Monday, February 13, 2006

A Grand Slam

Friday night was the quarterly Jazz Poetry Slam at the Columbus Music Hall. For those who may not be familiar with this phenomenon, a poetry slam is competitive poetry. Yes, at the end of the night a poet walks away with a cash prize. Think of the Beat poets reading at City Lights Bookstore, but with judges holding up scorecards to rank their efforts, a la Olympic figure skating. But this time there was no international conspiracy, and no one whacked a competing poet on the knee. That was good. And although not all slams follow this format, the poets Friday night were accompanied by a live jazz trio (organ, guitar, drums), playing everything from Coltrane to Gershwin, improvising to follow the flow and the meaning of the poetry. When it works (and it works surprisingly often) it is thrilling. More than 150 people showed up, standing room only, and I found myself marveling at the surreal nature of the scene. People were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, craning their necks to watch, yep, poets. This could only happen in some alternative but felicitous universe in which people genuinely value artistic expression. The world may not be quite as desperate as I thought.

This Friday I got to play Judge, a role for which I am eminently suited. Just ask my kids. And it was considerably more difficult than I had envisioned. There are no guidelines on how to weigh the various factors that make up a poet’s performance. And make no mistake, these are performances more than readings, and they are as far removed from a staid, placid English classroom as they can be. Poets strut, shout, sing, whisper, harangue and cajole, and the audience is right there with them, shouting out affirmation or catcalls, applauding, laughing. It’s part fire-and-brimstone sermon, part hip-hop throwdown, and part literary salon reading. Good luck trying to sort out that particularly confusing combination.

But it’s mostly just fun, and I tried to approach it as such. For better or worse, I tried to focus on the quality of the poetry. And although T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath are not in imminent danger of being dethroned anytime soon, the quality of the poetry was surprisingly high. No one embarrassed himself or herself, and everyone offered something with substance and style. Overall, I give the whole experience a 9.0. It had a good beat, and you could both dance and think to it.

I was also struck by how eclectic, in every sense, the occasion was. Probably a third to half the audience was from my church, and many of the poets and musicians were as well. I love my church. I love the fact that most people there are very interested, even passionate, about the arts. That’s a rare thing, and I don’t take it for granted. But I also appreciated that this was not about religion, or faith, at least in any overt sense. It was just a bunch of people – Christians and non-Christians, whites and African Americans, political conservatives and liberals -- who care about the arts, finding the common ground, hanging out together and having a good time over, of all things, poetry. Maybe we could bottle it and ship it to the Middle East. Put down your guns and go sling some words around. For one night, at least, my world was characterized by peace and joy.


Karen said...

it was SO MUCH FUN! seriously. i loved it. randy had a blast, too. i love that so many people in our church are willing to participate in/come to an event like this.

which was your favorite poem?

Andy Whitman said...

Karen, it was a blast.

I liked both of Scott's poems, and thought he deserved to win.

I liked most of the poems I heard. But there are so many factors there that it's hard to sort out "best," and it really was difficult to assign a ranking to each one.

I agreed with some of the sentiments/viewpoints expressed, disagreed with others, and was neutral about most. But I tried not to let that influence my marks. I figure that it's not my role to play a member of the thought police, nor do I want the job. So I tried to focus on the quality of the poetry (knowing fully well that the performance aspect figured in to my appreciation as well; there was no way to avoid it).

From that standpoint, I liked Louise's poem about Terri Schiavo the best. I think Louise is a terrific poet.

One pet peeve: many of the poets I heard Friday night seem to think that repetition = good poetry. But repetition without other poetic elements -- striking imagery, similes and metaphors, attention to rhythm/meter, etc. -- is just repetition, and it's boring.

You can say a line
And then you can say a line again
And scrunch up your face
And scrunch
And scrunch up your face
And call it poetry
But it's not

John McCollum said...

I also liked Scott's poems, and I definitely agree he deserved to win. He's fantastic. And his delivery is top notch.

And while I think Louise is a fantastic poet, I didn't fully connect with her poem on Friday night. It was a bold move, though, leading with something so politically divisive. Clearly, that (and the fact that she read so early in the lineup) really brought her scores down.

It's tough to judge poetry about complex issues. It takes a while to process -- "What is the poet trying to say? Am I familiar with the issue? Do I think she's right? Do I think she's looking at things in a new or interesting way? Does it matter?" Unfortunately, a judge is given exactly 2.8 seconds to render an opinion.

I felt that way about her Adoption-related poem at the last slam. I spent most of the poem trying to wrap my mind around what she was "trying to say" about adoption. Perhaps if she had taken an easier route and just painted a word picture, I'd have been able to get my mind clear enough to really give it the score it probably deserved.

Contrast Louise's offering with Ras' "I am a terrorist," which felt a little like pandering to me. She's a lovely, beautiful and talented person, but I felt like both of the pieces were designed to get amens from the choir.

Mine, I don't know. I feel a bit like a guppy swimming with dolphins; most of these guys write all damn day (or at least it seems that way), and I'm just a weekend warrior. It's tough to judge one's own stuff. The audience seemed to like it, and the judges were generous, so I was certainly gratified to be a part of it all.

A couple of people said, "Man, I liked the way it sounded, but I had no idea what the hell you were talking about." Others stopped me and said, "Man, I was really touched; I know exactly what you mean." Go figure.

Andy W. Anderson, Ph.D Candidate said...

I'm of the same mindset, nowhere in Columbus have I found such a diverse group (ethnically as well as culturally) willing to sit around and really enjoy something to that extent. I'm glad everyone came and I believe it is a good sign for Columbus and for the arts in general that there doesn't have to be a Big Name among the poets in order to draw a very respectable crowd.

Andy Whitman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

A Big Name among the poets! I love that concept. My guess is that you could defrost Robert Frost, ply him with whiskey, advertise his appearance in every newspaper and on every radio station in town, enlist Terri Gross from NPR to provide erudite slamside commentary, and he'd still draw about 150 people in Columbus.

It's a lonely lot these poets have chosen. No wonder they make up their own version of American Idol. No one else is going to do it for them.

Andy Whitman said...

John wrote:

"Contrast Louise's offering with Ras' "I am a terrorist," which felt a little like pandering to me. She's a lovely, beautiful and talented person, but I felt like both of the pieces were designed to get amens from the choir."

I tend to agree with you. But I also think it's possible that we may not see our own choirs because we've become somewhat desensitized, and that our own choral jargon may be as potentially offputting as what I heard from Ras. Just a thought.

For example, your poems, which I liked very much, talked about iniquities, wounds/stripes, etc. This is very biblical language, of course, and I pick up on it right away, but I wonder if it elicts in other people the same kinds of warning bells that go off in my head when I hear Ras describe someone who takes a shower as a "terrorist."

The fact is that we all bring our worldviews, our experiences, our inherent beliefs and morals, to everything we do, including the writing and interpretation of poetry. And while this is natural, I also think it's potentially harmful. I am in no way excusing my own reactions, by the way. I do it too. I just think that the "preaching to the choir" argument cuts across a lot of sermonizing, in a lot of different forms, and that without losing sight of who we are, it would be great if we could be inclusive rather than exclusive. It's at least a worthy goal, even if it's difficult to attain.

John McCollum said...


I kind of figured you -- or someone -- would bring that up. I tried to keep things a little mysterious and coded, avoiding the " a sinner" didacticism. I think that makes it a bit more universal and a little less manipulative. But you're right.

danthress said...

Thanks Andy, and everyone else that came.

Fred, glad to hear you had conversations with Chris and Roz.

Good observations about the music setup. I saw that setup in my head about a week ago. That's the way it's going to stay. From my chair I can look right into Chris' eyes, which is important cause he's also the bass player, and all I can clearly see the poet at the same time. But, you already figured that out.

Couple of things I could add: the trio had never played together before, we didn't rehearse, and, there wasn't a single piece of music on stage. See what some skill and the power of the holy spirit can do?

Scott Wood's group, Writer's Block, meets this Thursday at the Music Hall. No bells, no whistles, just poetry. Info is on my blog.

BTW, two poets you haven't mentioned were Gina who is a writer's block regular and who's poetry I really enjoy. And Shaun who I thought had a great evening. Shaun's "Analog vs. Digital" which closed the evening was very magical.

Also, if you like the look of these evenings, that's all Annie.

Anonymous said...

"Preachign to the choir" is a topic that comes up in Slam circles a lot, but that doesn't stop it from happening. I generally don't try to define the choir, so much as the goal of the messenger. If the goal of most of the poets of the stripe we're talking about is to change minds on an issue in a room of people at a particular point in time, then most of these "prophets" are going to have to come a little more creative than they're used to being. I got the "I am a terrorist" rant from a George Carlin bit two yeras ago...and so did a million other people, I'm sure.

Anyhow, I had a great time. I wanted very badly to have new stuff for this show, but circumstances kept me from being able to focus the week of. So I spent my enery going for the gusto.

John McCollum said...

"Contrast Louise's offering with Ras' "I am a terrorist," which felt a little like pandering to me. She's a lovely, beautiful and talented person, but I felt like both of the pieces were designed to get amens from the choir."

Clarification -- I meant to say both of HER (meaning Ras') pieces -- not both Ras' and Louise's pieces.

That having been said, I'm not trying to bash Ras. But in reading my comments, I realized I was imprecise.