities of poets and poetry lovers in which poetry is not only disseminated but discussed, critiqued, debated. Such a democratic, critical strain is woefully absent from so many other public poetry projects designed in the wake of the “Can Poetry Matter?” years—projects which focus on getting poetry out to readers for aesthetic enjoyment but which don’t invite its discussion or vital sense of community.

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Speaking of community, my own involvement in local and national poetry slams for the last decade demands that I highlight one thing that makes this group of artists so remarkable. Although the tenor of competition is sometimes cutthroat (trash-talk and strategy sessions abound at slams when the stakes are high), the poetry slam is, at its heart, a place meant to celebrate its community and to nurture new writers and performers regardless of their credentials. For some poets, the slam provides a place of acceptance where they otherwise could find none, and so it should be of no surprise that the slam boasts of a much more diverse group of poets—both in demographics and in style—than one will find in more elite circles. The slam’s openness has ushered in a new awareness of and enthusiasm for the oral and performative possibilities of poetry among popular audiences.

Still, the poetry slam is far from a verse utopia. Slam poets, even though they are told by MCs to check their egos at the door, sometimes don’t. And let’s face it, the competitive aspect of slam can bring out the worst in people. (One poet in this issue, Taylor Mali, even published a tongue-in-cheek chapbook of winning slam strategies which includes tactics as crass as “Don’t Lead with your Lesbian.”) Nor is the poetry slam a one-stop panacea for poetry’s once ailing life in the public sphere. If poetry is to become a part of the general reader’s life, it must do so in variety and abundance, on both the page and the stage and all the media in between.

Yet, the poetry slam has been incredibly successful at creating one thing that other public poetry projects have not—a close-knit, distinct, and vibrant community of writers and patrons. We refer to our clan as the “slam family,” dysfunction and all. As someone who identifies as an academic poet, a slam poet, and a critic, and as someone who is active in all of those arenas, I must say that I have not found a community as welcoming and permanent as this one. Even though most of us retire from competition at some point, a good number of slammers move on to have another, larger relationship with poetry—whether as organizers of slam events, as actors or musicians, or as respected authors or teachers within the academy. Some of us have met husbands, wives, and life partners at a slam. Many of us have met lifelong friends. We convene at our national competitions to revel in the possibilities of poetry in performance, geek out on our latest reading, debate what’s new in spoken word poetry, and boogie. It’s a great party. In such matters, the words of slammaster Allan Wolf—“The points are not the point, the point is poetry”—ring true.

In these pages you will find a mix of artists from different backgrounds—poets who have academic training and those who are self-taught, old school and new school slammers, former champions and those fresh on the scene. They vary in age; here is one of the youngest poets to appear on the National Poetry Slam finals stage (Alvin Lau) next to one of the oldest to accomplish that same feat (Jack McCarthy). They vary in style; some are known for working predominately within a hip-hop idiom (Marlon O. Carey, Kevin Coval) or a jazz aesthetic (Regie Gibson), while others use a more narrative, lyrical, or comedic approach. They vary in experience; multiple slam champions (Taylor Mali, Anis Mojgani, Patricia Smith, and Buddy Wakefield) appear alongside relative newcomers (Katie F-S, Grace Bruenderman). They hail from locations as diverse as New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Texas, California, Michigan, Kentucky, and Nebraska; one former slam champ in this issue, Roger Bonair-Agard, hails from Brooklyn by way of Trinidad and Tobago. They approach slam from a variety of professions and crafts; Bruenderman comes to slam as a collegiate forensics competitor, Jeremy Richards produces radio segments for National Public Radio and affiliate stations, Karyna McGlynn is a Hopwood Award winner fresh out of the University of Michigan MFA program; Carlos Andrés Gómez is a poet-actor who recently starred in the Spike Lee film Inside Man. Here too is slam’s own inside man, Marc Smith, who started it all in a smoky Chicago bar.

In acknowledgement of the hybrid of text and performance that is slam poetry, this issue features both the text of poems and an accompanying audio CD. In reading and listening to these poems, you will no doubt realize some of the oral possibilities that the slam stage affords. Listening to poetry, especially of the variety that these authors represent, can be powerful and revealing in ways that poetry solely on the page never can be.

In other respects, however, slam poetry is best received in the intimate context of live performance. If you go to a slam and stick around long enough, you’ll probably hear a poem you like. Or a poem you despise. Or a poem that changes your mind or your underwear. You decide. Because hey, you can do that at a slam.

from Rattle #27, Summer 2007

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Susan B.A. Somers-Willett is the author of two critically acclaimed books of poetry: Quiver (VQR Series, U of Georgia Press, 2009) and Roam (Crab Orchard Award Series, SIU Press, 2006). She is also the author of a book of scholarly criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America (U of Michigan Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Iowa Review among other publications. A poet, scholar, and a member of three national poetry slam teams, she is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is researching the impact of public poetry projects.

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