SQUAWK: SLAM ARTICLE @1992 Mick Cusimano
published in Squawk Magazine #52
A new lion has arrived on the savannah of the local poetry scene. It brings with it much new energy and spirit, but there are those who think that this cat might eat its own young. This new lion is a phenomenon called The Boston poetry slam. There has been a vibrant poetry scene going on in Boston for years. Jack Power's Stone Soup readings at T.T. the Bears place, The New Writer's Collective, The Wail Poets, and the Naked City Coffeehouse just to name a few. Poets read their work at open mikes at these venues, which also includes feature readers. The competitive slams are a concept brought here from Chicago last year by Patricia Smith and Michael Brown. They take place on Thursday nights at the Bookcellar Cafe in Porter Square, 1971 Massachussetts Ave. Cambridge. Articles about them have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and on Chronicle. Prizes for the poet who wins the entire nights event ranges from $10 to $50. This is where the controversy comes in. Is competition good for poetry by bringing in people who otherwise would not come to such an event? Or is it detrimental and demeaning to subject a spiritual personal artform? To slam or not to slam.
On Thursday night I stepped into the Bookcellars Cafe . The open mike poetry reading has just ended. There is a break as some audience members came and went. There are some people who come only to see the slams. Yet other people leave after the open reading, refusing to patronize the competitive portion of the show. Michael Brown was setting up the slam. Eight poets each pay $2.00 to take part in that evening's show. Three judges are picked randomly from the audience. New people are preferred who have no allegiances to the performing poets that night. It is hoped that they have some appreciation and knowledge of poetry, but there are no real requirements for judges. Poets each do a single poem, three minutes or less. The audience applauds. The three judges each hold up a scorecard with a number from 1 to 10, just as in Olympic diving contests. Another poet recites their poetry and their scores are compared with the previous poet. Pairs of poets compete until there are only two left. The final two do a poem and the highest scoring person is the champion for that night. That winner in a few months goes up against 7 other winners for a $50 prize. The winner of the Fall session will eventually go up against the Spring winner, etc. This goes on all year. The Boston Grand Champion goes on to the National Finals in Chicago in October with a $500 top prize. Time Magazine recently did an article about the growing popularity of slams. Patricia Smith of Chicago, incidentally was twice the Grand National Champion a few years back. In the Fall Slam the winner, Ray McNiece took his $50 winnings and bought drinks for all the other slammers at Christophers Bar in a gesture of being a good sport. Not everyone is happy with the results.There are those poets who feel slighted, unfairly treated, and resentful after losing. Hard feelings and feuds have unfortunately been brewing among some of the contestants.
Michael Brown, who brought the slams here from Chicago, has been doing them in bars there for years. He said that he was reluctant at first, but once you slam the effects are positive. "As a writer who revises their work on a page you find yourself revising out loud while performing. It helps you with your awkward lines by hearing yourself doing them on stage." As to the criticism of slams, Brown's reply is, "The crucial question about those who oppose slams is if they have ever been to one." "No one is coerced into taking part. In fact you must pay $2.00 to enter a slam." Brown said, "The real difference between a slam and a conventional poetry reading is that in a slam the poet is expected to bring their poetry to the audience. At a "poetry reading" the poets expect the audience to come to them."
Jack Powers, who has run the Stone Soup Poets for over 20 years offered the first venue to Patricia Smith and Michael Brown in 1990. After five weeks of sponsoring the slams he cancelled their series at T.T. the Bears Place. Powers felt that he did not see slamming as compatible with his own poetry reading series. Powers said, "At a poetry reading the poet and the audience are both vulnerable. The poets takes a risk by putting their souls on the line. The audience is also vulnerable because they must come to the poet. There is a bond of trust built mutually between poet and audience. This trust simply cannot be built in a competitive slamming situation with judges and scorecards." Powers added, "Slamming is a performance designed to entertain the public.I would never participate in a slam nor be a judge in one."
Luckily for Smith and Brown, they found out about a new used bookstore in Porter square. They set up slams at the Bookcellar Cafe which gave them a venue and in turn brought many people into the new book store. Michael Vandermillen, manager of the Bookcellars said that, "It has been fun and has brought out many people who have never been to a poetry reading before. I haven't seen a slam yet that I have not thoroughly enjoyed."
Patricia Smith, co-founder of the slam says that slamming has benefitted her tremendously as a writer. Smith said, "After slamming your ear changes. You listen to poets differently. you pick up the complexities of language and become more aware of the rhythms. You begin to look for things to write about that effect other people. " She knows that many people hate the concept of a slam but once trying it become converts. Smith said, "Slamming is a way to energize your writing. You must , however, get over the idea that whoever wins a slam is the best poet. Judges vary widely in their taste, experience, and disposition. The judges at the Bookcellars Cafe are picked randomly from the audience just before the show. Poets can have a bad night. Slams do keep you on your toes. You search for poetry that pulls audiences into poetry would otherwise attend such an event. The media comes to slams, not because of the poetry, but because it is a hook, something new."
Slam veteran poet Danny Solis said, "Historically there has always been competition in the arts. Juried art shows, theatre competitions, the Oscars, etc. Boxers can win or lose by the decision of the judges. But no one can dispute it if they win by a knockout. I want to perform a knockout poem so powerful that there will be no question that it is the best thing anyone heard that night. The slam has its place but that is not every place.."
Siouxie D had this to say. "I guess I stirred up some controversy when I spoke against the slam while being interviewed for the recent Chronicle episode, especially after just participating in it. For the record it was my first and last slam and I only did it because they were there and my friends wanted me to."
" I have always been unable to justify judging works of art in any form, basically because I strongly believe that all artistic effort stems directly from the heart. The heart, to me, is the center of universal energy and as such cannot be judged. What is important is not the content or how one performs, but the fact that they can get up at all and speak about what is in their heart. Slamming unquestionably does much to increase interest in the spoken word, which is why for me it all boils down to a classic heart/head dilemma."
Another veteran slammer, Billy Barnum performed the night I was there, doing sublimely surreal mime poetry. Asked about whether it bothered him that he did not win the slam that night, Billy replied. "I am already a winner. I was a winner 66 years ago, the day I was born and have been enjoying it ever since!" Barnum adds, "You can't take slams too seriously. If you see them as a satire of our competitive way of life it is quite amusing." Storyteller Brother Blue adds, "A lot of remarkable poetry comes from these events."
Squawk Magazine Editor, Jessa Piaia said, "While America is shaking from conspiracy theories and scandals, a new craze in the depression-era emerges: slam consciousness." Piaia added, "Sure, I took part in one slam and would never participate in one again. The petty little jabs by some of the poets and the experience of being graded was demeaning. And the image of of the prize money being waved as incentive to the slammers, to me, imparts the quality of the red cape at a bullfight. In the case of bullfights, I side with the bull; in the case of poetry slams, I side with the poets. "
Lee Kidd, coffeehouse activist at Naked City, minces no words about his view of the slams. "Poetry slams are the Rat Poison of the body politics of poetry!" Kidd said, "Slams destroy relationships and do not provide a supportive atmosphere. It is like the gladiators, the lions, and the Christians. The judges are unqualified to judge these affairs like sporting events. Slams are an explosion of high school guilt feelings and adolescent competition. The slams provide a setting that is opposed to the poetry spirit. How can a spirit soar when it is being scored like a boxing match? " Kidd asks, "Can you imagine Allen Ginsberg, Alice Walker, or Bob Dylan doing poetry slams?" " Kidd adds, " These people can take their slams back to Chicago. Or better yet, put them on a B-52 and deep six them into the Pacific Ocean. It is the worst thing to happen to poetry in Boston!"
Marina Knife, from England has heard about the slams overseas. Her comments are:,"Poetry ascends- it doesn't slam. As Lee says it s the Rat Poison to poetry! Want to know the ingredients? Answer: ego and ignorance of the muse. Bah Bah Humbug!!
To slam or not to slam, that is the question.