Monday, December 05, 2005

Poetry Slam

The Poetry Slam at the Columbus Music Hall Friday night was pretty great – a lot of attitude, some very nice piano jazz trio accompaniment, and the occasional worthwhile poem. :-)

For those who may not be familiar with the concept, a Poetry Slam is competitive poetry; a combination of T.S. Eliot, performance art, and women’s figure skating judging. Poets recite/perform their poetry, the crowd hoots and hollers at every apt simile, hint of enjambment, end-stop, and iambic foot (or maybe at just what they think is funny), and five judges rate the results on flash cards, using marks ranging from 1 – 10. The highest-ranked poets (four on Friday night) go on to a second round, and the poet with the most points at the end of the night actually ends up with some cash. There’s a definite performance element to this, although it wasn’t clear to me just how much weight was given to the actual poetry vs. the performance of the poetry. My guess is that performance rates higher, given the quality of some of the poetry that made it through to the second round (hi, Jeff! I love you, guy, but enough of the iambic duometer – Birds sing/Phones ring/Bells chime/Poets rhyme). In any event, this was as far from a stuffy “poetry reading” as you can imagine, with the poets exhibiting a flair for the dramatic, and an attitude informed more by hip-hop than by the literary salon. It was, in fact, a lot of fun.

The poetry? A definite mixed bag. There were people who were certainly poets there, and good ones at that. I was particularly impressed by Louise, who performed a poem called “Adopted People” that was real and full of pain and beauty, and Scott, a wise and funny guy (not the same as a wiseguy, for what it’s worth) who ended up winning the competition. Both made it to the second round. So there is some justice in the world. But I have to say that I found some of the judging rather curious. Jeff, I love you, but there is absolutely no way you should have made it to the second round, even with the brilliant kitsch of “Nadia’s Theme” as the musical accompaniment behind you. One “poet” did an improvisational rant about all the Oppressive White Folks who are apparently responsible for dubious cultural detritus such as Ritalin and Mountain Dew. It’s a race thing, or maybe ageism/handicapism, I thought, remembering the Mountain Dew I had to drink at lunch on Friday. Maybe they’re out to kill all the black folks and the middle-aged white balding men with hearing aids. Sigh. Social commentary is great, protest is great, and some of my favorite poetry and music deals with highly charged issues, but I’m still amazed, and not in a good way, by ill-prepared people who incoherently rail against Yellow Dye #5 in Mountain Dew, claim that it’s all part of a dastardly conspiracy to keep the black man down, and then want to pawn it off as poetry. Please. I’ll take iambic duometer over that. No matter what color the skin/Or what shape you’re in/Simple rhyme or deluxe/Racism sucks.

But that was an aberration. I loved the idea that people got together and read and listened to poetry. I loved the jazz accompaniment. I loved the fact that a lot of people turned out. I loved Shaun Barber, Emcee Deluxe, who did not suck. And I look forward to doing it again, soon. Many thanks to Dan Thress and Shaun Barber for organizing the event.


John McCollum said...

Andy. Correction: Jeff's poems didn't suck. They blew.

Just kidding. I think that Jeff's poems were brilliantly subversive, in that they were the perfect antidote to kind of pseudo-profound race baiting that I panned -- to the obvious dismay of many in attendance -- on Friday night.

Nothing wrong with race baiting; sometimes we all need to be baited to tackle difficult issues, but I don't think that a provocative work of art is good just because it makes people angry.

danthress said...

Hopefully Scott Woods is going to stop by here and address this issue.

I think Jeff's poems were legit.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Found this entry through Dan's journal.

While there are a NUMBER of on-ramps in this discussion - particularly for someone who's been in dozens upon dozens of slams - I'll try not to go long.

Slams aren't real competitions; they just wear sports clothing. Slams are all about artistic democracy - about empowering people to define, refine and engage art or their impression of art - in a very hands-on sort of way. Submitting poems to journals is a hundred times more realistically competitive than any slam I've ever seen (and at least ten times as subjetcive to the whim of someone in a judge's chair, so to speak), and I've seen them everywhere.

I don't say any of this to invalidate your take on the judging, scores or content of the poems. I say it to point out that any time you give 5 randomly picked, likely non-poetasters the right to judge poetry based on a countless number of subjective criterion, someone's goign to give a score you don't agree with. This is by design; slams aren't there to prove who the best poet is. It's to engage audiences with poetry, and if they happen to award the "best" poet of the night, bully for the best poet of the night.

Just to clarify: we're not arguing here. I'm just adding some backstory. You got my support 110 percent on a stance against dogmatic, political drivel. In fact, you'd have disliked the last version of this very same show for this very reason: there were more poets who were there to deliver that sort of message (for any numebr of reasons) and those poets - or types of poets - were not present (save the one you've drawn out). This list was filled with people who've been slamming for a hile and know when to let their hair down. I think it no coincidence that they came overwhelmingly out of one reading.

Re: performance vs. content in slams.
This is a Pandora's box that actually has nothing in it. Again, slams are designed to allow and support an audience's right to voice their opinions of the art being presented to them on their terms, not on the artists' terms. Some people - say, someone who really likes jazz but isn't into poetry so much - is likely to think very highly of a piece like Dan's, but will find anything else grating. Such is their right in a slam! There is no magic balance of poetry vs. performance, and that, ultimately, is the way it should be. It's art, not the Olympics (despite its trappings).

Like I said, I can do slam dialogue all day, but in the end I'm very, very glad that you came out and then took the time to express your thoughts on the matter here. It was a good time, and that's what slams do when they're done right. When I MC a slam, I'm dumping on the judges and poets with everything short of momma jokes, and that's what it's really all about: insult to the point of parking lot indiscretion afterwards.

John McCollum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John McCollum said...

"When I MC a slam, I'm dumping on the judges and poets with everything short of momma jokes, and that's what it's really all about: insult to the point of parking lot indiscretion afterwards."


I, for one, think that the momma jokes are the one thing this slam lacked. I really loved this event; the venue, the music, the poets. I was, as always, disappointed with the lack of negative feedback from the audience and the other judges.

Okay, so I'm being a little facetious, but I think that one of the things that makes freestyle rap contests so appealing is the willingness of the crowd to both cheer AND jeer. I'm not looking for hostility, just a little more animation; more whoops and hollers and "oh no you didn'ts." More Apollo, less Kennedy Center.

The only negative feedback anyone gave all night came when I gave Tone's second piece a 4.8. Shaun always tells the audience, "Say what you think. If you like -- or dislike -- a piece, let everyone know." It seems to me that, at the few slams in which I've participated, most judges are afraid to offer anything other than polite golf claps of approval.

Also, I kind of missed the opportunity to offer and hear prop points -- they're often as entertaining as the poems themselves. That having been said, Shaun's last-minute inclusion of the fashion commentary was brilliant.

Oh, and Scott, I love almost everything I've ever heard you read. You're fresh and funny and energetic.

And speaking of opening Pandora's Box, your mama's so ugly, last time she went to the beauty shop, it took 'em 10 hours. And that was just for the quote...

John McCollum said...

Oh, and Andy, if you haven't checked out Scott's blog (I just did for the first time), you really should. I think you guys would like each other quite a bit.

His review of Cowboy Troy should be edited (for length, not content, as my editors always claim) and submitted to Paste or something like it.

Andy Whitman said...

Scott, thanks for your comments. I appreciate them very much, and I think I have a better handle on the mindset behind a poetry slam now. If the purpose was to give poets a forum to express their ideas, and for the audience to participate and have fun, then the mission was very much accomplished Friday night. I had a great time, and I know many others did as well.

One question for you, though. I assume that the poets take their work seriously. That is, they want to write good poetry. If that's true, then how do the poets respond to judging that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the poetry? I'm just curious. I would think that could be a point of contention, and could lead to frustration and resentment.

That said, there was an amazingly supportive atmosphere at work Friday night. If there was competition among the poets, it was hard to tell. And I appreciated that as well.

danthress said...

I don't think a slam is a gimmick. I think a slam is a brilliant solution to audience boredom and the audience/performer gap. I think art, in 2005, needs to have an "every one gets to play" element. And, no doubt, we are trying to sell the night as a show.

In general, the slams turn out to be very fair. I usually don't make it to the second round. But I've never been frustrated by that. It's the act of getting out there are reading your stuff that makes it all worthwhile. [way to go Jeff, looking forward to you reading, Andy] I don't feel that the Writer's Block poets first objective is too win. It seems like they want to explore their souls and improve every week.

john: even at the green mill, the audience didn't give the judges too much flack. i like the flack too. at emack and bollio's sometimes it seemed the judges tried to out-do the poets. you know what i mean? the prop points can do that. i'm not sure that's good.

One thing that no one has mentioned is that sometimes our music worked better than others. I wonder how this effects the scores of the poem. For instance, Scott's Garanimals backup music kind of took off. It sounded good. So did that give him a bump? Seems it would have too. We also played well on Louise's adopted poem. She made it to the second round. And Jeff got a bump cause Chris knew Nadia's theme. Obviously we try to do the best with each poet, but the more direction a poet can give us the better chance we have of getting it off the ground.

Anonymous said...

O, o, let me answer this one too, Scott. (Hi, this is Louise, I got here through Dan Thress' journal.)

"how do the poets [who take their work seriously] respond to judging that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of the poetry?"

Well, I can tell you how I and several others take the judging. And then Scott can tell you how wise slam veterans take the judging.

For me and some people like me: A bad score hurts. The grief cycle begins: denial, anger, etc. through to acceptance.

You see, during the day-to-day working and writing of poetry, even if you go out to open mics, there's so little trust-able feedback. People at open mics will listen to anything. Submitting to "real" poetry journals takes forever. Friends are invariably kind. So there you are getting the only candid, immediate responses you're ever likely to get and they suck. Ouch.

But the results for me are invariable good. After I get over myself and my ego, I always come back trying harder to write more compelling and effective poems. I might even try to write *for* a slam, but usually miss for the slam and hit a home run in the page-poetry world. (Buy my chapbook, and you'll see the immediate effects of slam on my work. Publisher = -- omg I'm so sorry for the plug. Sorry. But some of you all seem interested. Better yet: Scott's got a full-length book coming out of that publisher early 2006.)

On the other hand, and maybe this is just me, getting a good score seems like getting a good second hand at poker -- a lot of luck with a little knowledge of what cards to play. When I grow up I might end up here on the bad score side, but I don't know. Maybe I kind of need bad scores to keep me trying very hard.

And split scores -- I am Queen of split scores -- just leave me feeling dazed and then like I have to try harder, more like a bad score.

And this is the essence of why *I* slam. It focuses me on audience and makes me try very hard to say something worth saying. Otherwise I end up in my own head creating complicated patterns and considering things such as: how exactly can I remove syntax from a word-sculpture and still make it work, hmm?

BTW: Saying something worth saying is where/why I started writing poetry. My MFA took me away from all that by putting me in a world where for some reason I didn't have to have any reason for working at poetry. Now I am into an idiosyncratic fusion of meaning, craft, emotionality, and everyday life big time.

Jeff Cannell said...

Andy- you rock! No-one was more beefuddled by my making the 2nd round than me. My purpose for reading was:

1- participating in a poetry reading/slam has been on my "someday/maybe" to do list for some time- and now I feel a sence of completion.

2- I wanted to be the sacrificial goat to show my unrequited support for Shaun and Dan's event.

(and--based on your assessment-- I probably will not be adding my poetry and performance into my day job:)

That said- I enjoyed the interplay with the judges- and really liked the "element" that John added to the mix. I have been thinking about a lot of what read at the slam- and have a growing anticipation for the next-- So I would say I'm hooked.

Scott & Louise-- I can't wait to hear you read again. I'm going to bookmark your blogs! Louise- I'm glad you read before me- your creativity in interpretation helped me not to chicken out.

Dan- "Who is Your James Booker" --Been thinking about that line for awhile. I would like to see the slams recorded for podcast or something.

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, Louise. I like your poetry very much, and I'll certainly check out your chapbook.

I've been curious about the relationship between poetry on the page and poetry as it is performed at a slam. You partly addressed some of my questions, but I'd welcome more feedback.

I love poetry. I read it for fun. I've memorized long passages from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," not because I ever have occasion to recite them, but because I simply love the language, and I can play them back in my head and marvel at their beauty, and what they tell me about the relationships between the real, tangible world and mystery. I love that intersection.

But "Four Quartets," if recited aloud, would lead to a lot of furrowed brows and restlessness. It's meant to be read slowly, savored. Its meaning doesn't open up on the first or second reading. You have to work at it.

Let me stress that this isn't an academic exercise for me. It's the stuff of life. I truly love it. But it would be a dismal failure at a poetry slam.

So I'm curious how (or if) you temper the poetic impulse, for lack of a better term, and pitch it to an audience of active listeners vs. passive readers. And honestly, that's what puzzled me most about Friday's poetry slam, which was my first. Good poetry doesn't necessarily make for good entertainment, and vice versa. So how do you find the balance?

Andy Whitman said...

Jeff, I love you dearly. Please take whatever comments I offer about your poetry in that context, which is by far the more important context for me. You rock, too, in incredible ways.

Anonymous said...

Jeff: My "creative interpretation?" I'm not sure what I did, but I knew what kind of music I wanted. I'm glad it helped.

Andy: I too have memorized TS Eliot, but my purpose was to have some poems "with" me all the time. Poetry is not an academic exercise to me. If it ever was, it was briefly, even during my MFA.

Page vs. Performance: as someone with an MFA and a page-oriented background, I'm attempting some kind of fusion. I'm not a natural performer either, so that part is hard. Mary Chi- Kim (who had the erotic tantric poem in the slam, asian women dressed in black) comes from a similar background and here we are both attempted something different putting our experiences out in the real world together with our ivory tower background.

I make no conscious distinction between active and passive. I'm assuming my audience is paying attention at a minimal level (perhaps a mistake). I make a distinction between heard and read. So if I mean to speak a poem change stuff a little, more repeats, stronger opening statement. (Sometimes I'll say the same poem differently if I read it.) But in general I want to reach inside people and take their hearts out, then open them up and say "look at this, don't ignore this, think about this differently." If they cry, that's good, just kidding, haha, no really. My aestetics are rooted in imagism, but I came to a kind of poetry of witness on my own (that's not a religious-oriented aestetic, but a political one) -- though I did know Carolyn Forche at one time, who got famous off her poetry of witness down in Salvador (cf. "The Country Between Us").

Good poetry vs good entertainment? Good poetry *is* good entertainment to me, but not all good entertainment is good poetry and that's part of why slams are so full of wild cards. And great poetry can be mangled by well-intentioned painfully bad readings. Several slams I've seen had the top three spots go to terrible poetry and great poetry -- in no particular order. One might try to cast aspertions on the judging but they picked good as well as bad. I personally try to write great poetry and let the pieces fall where they may. That is my main goal in everything I do: write better poetry.

Of course lately I've been thinking my goal in some slams might be altering to: get to the second round. We'll see how that will screw up my sensibilities.

Anonymous said...

Wow, there are so many discussion points here this afternoon it's hard to determine where to begin!

I'll do the easy one first.
Re: slam as gimmick.
Dan, Slam (and slams) is a gimmick, by definition. It's not an art form (contrary to rumor, there is no "slam poetry style"). It's just a tool. When an academic calls it a gimmick, it's dirty. When a slammer calls it a gimmick, they're just being productively honest. Marc Smith will be the first person to tell you its a gimmick. An important gimmick, a worldwide gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. The goal of the gimmick is to interest people in poetry. Unfortunately, many people - too many, in my opinion - have lost sight of that, and that's what separates good slams from bad ones: they strike a worthy balance.

Having said all that, it would be remiss of me to ignore that there are indeed people who participate under the impression that slams are actual competitions, and that a great many slams try to behave like actual competitions. Slams that do this tend to be incapable of the feel-good vibe we saw the other night (except amongst the poets themselves, but even that's not guaranteed), but they exist. They're also generally misguided.

If it sounds like I have a problem with Slam, I don't. I'm the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. for goodness sake. What I have a problem with is what some people attempt to impose or derive from Slam. In the end it's really just democracy batting the head of art in obvious action; a structuralizing of what 99.9 percent of the people who come into contact with art do in their heads anyway. Slam asks you to not only hear the poem, but to tell us what you think of it...a critique you were going to do anyway, but probably not out loud (not until you got into the car with your friends, anyway). Not much more, not much less. This idea that slams somehow force something out of the experience of engaging art that isn't happening anyway is a myth.

Poets who come to slam to discover if they're good poets (as opposed to poets who come to have fun or to test themselves or to put on a show or to share their work) are generally confounded because what they think of as good tends to be as elusive as what judges and audiences will think is good. If we really wanted to find out who the BEST poet of at a slam was - at THAT moment in time with THAT set of judges in THAT venue with THAT poem presented THAT way (see the ludicrousness of it?) - there are more empirical weays to determine that outside of randomly picking five pretty people out of a bar audience and throwing a jazz band behind them.

Which brings me to the performative element. Poetry is one thing, but performance poetry is another (or rather, a branch), and the minute you engage an audience with the vocalization of a poem instead of allowing them to read it for themselves you are participating in a different medium.

It is a common misconception that a poem being performed should work on the page as well as the stage. Not true; a performed poem is not the same as a poem on the page. It carries with it the trappings of sound and sight, of environment and presentation resonance. It's audiences are generally different across the board. Reading a poem requires a different set of tools to engage the work. Conversely, the poem (as stated by Andy earlier in this thread) read may not even mean or be the same thing performed.

Re: audience jeer/cheer/reaction.
There's no setting that in stone, but that's the MC's job; to make it okay to participate and not just listen. Part of the "official" spiel at the National Poetry Slam has this in it as a mandatory point to make to every audience. At the same time, a golf clap for something that you as a poet thinks should have been received with riotous table turning and cheers is often as solid a sign of how well you were, or were not, received. TRUST me on this. When you go up and blow your heart out and you get a golf clap? It sucks.

(John: Your momma's so fat her sweat sweats.)

To Andy, re: how poets who take their work seriously regard the judging:

Poets are a sensitive lot anyway, so expecting objective absorption of slam scores is pretty much out the window.

Seriously, it really comes down to the motivation of the poet in question. If you come to slams to have a good time or to share, you can never really lose. Your goal has been accomplished. If, however, you come to slams to win and you don't, you don't leave yourself much room to accept that maybe slams aren't actually contests and that you shouldn't take the opinion of five random people - many of whom likely never come into contact with poetry of ANY stripe - so seriously. There are as many ways to approach how one should approach slam as there are poets and as there are slams. I got some horror stories. There are plenty of people who have done well in slams that no one wants to actually feature at their show, and I don't mean locally. I mean NATIONALLY. This is usually because, while they may have won over five people who never heard poetry performed before, they still suck. And you're right: it frequently does lead to frustration and even the walking away of some people. Me? I am nto one of those people, and not because I win every slam, because I don't. It's because I come to do a good job and if I did that, it doesn't matter what the scores are. I've seen enough poetry performed to know if I did a good job or not.

All of you guys rock in my book.

I promise to chill out now.

John McCollum said...


With all due respect, yo mama's so ugly, she looks like her face caught on fire, and they put it out with a fork.



Anonymous said...

Ooo...that's a good one!
You sure you ain't got no ghetto cred?

(Warning: That's a bear trap!)

danthress said...

guys, you know better. if you are going to have a cutting contest, do it in haiku form.

Ok, Andy. You've asked, the poets have spoken (even the National President of Poetry Slam Inc), so now I ask you...

You gonna read? You coming over to the other side of the poems?

Andy Whitman said...

Possibly. I love
the erotic dance of words.
First I have to write.

Jeff Cannell said...

Andy- All press is good press for an aspiring poet such as myself!


I'm just aiming to provide "good art with a good message"

Roc k On!

danthress said...

Yes! Let the floodgates open. We've got dates on hold for Feb and April. You've got time!

John McCollum said...

I'm hoping to organize a jazz pottery slam. Who's in?

Anonymous said...

"Jazz pottery slam"

Still laughing -- thanks.