Oct. 31, 2000  

Are poetry slams a democratizing force or a form of aesthetic mob rule?
(© Robert Discalfani/Stone)
Slam Nation or Damnation?
By Benjamin Ortiz, special to
"The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us. We are no better than you...Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes..."

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

The static scratch of a turntable needle plucks into a trumpeting groove of dramatic bombast, bringing Zarathustra's fire from the mountains for fight-to-the-finish phonetic fisticuffs at tonight's full-court, one-on-one, make-it-take-it poetry rumble. We find ourselves in medias res, the joust afoot, vendettas flagged and fallen, the bitter taste of beer and too much cigarette smoke fueling hearty wordsmiths to more and more feats of fearless foolishness on the microphone passing hands, the masses encircling victors and consoling the vanquished, and always the words, oh the words, representing all sides, cultures, and peoples in a microcosm of this country's formative tongues: formal verse, free verse, monologues, mano-a-mano sonnets, parables, odes, ballads, schizophrenic rambling, antichrist rants, hip-hop meditation, old-school rap, new-school lyricism, athletic assonance, dirty limericks, head-to-head haiku, twisted tales, iambic pentameter, napkin-scribbled words of wisdom, beat-box scratch-verse, abstract experimentalism, drunken-master mind-over-matter magic—all styles and subjects for the sport of the spoken word.

Welcome to the Slamdome, a literary alternate universe wherein the poets are gladiators and the spectators lust for word blood. If you're lucky, you might appear on the arena's Jumbotron to spout an impromptu heroic couplet, as the Slam Silver Dancers flex choreographed, pyrotechnic mimes to the rhythms of Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," and the crowd does the wave at the drop of a smooth-sounding slant rhyme. It's a brave, new world of startling possibilities, and people all around the country are turning this vision into reality bit by bit through the hybrid artistic medium known as "poetry slam," the passport to contemporary pleasures of the spoken word.

Poetic Pugilism

Despite burgeoning popularity, even in Chicago, the birthplace of the poetry slam, most folks do not know their populist poetic counterparts, who weekly do battle in smoky bars and yearly trek to the Mecca of spoken-word sport: the National Poetry Slam. Witness an open invitation to this art-turned-sport through the anthology Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. Some years ago, I lived and performed in Chicago as a spoken-word poet but had no experience whatsoever of poetry slam, despite its popularity among some bards my age. I had only murky information based on secondhand reports of vicious heckling and verse-almost-come-to-blows at the Green Mill Tavern slam venue, with no inkling of why Marc Smith, former construction worker and founder of slam, was prompted in his own time to create such a gimmick as poetry with scorecards to get audiences to listen.

When I moved to San Antonio, Texas, in the spring of 1998, the city's cultural contrast to Chicago led me to some of the reasons why Smith had been driven in the early 1980s to break from standard open-mic events and readings. As he stated in the Chicago Reader (Aug. 13, 1999): "'The scene back then was smaller, pathetic, stupid, boring, pompous, and very elite...If you weren't in the higher circles, like from the School of the Art Institute, you were incredibly snubbed.'" I found similar elitism and lack of energy in San Antonio, though I met individual poets with astounding talent unrealized and unheard by potential audiences who were, perhaps, rightly turned off by largely self-indulgent literary exercises in navel-gazing. Moreover, there was no solid community with support networks creating opportunities for no-name poets to actually thrive at their artistic profession, because big institutions and published writers seemed content with sporadic events but showed little interest in weekly forums.

And then I attended the National Poetry Slam in August of that year, held just up the road in Austin, Texas. I saw 45 teams (of four poets on each squad), bards who slammed their way out of regular local series all over the country in order to qualify to converge on Texas. I saw 1,200-plus fans pack the Paramount Theatre, with scalpers on the sidewalk outside. I saw CNN and NPR following wordsmiths from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which sends a brand-new team of rookies every year to the national finals. (They won the championship that year and propelled once-unknown bards to national stardom.)

On May 4, 1999, the doors opened at a San Antonio indie/punk-rock club to a standing-room-only crowd (150-plus), kicking off the weekly "puro SLAM!" series that I founded and hosted. That night, people drank too much beer, consumed more than 40 poems at a sprawling show that lasted until nearly three in the morning, and mobbed the poets afterward like Wheaties-box superstars, with freestyle-rap intermissions and verbal competition spilling over into spontaneous microphone melee driven by all-out oral athleticism—a state of self-possession by one's own words in which the poet's body is whipped into motion and the crowd into a frenzy over the most elemental of art forms.

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