POETRY SLAM: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry

Poetry Slam The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry edited by Gary Mex Glazneredited by Gary Mex Glazner
Manic D Press ($15)

by Sean Thomas Dougherty

In the late '80s, construction worker Marc Smith—now affectionately known as Slam Papi—began holding competitive poetry events at the Green Mill nightclub in Chicago. The poets would read and judges drawn randomly from the audience would give Olympic-style scoring on index cards. The less the judges knew about poetry the better. Marc's goal was to reorient American poetry back to the general populace, to take it out of the critic's hands and give the right to judge back to the average citizen. Who would have thought that 14 years later poetry slams would become a common cultural currency, crossing international borders, creating a vibrant grassroots reading circuit, and turning relatively unknown writers into fifteen-minute literary stars?

Poetry Slam is the first semi-"official" anthology of the scene, edited by the "National Slam's first producer" (though there is some question about this claim); as such, one would hope they would offer the reader an accurate look at the shape of slam and an historical narrative of its development, and that the poems included would represent slam's diversity of aesthetic and content. Sadly, this isn't the case. From the opening prose pieces about "Slam Strategy," "Group Pieces," and being "On the Road," the texture and tone speak to a juvenile reader, promising a world where they too can smoke dope and read poems in Europe. Glazner may argue that fits in with slam's message—to popularize the discourse and bring poetry back to the people, whether the people be shopping in the neon glitterati of the nearest suburban mega-mall, or blithely penning self-indulgent love notes on napkins in the latest off-street coffee-house or pizza joint—but too many poems here are so badly self-indulgent as to seem like parodies of themselves. Take for example these lines from former National Slam organizer and Poetry Alive! guru Allen Wolf's specious poem "The Secret Explanation of Where Poems Come From":

If ever you are in the room with those
Lost in a reverie of poetry,
And struggling to guide their thoughts, they close
Their seeking eyes to help them better see...

There is a difference between popularizing for the sake of public awareness—as Brooks, Neruda, Sandburg and Ginsberg did—and creating such pedagogical drivel. It is not a question of publishing bad writers either—Wolff, Staceyann Chin, Maria McCray, Roger Agair Bonard are good poets represented by forgettable pieces. Likewise, Genevieve Van Cleve and San Francisco's Beth Lisick—the latter one of the most impressive performers in North America—are represented not by their poems but by regrettable prose about being on tour, the type of writing one might expect from a beginner. What was Glazner thinking? It is almost as if, in order to affirm the populism of slam, he has gone for the lowest aesthetic denominator possible.

Despite this overall tendency, there are some tremendously successful and important poems here, the type of work that has kept slam going all these years. DJ Renegade's remarkable "Big Andre," whose short staccato lines fire: "He holds up two white rocks / they shiver in his hand / He shakes them like dice / they rattle like the bones / of a very skinny man." Boston's Michael Brown offers his discursive ode to "Ali," an insightful political poem. Elegies and odes are strong slam currency. Cleveland's Ray MacNeice lets loose a blue-collar-ode to his "Grandfather's Breath": "haggard cheeks puffing / out like work clothes hung between tenements." Marc Smith adds his movingly understated meditation on "My Father's Coat." Da Boogie Man whispers a tender ode to his estranged son, as Faith Vincinanza and Georgia Popoff offer poignant narratives of family loss and renewal. Gayle Danley's remarkable "Funeral Like Nixon's," Jeff McDaniel’s "Disasterology," Justin Chin's hilarious play on stereotypes "Chinese Restaurant," Jerry Quickley's mythos-laced words of resistance "Calcium Rings," Patricia Smith's "My Million Fathers, Still Here Past," and the phenomenal "Eulogy of Jimi Christ" by Individual Slam Champion Reggie Gibson are the standouts. Gibson mixes linguistic wordplay, conjoined assonance, and political subtext to emerge in a miraculous ode:

how the musebruise
of yo sadomasochistic bluesoozed
through floors and l.s.d doors

leavin psychedelic relics wrecked
on phosphorescent shores

Perhaps this aesthetic disparity between poems that "move the room" and poems that barely merit a "2.4" is the final clue to understanding this book; it is very much like the slam itself, a kind of opulent open mike that produces some of the best public poetry currently being written in the United States, and sadly some of the worst.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001