Slam Poetry

Slam poetry has to be the complete antithesis of haiku. It is loud, long, and boisterous and only occassionally sweet or pensive. This summer I had the good fortune to return to Chicago and visit my old stomping grounds at the Green Mill Lounge on a Sunday night.

Here, 23 years ago, according to Marc Smith, organizer extraordinaire, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born on a Sunday night in July. It wasn’t too much later that I first wandered into the club to see what was going on, and not long after that I began reading in the open mics and slams. I can’t say that I won very often, though it seems as if I took home the $10 grand prize for the weekly slam once or twice (taking home, being figurative, since it was probably spent on drafts of Guinness), and I don’t recall ever winning one of the finals that were held occassionally with the top performers, though I’m sure I competed as long as I could last. But I did meet some great friends there, especially fellow poets Cin Salach and Sheilah Donohue with whom I started the Bob Shakespeare Band under the direction of Marc Smith who often stepped in to add his voice to our choral arrangements of poems — not much singing, but three or four poets speaking simultaneously from different places around the room. Later, we were joined by Doug Rand, who took my place when I left Chicago, as is recounted in “An Incomplete History of the Slam.” We performed at the Green Mill and on Tuesday nights at Adolphs, a tiny bar in another part of town. In the late 80’s poetry was spreading like wildfire after the success of the Uptown Poetry Slam, and there were open mics sprouting up all over the city.

A friend recently wrote from Germany, saying a Poetry Slam was coming to their town and wondering what it was. I mention this to show the influence the slam has had on poetry. It soon became a national phenomenon (though I wasn’t involved by then), and there have even been international slams. For those who may still not be aware what a poetry slam is: imagine a cross between a boxing match and an open mic. A slam is organized in ’rounds’ where each poet gets up to the mic and reads a poem, which is then rated on a score of 1-10 by three judges (at least at The Mill, that’s how it goes). The judges are picked from the audience and usually claim to know nothing about poetry, though sometimes they are academics, poets, or writers in other fields. Marc likes to have the occasional academic judge for the audience to ridicule, and there is sometimes at least one professor in the crowd who doesn’t mind the abuse (or he wouldn’t come back). Audience participation is part of the act, and cheers, boos, and finger clicking (if the poem goes too long or gets boring) are meant to influence the judges, heckle the participants, and generally keep the energy going.

Slam poetry is still alive and well in Chicago today, as witnessed by the standing-room-only crowd at the Green Mill that Sunday night. And when I say standing-room-only, I don’t mean only a few people standing around a bar. The place was packed out and people weren’t leaving. I stood up the whole night, just like in the old days when I didn’t get there early enough to claim a stool at the bar. The open mic session that started the evening off was impressive: some really good poems–as good as any read in the slam–and some tentative first attempts by poets who had finally gotten up the nerve to read aloud in public (impressive more for the guts it takes to do that for the first time than for the poem, perhaps, but we’ve all been there!). Then David Hernandez and Street Sounds took the stage and performed his fabulous poetry to Latin music. Some were poems I remembered from long ago, others were new to me, but they really took me back.

And then, right before the slam, I got up and read a couple of poems. Marc was kind enough to introduce me and tell the audience a little about my history at the Green Mill and with the Bob Shakespeare Band, though he couldn’t resist giving me a bit of a hard time for becoming an English professor. I didn’t mind, and in fact, I appreciate the anti-establishment sentiment of the slam (anti-poetry-establishment, I should say), and the idea of taking poetry to the streets and not pretending you need several degrees to understand it. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s one of the things that has kept poetry alive in this country in the face of reality TV and video games (etc. — don’t get me started!). I read the poems “Ishtar” and “Flags,” dedicating the latter to Cin, since her boy loves them, too. That embarrassed Cin enough, so she came up and recited a lullaby-poem for her son, Leo, which was completely impromptu. Even before the slam, it was a perfect evening. Thanks to Marc and Cin, I even met a few of the poets who now frequent the Mill.

I was struck, though, by how similar the poems in the slam were to the ones I remembered from twenty-some years ago. There was a Barbie-Poem, and a Bag-Lady-Poem; there were poems that sounded like rap and those that sounded more like stand-up comedy. That may sound like criticism of Slam Poetry–that it is predictable or derivative–but I don’t mean it that way. Each poet had his or her individual style and voice, some more unique than others, of course. I think of academic poetry or what is sometimes called MFA ‘workshop’ poetry. There are common themes and styles in these poetry worlds, too. One reason the poems I heard at the slam sounded so much like the poems I heard there twenty years ago is that the poets were all young. They are experiencing the things we experienced then, and they are trying out their poetic wings and learning what we learned (or hope we learned). I know I learned more from the audiences at the Green Mill about what works in a poem and what falls flat on its face than I ever could have in a class on poetry (though I learned a lot in classes that I probably wouldn’t learn at the Mill). What this similarity tells me is that there is a genre of poetry called Slam Poetry, and that’s all right. There are sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, Slam Poetry, and a bunch of other types.

So after all of this, what is Slam Poetry? At least as far as I can tell after having been involved with it and going back to witness a great night of it, Slam Poetry is long (but not too long — no more than 3 minutes or when the audience starts snapping its fingers louder than the poet is willing to bear). It is entertaining: sometimes angry, sometimes funny, occasionally sweet just for contrast. It sometimes goes for the cheap laugh or the easy sentiment, though the best slam poems avoid this. It is deadly serious and frivolous at the same time — why else would a poet stand in front of a rowdy crowd in a bar for a chance at $10 (yes the prize is still the same) or a chance of humiliation? — oh yes, there are spotlights, there have to be spotlights and fame, if fleeting.

Though I began by saying it is the antithesis of haiku, Slam Poetry shares something with haiku in the competition. As I understand it, there were intense haiku competitions and anthologies the poets vied to be included in. There were schools of haiku, and the haiku master, Matsuo Basho, often traveled around Japan writing haiku, visiting Buddhist shrines, and promoting his school. There were linked verse forms where poets would get together and improvise stanzas of poems that would run 100 stanzas or more. We may think we invented something new with Slam Poetry or choral poetry or performance poetry, but it is really just one side to a poetic tradition that goes way back, and it is a side that is as vital to the existence of poetry as the calmer, more private, perhaps more pretentious at times (though in ways less pretentious at times) academic poetry that exists in books and polite readings. Maybe they aren’t separate things at all, but two moods of the same thing or two sides of the same coin.

Slam Poetry reminds me not to take poetry too seriously and that it’s okay for poetry to be fun, entertaining, angry, pretentious, unpretentious, silly, etc. It reminds me that poetry sounds best when memorized and lifted off the page, though there are pitfalls to performance (as there are with anything), and it is worth resisting the urge to play to the cheap laugh or the lowest common denominator. In the Slam, those tactics don’t always work, either. And Slam Poetry reminds me that the judges aren’t always right, and neither is the audience. Sometimes a really great poem will get low scores or even boos from someone who just doesn’t get it. That’s all right, if the poet keeps getting up and giving it to them! Remember that the next time you send your stuff to a literary magazine or contest. More than anything, the Poetry Slam gets people who don’t normally read poetry to come out on a Sunday night in July (and any other month of the year) when the weather is wonderful and there are a hundred other things they could be doing in the city. They come out week after week and they have a great time and they go home believing they understand poetry at least a little. Now, what could be wrong with that?

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