Wayne's Weekly Reader

by Wayne Klick

January 13, 1999


"...in Detroit we believe in the community building powers of poetry. There are always illusions circling any art. Our present illusion is that it'll make a rock star out of you."
 - Kim Webb

The Poetry Slam

Have you ever attended a poetry reading?  If you've only attended one, and didn't look for another one because you found the oration rather dry and the reader too self-absorbed, look through your local arts and/or bar listings for a Poetry SLAM.  If you check it out, you will find an altogether different experience.

The Slam gets criticized by many poets because it supposedly turns the refined and highly spiritual art of poetry, and the solemn act of reading it, into a circus sideshow.  Detractors say poetry should not be a competition.  They say The Slam turns artists into clowns and "philosophers in the oral tradition" into comedians and ham actors.  If you ask me that does them all a favor, but what do I know?

I do know that I like to watch a good Slam.

You see the slam has survived since its invention in Chicago by Marc Smith back in the early 80's, because it attracts a crowd. Poetry readings rarely attract crowds.  Crowds come because we Americans love a good competition -- that is to say we love a WINNER!  The people want to know who will win, so they stay to find out.

How do you make a competition out of poetry?  The traditional format for the Poetry Slam is this:  Each poet gets three minutes.  No props or music is allowed.  They go up on stage and pour their guts out for said three minutes (there are penalties for going overtime).  They are then judged, Olympic figure skating style on a scale from 0.1 to 10.0, by five judges picked at random from the audience.  The judges are not literary experts; they are just the folks who were lucky or unlucky enough to have wandered into this particular bar on this particular night.  After all the poets do their turn, the top half score wise get to move on the next round.  We then go through the process again, yielding four poets for the final round.  Scores are cumulative.  After the final round the winner is determined and he/she takes home a prize.  Sometimes cash is involved.

The Slam has grown into a nationwide community, with a national slam championship every year held at various locations.  Local Slam venues from all across the country each send a team of four poets to the nationals in search of that elusive championship.  Last year there were 45 teams in Austin, TX.  The event was covered by CNN and the Associated Press.  MTV was there looking for talented poets, aged 18-25 only of course.

The Slam is quite entertaining.  A critic would observe that the definition of poetry is stretched to its absolute limit.  By these standards Jay Leno is a poet.  But you will hear some very real poetry.  And to the ivory-towered, the idea of poetry as entertainment leaves them aghast.  But you will hear some pieces that are in fact both entertaining and poems.  Competition forces expansion of limits.  The element of competition brings out the cunning in an otherwise reserved and idealistic poet/performer.

Since competition and expansion of limits requires cunning, the Slam has its dark side.  Indeed many of these high-profile slam poets dislike each other.  And many love each other too, but they usually don't win.  In my peripheral awareness of the Slam on a national scale, there seems to be much more controversy and derision than anything else.  Read the AP article, for a great story about a clash in Austin over rules-bending.

I've never been to a nationals, but I've seen many local slams.  In my life I've only entered two slams.  You may know that I write poetry, edit an Albuquerque poetry web page, and in the past I used to give readings of my work.

I find the Slam to be very intimidating and I, like the critics of Slam, shy away from the idea of poetry as competition, at least in a participatory sense.  I have other excuses too, like my work doesn't fit well in three minutes, etc.  But I didn't understand fully why I haven't gotten involved as a Slammer, until I saw SlamNation, a documentary about the '96 Nationals in Portland, OR.  The film delved into the personalities of some of the Slammers, particularly the finalists and winners.  I saw that if I slammed, I would have to win, and I would win, whatever it took.  The leader of the winning team from Providence, RI is a good poet but also a brilliant strategist and ruthless competitor -- deliberately getting into the heads of his opponents.  The other poets don't like him very much.  I don't think I want that side of my personality to come out, at least not on stage.  However, since I don't do corporate boardrooms or play football....

Anyway, if you get a chance, take in a Poetry Slam.  But don't enter until you see one first.  And leave your pretension at the door.  I've never liked the "idea" of a Slam, but I've always liked the Slams I've seen.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, and disregard of all the rules." 
-- George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant.


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