Poets Slam Door on Tradition
By Shannon Caine
Sometimes, poetry can be a dreaded academic subject. From my own school days, I remember a prim, gray-haired teacher droning out page after page of William Blake while I exerted superhuman effort to stay awake.
I remember being shocked when I finally got around to reading Blake for myself and discovering the intensity of his writing when it’s not filtered through a sterile, robotic voice. As it turned out, Blake wasn’t half the crashing bore the teacher had turned him into. There are times when vocal inflection can make all the difference in presenting poetry.
And that’s what slam poetry is all about.
Marc Smith, a Chicago poet, is generally credited with developing the art of slam poetry, largely in response to overly academic trends at mainstream poetry readings. Feeling that readings had become far too pompous and pretentious, Smith organized the first slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, and after some venue changes, found a home for the poetry slams at the Green Mill Jazz Club. The slam phenomenon quickly spread out of Chicago, and now, slams can be found in hundreds of cities nationwide, including Fayetteville.
Slam poetry has been part of the Northwest Arkansas arts scene for well over a decade, and is still going strong. Doug Shields, a longtime local slam poet, says that slam came to Fayetteville less than 10 years after the original slam in Chicago. In the ’90s, Smith even came to Fayetteville to read.
“Fayetteville was running one of the first 20 or so slams in the world,” Shields said. “It is considered to be one of the original slams by the old-timers in the national slam community.”
The Ozark Poetry Slam was founded by the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective in 1994.
What makes slam different from a regular poetry reading?
First, it’s highly competitive. When one attends a standard poetry reading, there’s usually not a group of judges holding up Olympic-style scorecards, nor are the poets competing against one another for cash and prizes.
And who are the judges? Are they distinguished professors of literature, people with doctorates in English, or linguistic scholars?
They might be, but chances are good that they’re not. A slam poetry judge need not possess any special literary or academic qualifications. In fact, judges are often pulled right from the audience. A judge could be a total stranger who just strolled into the club out of curiosity, a high school student or the janitor who will be mopping the floor after the event is over. Anyone in the audience can be tapped as a judge, just as anyone can sign up to perform. There’s no background check for literary credentials.
When Smith developed slam poetry, part of the goal was to put poetry back in the hands of the people.
“From its beginning,” Smith has stated, “slam has been an artform and entertainment open to all people from all walks of life — young and old, rich and poor, blue collar and white collar, gays and straights, priests and prostitutes, biologists and belly-dancers — a multicolored, multicultural gathering of people who love to hear and perform poetry.”
And there’s a built-in check to keep the slams from becoming monotonous.
To avoid the problem of poets who monopolize the microphone, most slams impose a time limit. Each performer is given a set amount of time in which to present a poem, usually around three minutes. The time limit is announced at the beginning of the event, and timing devices are used. Running overtime can lead to a loss of points or even disqualification. This means that a performer has to condense his or her work down to its absolute bare essentials. There’s no need to worry about a poet showing up at a slam and boring your socks off with a 20-minute poem.
Even if a poet actually does turn out to be boring, you’ll only be bored for three minutes at a time. Some, but not all, slams cull out lower-scoring poets as the event progresses. This means the second round will have fewer poets competing, and by the final round, there may only be a few poets left standing, with one eventually being declared the winner.
Slam audiences expect poets to get straight to the point. Poems are to be brief, emotionally engaging and highly entertaining. Dull, uninspired poetry has no place on the slam circut.
Another tradition associated with slam poetry is getting a poem “off the page.” Many slam poets memorize their work. This is because poets who aren’t constantly staring down at their notes tend to receive higher scores than those whose eyes are glued to the page. This ties in with the concept of poetry as performance art.
Slam focuses on dramatic performance and high energy. A competitor who reads a tame poem about flowers stands a good chance of getting trounced by a fellow competitor who’s flailing her arms and screaming out a deranged love song to her own genitalia.
The Fayetteville readings, like most slams, are uncensored, and some of the material can be geared toward adult audiences.
“I think freedom of speech is of utmost importance at any creative event,” said writer Heather Drain of Fayetteville. “With poetry, and slam poetry in particular, it is such an emotive form that having no content or language restrictions can only enable the artists to be their most blazing and creative.”
The National Poetry Slam is a large-scale international slam that features many different teams and individual poets. The first NPS was held in San Francisco and featured only a few teams. Currently, the competition migrates from city to city, and it’s not uncommon to see well over 50 teams involved. This includes participants from Northwest Arkansas.
The 2010 team representing Northwest Arkansas at the Nationals includes Thomas French, Jeremy Sparkman, Michelle Miesse, Harry McDermott and Houston Hughes. This year’s Nationals will be in August in St. Paul, Minn.
Heather Polly currently serves as the Slam Master for the Fayetteville readings, a position associated with the operational side of the slams. She arranges the booking for the National Poetry Slam, and contacts other teams for competitions.
“Basically, I’m their secretary,” Polly said. “The poets still do their own thing with practices and performances, but I take care of all the clerical work. At our home slams, I get there a little early to pass out fliers for the next month’s slam and get things set up.”
There are different kinds of slams. There are invitational slams, and there are also open slams in which anyone can perform. Additionally, there are theme slams, in which writers present poems that tie in with a specific concept: gay, women’s, improv, erotica, senior citizen, high school, and so forth.
Most slam poets present their own original works, but occasionally, there are cover slams in which a contestant can read anything except his or her own material. It could be anything from Chaucer to a rhyme found on the bathroom wall. Sometimes, cover slams are referred to as “Dead Poet Slams.”
Poets are often divided on whether they prefer slam poetry or noncompetitive poetry readings. Not everyone is a huge slam fan.
Fayetteville resident C.F. Roberts has read his poetry in a wide variety of venues nationwide, including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an influential slam poetry club in New York City.
“I prefer camaraderie in the arts over cutthroat competition,” Roberts said. “There’s a pressure in slams to conform to a codified slam idiom that undercuts actual writing and destroys creativity. This is compounded by a scoring system that rewards conformity and punishes anything that might be more challenging, or at least sincere. It kills ideas, in my opinion. I would rather listen to a reading by a sincere, awkward person who doesn’t have any performance chops than a seasoned pro with an inflated ego going for their 50th win. That said, if the slam scene inspires some people to write, it’s better to have it than not to have it.”
Don Lee of Clarksville has read many times in Fayetteville, as well as in New Orleans, Hot Springs, Bloomington, Ind., and Providence, R.I. He has been reading his original work to audiences for 18 years.
“Historically, of course, poetry was oral,” Lee said. “But my own feeling is that since World War I, poetry is primarily a written medium. I prefer noncompetitive readings. I’ve seen a lot of poets read, and the dramatic element is very enjoyable, but it can also hide a lack of other qualities. A good reader can read Yeats as well as a grocery list, but that doesn’t mean the grocery list is as good as Yeats.”
Cat Fury, poet and lead singer of the band What Army, enjoys the slam format.
“With slam, the poets are focused on entertaining and connecting with the audience. Slam forces poets to think about the fact that they’re asking for the audiences’ time, money and attention, so they try to bring poetry that justifies that.”
“Long before the printing press was invented, poetry was a campfire performance,” Sheilds said. “Slam is a giant billboard for poetry. It attracts audience members who would otherwise not have attended a poetry event. It brings together a national community of awesome weirdos who call themselves poets, and provides a ‘minor league’ in which poets can gain popularity so they can eventually make a living performing their poetry.”
Shields can appreciate both the competitive and noncompetitive aspects of poetry readings.
“Each has its advantages. In the Taoist sense, the open mic is the yin and the slam is the yang. The open mic is very nurturing and encourages experimentation. It is poet-centered and reflective. The slam, on the other hand, demands that the poet connect with the audience and perfect the skills of writing and performing. The slam is extroverted and warlike.”
Eris, a poet and former Slam Master likes the slam.
“I think that slam poetry is better for the common person. It is designed to be liked by judges who are randomly picked from the audience. Slam poetry is usually faster paced and easier to understand.”
Andrew “Panda” Lucariello not only reads at slams, but also performs his poetry at music shows, reading as a warm-up act for bands. Some of his work is adult-oriented, but he also maintains a body of PG-rated works that can be performed at all-ages shows. He has been actively reading slam poetry for two years, but has been aware of slam for 15 years. He’s one of a growing number of authors who likes the slam format, but feels that it’s becoming too codified. Slam started as a bold gesture of poetic freedom, but for some individuals, it has turned out to be just as limited as the scene it was originally intended to protest.
“Slam is getting too entrenched,” Lucariello says. “It’s time to bring in some fresh voices. Slams tend to be far too focused on the left-wing, college-educated, urban experience. You just don’t hear as much about the rural experience. I want to provide a different perspective. I’m small-town and working-class oriented, and it seems that such viewpoints are definitely underrepresented on the slam circuit.”
Slam poetry continues to increase in popularity regionally.
“Lately, the slam scene in Fayetteville has been on an upward trend,” Polly said.
“We just got a new venue and have been gaining in both general attendance and poets.”
Sometimes, poets gain popularity at the local slams only to drop out out of the scene after a while. But after they move on, there’s no shortage of poets to replace them.
“Slam is a very intense scene, and sometimes performers get burned out and decide to drop out for a while at about the same rate as new people come in,” Fury said. “As far as local attendance goes, slam is definitely growing. This time last year, we were happy if we saw 20 people attend, and now between 50-80 people is more common, especially if we have a good feature poet performing. I would chalk that up to this year’s slam council, who are all really dedicated and professional people.”
When a group of local poets were questioned as to who their favorite local slam artists are, many of the same names come up repeatedly. The late Brenda Moossy, who was a key figure in the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective, is frequently mentioned. Other local poets, such as Shields, Clayton Scott, Jeremy Sparkman and Houston Hughes, also rate highly.
“Doug Shields ran the slam for over seven years by himself,” Eris said. “Without him, we would not have had a consistent slam in Fayetteville. Also, I think that Houston and Sparkman have raised the bar locally as to what is possible with slam.”
Although slam focuses heavily upon performance, written works are often sold at slams. Many Northwest Arkansas poets have published chapbooks. These authors not only read their work for audiences, but also have complilations of their poetry in print.
A few chapbooks written by local authors include “Anything to Get Those Panties Down” by Don Lee, “Christ of All Flat Tires” by Randal Seyler, “Between Light and Darkness” by Andrew Lucariello, “Massacre Annex” by C.F. Roberts, “Comet Hillbilly Bop” by Doug Shields and “The Aftermath Of Yes” by Cat Fury.
Like any other type of performer, a slam competitor can experience a serious case of nerves. The poet is not only standing before a live audience, but is also putting his or her own original work on the line. It’s not like a classroom reading. The performance must be clean, tight and capable of strongly affecting the audience.
Lucariello prepares for a slam by going over his own material before approaching the mic.
“I’ll either memorize it, or practice aspects of performance until I’m absolutely sure what to do with it. Practicing vocal inflection helps, too.”
Fury says she memorizes the poem until she can pretty much perform it by reflex.
“I try to pick a few people in the audience who look like they can relate to the poem’s theme or subject and perform it directly to them. As far as mental preparation goes, I try to think back to the event or emotion that inspired the poem in the first place, so that any emotion in my voice during the poem is genuine, not mimicry.”
When asked if he has any special techniques for preparing for a slam performance, Shields said he “tries really hard not to vomit.”
If you’ve always considered poetry something hopelessly dull and uninspired, perhaps it’s time to check out the slams. New poets who are reading for the first time are sometimes jokingly referred to as “virgins” and are welcome at the Fayetteville readings.
Polly said it’s easy to do an online check of when and where slams are taking place.
“I love going to slams and getting to hear the emotion that is put into each poem and performance, and the manner with which the poets deliver the story to the audience.”
You can find information on local slams on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace under the name Ozark Poetry Slam. The slams are usually at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at Rogue on Dickson Street.