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.