Overcoming the Gongshow Mentality
by C. J. Laity
(This article was also first published in Letter eX back in February, 1993.)
In pure dictionary terms, "to slam" invokes violence, "to put, throw or strike." In critics' slang, "to slam" might mean to give a negative review. For example, I am about "to slam" the Poetry Slam.
What does it mean to "Slam" poetry? It sounds like a sick joke reflecting a vendetta against the academic establishment, almost as sick as calling a poetry venue "Kill the Pots." I am not referring to the poetic reawakening called "the Chicago performance poetry movement," which has put Chicago on the poetry map. Yes, it is true, all Slam poetry is performance poetry, but not all performance poetry is Slam poetry. Slam poems are only those poems written to win, or selected by the criteria of, the Poetry Slam Contest, which was created by Chicago poet Marc K. Smith. Actually, Smith twisted the idea of the Taos Poetry Circus, invented partially by fiction writer Terry Jacobus (author of Fine), which was once held in a boxing ring. "Marc caught the football and ran," Chris Holderman (former host of Bop Shop's poetry night) once said. It seems Smith kept on running even after making the touchdown, so that the Slam trademark has become generic. Recently, it has been used to classify all forms of performance poetry. This is one misconception that must be destroyed, so that the Chicago Poetry Scene can be set free. Only then will the Chicago Poetry Scene grow to its full potential. One only needs to attend Chicago's diverse poetry venues (bars, libraries, bookstores, cafes, universities) to discover how many of Chicago's performance poets are reading poetry publicly in order to honor the Slam system. In the Chicago Poetry Scene's fruitbowl, I'd say the Slam is an instantly gratifying kumquat that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Let's look at the so-called rules of a Slam.
The rules of a basic level Slam competition, one which might take place at Chicago's notorious jazz club The Green Mill Lounge, are as follows. The oral presentations of two or more poems are compared. Writing styles and performance styles are pitted against each other instantaneously. Judges are chosen on the spot from the audience. The judges are asked to score each poem from one to ten, with decimals allowed to avoid ties, and negative numbers allowed down to negative infinity. The judges are to score the poems up to five points based on performance and up to five points based on content, even though judges are not coached on the meaning of performance or content, nor are they asked to break down their total scores and to justify them. The scoring process gives any one judge the power to "slam" a piece of writing out of the contest. Thus, Poetry Slam. If the audience doesn't like a poem, they are asked to snap their fingers. If the poem exceeds three minutes the audience should snap. If the poem has any sexual connotations, the audience should hiss. If the poet continues to read as the audience snaps and hisses, the audience should begin stomping feet. If the poet still sweats it out, the audience should yell "Belmont," an obvious homophobic reference to Chicago's lakeview neighborhood. Finally, the audience is asked to throw wads of paper at the poet. By this time, just by the sheer noise of it, the poet is a vaudeville comedian yanked off the stage by a long cane. The judges are asked to make scores anyway, even though they haven't heard the poem.
To win a Slam might mean a poem is funny. It might mean the poet performed well. It might mean the poet is a slam regular and has figured out the Slam "strategy." To win a Poetry slam might mean any variety of things other than that the poem had literary value.
There is a defect in the Slam's judging system: the average of the high scores increases as the Slam continues. At the beginning of a Slam, a high score might be six or seven; by the end of a Slam, a high score might be nine or ten. This makes for an exciting show. It feeds the judges' egos. What it doesn't do is give respect to the poor poet destined to go first in a Slam competition with twenty finalists. Judges could be coached on how to fairly score each poet regardless of what order they perform in. This probably would be against Smith's best interests. The Slam is about the entertainment value of the show, not about the quality of the poetry. If we were to give the poets the respect they deserve through fair judging, we wouldn't need to call it a Slam. Anyone attending an Uptown Poetry Slam has witnessed Smith introduce each poet with positive or negative comments, before and after a poem is performed. No doubt these comments influence the judges' ability to score a poet objectively.
The rules of the Slam cannot be taken seriously. How can anything which calls itself poetry, but which covers its newsletter Slam (Crow Collaborative) with a picture of sumo wrestlers instead of poets, be taken seriously? When the Slam reached the national level in 1991, the rules had to be altered, as if its own rules were not good enough for itself. All those trying to get to the finals had to play by Gongshow rules; however, the finalists were treated with respect when television, publications and serious poets had their eyes on it. Marc Smith even criticized one of the judges harshly, publicly humiliating her at Filmmakers, because she scored one of the poets with a two. This from the man who allowed negative infinity in the race to get to Filmmakers? Any situation outside of Smith's turf forces the Slam's rules to be altered, so that judges are pre-chosen, negative numbers are not allowed, booing is not encouraged, and so on. By this time, we are still calling the contest a Slam, even though it contains no Slam philosophy. The rules of the Slam are interpreted differently and adjusted to fit the politics of different situations.
You see, Slam is not about poetry. You don't hear Marc Smith saying very much about the aesthetics of poetry during a Slam. In the Slam business (and it is a business), other similar businesses are viewed as competition, so that flyers can not be passed out at Smith's venues. However, he expects Slam promotions to be distributed at every venue. Anyone speaking badly about the Slam is instantly treated as an enemy to it, regardless of the quality of her / his poetry. Therefore, the Slam leaves no room for discovery or improvement.
Just as corporations dump their wastes, so does the Slam, when comedians are called poets and poets are censored. If Smith's politics are all we should expect from the Slam, then get the people in the door and sell some drinks, by all means. But Marc Smith is calling it "Chicago-style" poetry. Is this what Chicago really wants to tell the world?
The Slam is by no means inclusive. Academics are usually the targets of its blatant censorship, but not even all performance poets are accepted into Smith's crowd. You might expect Marc Smith to be very popular among performance poets. From what I have heard, many performance poets keep their distance from Marc, otherwise Marc tries to claim responsibility for their fame. Some cry, "The revolution has begun! Give more power to the poets!"
Anything which is suppose to choose what are suppose to be the five best poets in Chicago, so they can compete against the rest of America, but which comes up with an all-white team of five, must not be working, taking into account Chicago's diversity. Yet this was the case with Team Chicago in 1991. How could it be possible unless there is something wrong internally?
"I'm very appreciative of the Slam," Kristin Amondsen, 1991 Team Chicago member, told me, "but I think Marc's a sexist." She was referring to an argument she had with him concerning Anita Hill. This is ironic considering that in a Slam anything considered sexist is supposed to be hissed at.
Smith has been called "the father of performance poetry." Taking this title literally is saying there were no performing poets before Marc, that he invented and therefore holds some kind of "you owe me" patent on reciting poetry. The truth is evident. Chicago has had a performance poetry scene way before Marc met poet Joe Roarty, who was the man who helped introduce Marc to Chicago's performance poetry scene. Joffre Stewart was hosting a performance poetry venue in Chicago before anyone knew who Marc K. Smith was.
Why does Slam poetry pit itself against the academic world? Smith constantly attacks the academic establishment, even though he himself has taught at a university. On the other hand, he has attacked the use of poetry in blue Jean commercials, even though the Slam is the most commercial of all Chicago's poetry venues. It is anti-academic performance poetry which must have motivated the Chicago Tribune Magazine to title its lead story on the Chicago Poetry Scene "Amateur pentameter," even though its photo spread included such published poets as: Michael Warr, David Hernandez, Carlos Cumpian, Renaldo Migaldi, Jean Howard, Luis Rodriguez, Cynthia Gallaher, Lydia Tomkiw (and yours truly). One would only have to read the bio information in the back of the book Stray Bullets: A Celebration of Chicago's Saloon Poetry (Tia Chucha Press) to see that many of Chicago's saloon poets are also academic poets. The Chicago Poetry Scene is an academy, in a way, and in it the poets are academics. In order to achieve unity in the Chicago Poetry Scene, street poets must stop badmouthing academics, academics must stop badmouthing street poets, and poetry, as an artform, must be celebrated.
Smith's biggest defense is "the Slam is fun." Sure it is. I've had good times at Slams, which were directly proportional to the quality of the poets attending. If the Slam attracts talented poets who share their work and entertain us, then maybe this is worthwhile. When Smith imposes the Slam philosophy on the entire city or invites unsuspecting outsiders to compete in an International Slam (when they haven't the first notion of Slam politics), then he is ripping people off. He is insulting those who love poetry in its traditional form as well as those who love to perform it uncensored. When inviting poets to perform in any Slam, Smith should let them know that, even though it is called poetry, it is only for fun.
In the same way some performance artists fear the comedy of Milly's Orchid Show degrades the artistic value of performance art, poets should also wonder about anything calling itself "poetry" which demands a certain amount of levity as a policy. Through humor calling itself poetry, we easily escape the responsibility poets are given as artists, to communicate and to inform artistically—to create poetry. Instead, we only entertain. I am not saying funny poetry is not poetry. What I am saying is that if we make humor a requirement, even in performance poetry, we have censored poetry.
--C. J. Laity, February, 1993
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