National Poetry Slam
October 2nd thru 5th, 1991
Reviewed by Marla Vender
(This review was first published in Letter eX in December, 1991.)
Hotter than the inside of Madonna's bustier after a lusty rendition of "Like a Virgin" at noon in August, the 1991 National Poetry Slam made me pant, sweat and wriggle like I was touched for the very first time. Listening to poets from eight different cities battle for the championship title was inspiring. Even the worst poet provided contrast for evidence that those who were good were very good and actually, none was horrid.
With stories in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, the SLAM can't be ignored. The poetry slam began in Chicago circa 1986 with Marc Smith as the birth-mother and David Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill Lounge, providing the space. On Sunday nights in Chicago, as many as 200 poets and regular Joes (often one and the same here) fill the Green Mill to recite poetry, drink beer and score the stanza. Anyone willing to expose their soul for points can compete. Three judges chosen from the audience listen and score the two selected poets in a series of five "bouts". Scoring is on a scale from 1-10, five points for presentation and five for content.
Critics of the slam feel it is the scoring process that is so reprehensible. Really, the scoring is for the audience, and the audience is central to the slam. The slam provides a venue for new poets who have no connection to academia, but who want to take their work to the public. Where traditionally poetry has been treated as high art, performance poetry gives a human edge to a formerly more esoteric school. Performance poetry is a fine way for people, not just poets, to hear what's out there and not be bored to tears listening to some stuffed shirt drone on and on, reading aloud something best left unspoken.
"Slams get people's ears propped open long enough for some meaning to slide in," says WNYC TV poetry producer, Bob Holman. This is poetry for the masses, the "grassiest, rootiest grass-roots movement, an alternative to the Alternative." Holman, the producer of "Words In Your Face" for Live From Off Center on PBS, doesn't understand why poets don't unanimously support the slam.
He acknowledges the competitiveness (he is also the co-director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and coach of the NY slam team) but feels that it is competition that gives the slam its edge and helps gain a popular audience for poetry. Anyone who was at the championship at Cabaret Metro, a rock music club, could not help but sense what Holman calls, A United State of Poetry. Five hundred people packed the place to hear poetry. It was better than almost any concert I've ever been to and a lot more interesting. Unlike music, most everyone has tried their hand at poetry and unlike music, most everyone in that room was moved by what they heard without going deaf in the process.
Another sore point with the slam critics would be that five of the ten points in a score go toward performance. A poet of high sensitivity could very well be brutalized by this. Well too bad, we want to be entertained. Points are given for performance, but it isn't the body language or vocal manipulation of a poet that is judged, but the ability of the words themselves to convey characters or situations that are rich and compelling. Sure, some poets pander to the crowd's desire for sex, comedy and violence, but most entertain by weaving beautiful word-sounds that stand brilliantly. Those who score low because of a failure to titillate do not necessarily lose.
The National SLAM featured teams from Ann Arbor, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Chicago and Boston had the most cohesive teams as well as some of the strongest individual poets. All of the teams featured fine poets and though some were highly performance oriented (Claire Blotter, San Francisco) others read their spiritually charged poems frankly, sans theatrics and not incidentally, scored miserably (Andrienne Su, NYC).
Stand-outs this year who didn't make it to the final mile were: William Perdomo, NYC, Jorge Argueta, SF, David Kodeski, CHI, Amy Sparks, CL, and Adrienne Su, NYC. The winner of the team competition was Chicago and the individual champion for the second year in a row was Patricia Smith of Boston, formerly of Chicago. An outstanding body of work earned Lisa Buscani of Chicago second place and Michael Brown of Boston bought third with some funny and finely crafted poems.
If one regards the slam with disdain because of its penchant for high drama, Patricia Smith's victory is an excellent argument against this notion. Smith's poetry (as well as Buscani's, Brown's and many of the other poets) does not require wild gesticulation or play acting to create a mood or persona. This Black woman brought to life for everyone at the Metro, a white supremist male filled with hatred and bile, a gay man in search for an AIDS cure for his lover, Little Richard, and her father who was killed. All she used were words. That is poetry.
The slam is indigenous to Chicago and something to be proud of. It has gained national attention, is growing every year and has united and enlivened what has been an elitist and separatist form of art. You say tomato, I say tomahto; you say harassment, I say harassment. Let's not argue for limitations but keep pushing to overcome our differences, and slam poetry through the dusty confines of the podium and into the future.
--Marla Vender, December, 1991
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