Last night I went to my first Poetry Slam. It was at Louder Arts at Bar 13.
Slam is technically a structure for spoken word events. It was started in July, 1986 by a man named Marc Smith to shift the focus of poetry readings away from the ego of the poet towards the enjoyment of the audience. In its most basic form, 3-5 judges are chosen from the audience to give scores from 0 to 10. Participants are eliminated in successive rounds until one poet reigns supreme. There are of course variations involving time limits, improvisation, black people, music and all sorts of other things.
Harold Bloom has called it the death of art. I try to disagree with Harold Bloom at least twice a day: Nothing is the death of art and sometimes I like slam-style poetry
Up to this point I had only ever heard Lucy Gellman and Griffyn Payne do what I consider slam-style poetry. They are both very good poets and very good performers. For me, Slam-style poetry is a broad category of poetry that usually involves most of the following: mixed metaphors, autobiographical narrative, visual fluidity bordering on the surreal and the frank portrayal of personal pain. When it’s good, it builds up energy in increasingly large ebbs and flows to culminate in a powerful emphatic emotional experience for the audience. When it’s bad, it makes you pity the poet twice: once for her dead mother and once for sharing such shitty art.
No one last night was very good, but each had a few good moments. Topics included: obesity, sex-change operations, sexual alienation, disrespectful male lovers, one dead mother, a scarring truffle shuffle, the difficulty of citing one’s sources when editing Wikipedia, racism, xenophobia and rape.
While the slam made the night last too long, three hours, no break, there was a lot of great poetry. There were fragmentary moments of beauty, images, and turns of phrases that evoke beauty and violence. But they weren’t tied together by anything other than the order in which they were presented. So they, sort of like this Blog entry, felt like a list of poetic things, rather than poems.
The strangest thing about the competition was that the guy who won was the worst poet out of the bunch. He yelled the loudest and shared the most humiliating things about himself. As is his right, I suspect he bent the truth a bit. For instance, I do not believe he has ever had a girlfriend. In a reversal of traditional quality-measures, participants received higher scores for lower quality. In fact, the higher the pity factor, the higher the score. I sound judgmental and negative, actually, I think this is great. The slam affirmed that competition in poetry (and maybe even in art) is silly. No one cared who won, because it truly didn’t matter. The whole point was just to make poetry happen. Marvelous.
I will write another about that night in particular, including about the awesome featured poet, Mara Jebsen, in another letter.