'Slam Nation': Three Minutes to Show You Can Rhyme With Gusto
Pop culture pundits have proclaimed the existence of Woodstock
Nation and hip-hop nation, so why not
The Poets' team from Austin, Texas, competes at the National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon, in "SlamNation."
There is certainly enough noisy
poetic talent on display in Paul Devlin's documentary film "Slam Nation" to suggest that the competitive
marathon poetry readings known as
"slams" are more than a passing
fad. If the emerging stars of this
frenetically high-powered oral literary genre are unlikely to supplant
the long-running legends of world
literature in academic status, they
have helped make poetry sexy again
in a way it hasn't been since the
heyday of the Beats. Their work,
which is much better appreciated in
performance than on the page, suggests the emergence of a vital parallel strain of poetic literature.
Although "Slam Nation" devotes
several minutes to the history of the
movement, which began in Chicago
in the mid-1980's, its main focus is a
four-day national competition in
Portland, Ore., at which teams from
27 cities compete for modest cash
prizes. The spirit of the event is
determinedly populist. Judges are
chosen from the audience and grade
the competitors Olympics-style, with
numbers from 1 to 10. The members
of the four-person slam teams compete both as individuals and as
groups. There is a three-minute time
limit on a poem, and anything that
runs too long has its score shaved.
Musical accompaniments are not allowed.
Poetry slams take place "on a
level playing field," the genre's
champions proudly declare. That
means, among other things, that academic credentials carry no weight.
From the aggressive recitations on
display in the film, the pool of talent
competing in poetry slams seems
similar to that found among stand-up
comedians, if a bit more upscale.
You have to enjoy strutting your
stuff in public to make your mark in
Much of the best poetry, like much
of the best stand-up comedy, is verbally akin to stripping naked. The
most brilliant verse in the world
doesn't count for much at a slam
unless it is delivered with gusto and
showmanship. Because the poetry
slams are so closely related to rap
music, a good number of the rising
stars of the genre are black, and
their work is heavily indebted to the
rhythms and defiant attitudes of hip-hop.
One of the biggest stars of the
movement is Saul Williams, a charismatic New Yorker whose poetry
tends toward mind-twisting cosmic
rumination with hallucinatory science-fiction scenarios that the poet
delivers with an incantatory fervor.
Mr. Williams belongs to the New
York City team that also includes
Jessica Care Moore, Mums the
Schemer and Beau Sia, an Asian-American whose hilarious fantasy of
suddenly gaining vast wealth and
exerting infinite power will hit home
with anyone who has ever daydreamed of omnipotence.
If Mr. Williams has a challenger as
the unofficial king of the genre, it is
Taylor Mali, whose team, from Providence, R.I., ends up going head to
head with the New York team. Mr.
Mali is a ranting comic showman
and literary provocateur whose best
poem in the movie is a barbed critique of American speech patterns. In the poem, he humorously observes how the declarative modes of speech
are increasingly giving way to the
interrogative. His poem ends with a
sharp challenge to Americans to express themselves with conviction.
Can the kind of work featured in
"Slam Nation" cross over into print?
One book editor interviewed in the
film is intrigued, although he is not
sure. As for recordings, one record
label, Mouth Almighty, already has a
firm hold on the niche. If the phenomenon grows, and there's plenty of
evidence here to suggest it might,
"Slam Nation" could one day be
viewed as the genre's answer to