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In Defense of SLAM! Nation.

What could be more Afrocentric than poetry in performance given our strong oral/aural traditions? A report on diversity in spoken-word art today

Just as there are some who don't think rap is music, there are writers who don't think slam is poetry. Detractors announce that slam is bad for poetry, as though it were a disease that infects, adulterates, contaminates and might even debilitate poetry.

In Extraordinary Measures--Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (Univ. of Alabama Press, September 2000, $19.95, ISBN 0-817-31015-0), critic and professor Lorenzo Thomas says, "The United States has been enjoying a sort of poetry renaissance. Currently the poetry slam, an event where drunken audiences hoot down sensitive poems about dying grandmothers or inevitable divorces and bestow twenty-dollar prizes on scatological doggerel, is sweeping the nation. It's an amusement that seems to be a goldmine for saloon keepers too sophisticated for Hot Buns contests. It has recently been possible to find at least three such events every week at different venues--even in a city like Houston."

It is ironic that such a screed would be written in a book about "Afrocentric Modernism." What could be more Afrocentric than an emphasis on poetry's performative aspects growing out of the oral and aural tradition? An alumni of New York City's Lower Eastside-based Umbra Collective, Thomas is no neanderthal academic bemoaning the loss of poetic values. He is instead a perceptive critic whose evaluation of slam seems to be the result, unfortunately, of what poet Wanda Coleman would call a bad night at the taco house.

Regardless of the nay-sayers, night after night, all around the world, poets are slamming in front of large and lively audiences. Obviously, there is more to slam than meets the ear. Slam has a history, a mission and a future.

Marc "Slam Papi" Smith is the founder. "The Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill was an outgrowth of the Monday Night Poetry Reading and open mike I started at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, November 1984. At that time, poets were scoffed at if they `performed' their poems. Critics said it cheapened the art of poetry. Us ill-bred poets of the Get Me High did not care. We began to attract more audience than our critics could."

In 1985, Smith formed the Chicago Poetry Ensemble with fellow poets Mike Barrett, Rob Van Tyle, Jean Howard, Anna Brown, Karen Nystrom, Dave Cooper, John Sheehan, and a year later they staged the first poetry slam at the Green Mill. "There was no competition," says Smith. "It was a variety show directed by myself and performed by the Chicago Poetry Ensemble. My initial goal was to increase the audience for poetry. In the early 1980s even the most established poets in Chicago had little or no audience. From a handful of people at the Get Me High Lounge the slam audience has grown to tens of thousands across the world."

Can tens of thousands of people worldwide be wrong? Is slam really serious or is it just a case of fooling a lot of the people a lot of the time? Slam poet and literary activist Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is clear in his assessment of slam's importance, "Slam has opened poetry to an entire generation that had no use for it thanks to our educational system. It is kind of the America of the poetry world--the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It has provided a forum for those who have no home in the ivory towers of academia and an alternate outlet for those that do. These people do not contemplate the trees. They do not believe that politics have no place in poetry. They are activists, often whether they know it or not. Slam audiences are often the most diverse of any of the art forms, especially within poetry itself. It is slowly and subversively creating a more enlightened society."

Unlike the overwhelmingly white "beat movement" to which it is too often inaccurately compared, slam is a truly diverse, multicultural movement. And make no mistake, slam is as much a social movement as an aesthetic movement. As Smith suggests, "slam has changed people's lives. Thats what art is supposed to do. If it does nothing but entertain, it might as well be a sit-com. The slam moves people to be passionately involved with art and performance, with words and ideas, with the people who come to listen. It has given people purpose and direction. It has challenged people to examine themselves, to take chances, to get to know people and ideas they would have otherwise just passed by. The families, friendships, and communities that have grown up out of the slam are truly a blessing to all of us involved in its creation and development."

The political side of slam is the focus for ongoing discussion and debate. Recently online at the slam listserv, the role of women in slam was the topic and members weighted in pro and con on whether slams in general had been helpful or harmful to women slammers. Much like the poetry one hears at slams, the quality and content of the discussion was both passionate and diverse.

Walidah Imarisha, 21, an Iowa-born, Philadelphia-based black woman wrote: "The slam was set up to allow a space where anyone can get up on the mic, without a book under their belts or a publishing deal in the works, and have their three minutes and reach out directly to people with no interference. And, hell yeah, that's a good thing. [We] have all had our minds colonized by this patriarchical, racist, sexist and homophobic society. We have all been imprinted with those ideas and paradigms of oppression, and if we don't consciously think about it, if were not always dialoguing and reconsidering our ideas and our structures, we are simply doomed to reconstruct the same oppressive restrictive model we were trying to get away from in the first place."

The first seven national slam champions were women, and the reigning diva of slam is four-time national champ Patricia Smith. The Chicago native and professional journalist was introduced to slam by Marc Smith (no relation). Patricia Smith went on to win the first national slam championship in San Francisco in 1990. In looking at the development of poetry as a result of the unforeseen popularity of slam, Patricia philosophically notes: "There is so much heat, and motion, and energy, and sound in what we do. It's hurtling along so fast that you don't know where it's going to go. You can't prescribe roads for these things to take, but you do have to recognize them when they have arrived.

"Poetry is a wild and restless art," she says, "and contrary to what people assume, the rowdy ambience that slam thrives in has not only brought audiences to poetry, but has made both the poets and the audiences more, rather than less, critical. "The longer you stay in it, especially if it's at a venue where the slams are held weekly or every other week, you will find that the audiences become increasingly more sophisticated. Something that bowled them over performance-wise a week or two ago, won't work again and again."

Roger Bonair-Agard, the 1999 national slam champ, acknowledges that "there are people who get more caught up in the competition of slam then they do in wanting to make good art. However, I don't believe that slam intrinsically lends itself to the worst elements of an audience. I believe that it is possible to write good work and also be victorious at slam. One need not dumb down one's art in order to be successful."

Roger is widely recognized as one of the nation's leading slam coaches. In the last three years, teams that Bonair-Agard has coached have won one championship and lost two on time penalties (in the nationals, points are taken away when a slammer goes over three minutes). But winning is not the only consideration. Roger believes it is important to believe in your work and to "write the best poem you can."

Bonair-Agard went to school in Trinidad, under a British system that emphasized the classics, and moved to New York where he attended Hunter College. "I'm still a little bit tied to the idea that people need to read and that's why I'm putting a book out, but I'm also in the initial stages of putting together a CD. I'm coming more and more to the feeling that poetry is a spoken art and I think people need to hear it. I'm incorporating a lot of music in my CD because I feel that one needs to understand music as a language onto itself.

Slam has changed the way we write, perform and think about poetry. At its best, slam is a vital and dynamic addition to, rather than a detraction from, the body of artfully expressed words we call poetry.

VIVA SLAM! Where to go if you want to know and hear more



Starring: Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn. Director: Marc Levin. Vidmark/Trimark, 1998, VHS, $14.99 UPC 31398676836

This popular movie and critical success story brought international attention to slam. Although many slam poets dismiss the movie because the poetry is only briefly presented (some even argue, misrepresented), after this movie the whole world knew that there was a new poetry movement called Slam.


Director: Paul Devlin 1998, VHS, $29.95 SlamNation is a compelling documentary of the 1998 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon. The video features dynamic performances by a wide variety of slam phenoms such as Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, Taylor Mall, Jessica Care Moore, Beau Sia, Daniel Ferri and mums the Schemer. Director Paul Devlin captures the tension and elation of the slam competition, the inside jokes and take-no-prisoners rivalry. Short of attending the nationals, there is no better introduction to the art and entertainment of slam.


Poetry Slam--The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry

edited by Gary Mex Glazner Manic D Press, September 2000, $15.00 ISBN 0-916-39766-1 Glazner is the organizer/producer of the first National Poetry Slam. He is also the director and producer of the film SlamNation. His anthology is the bible of slam. Not only are most of the major slam poets represented, but there are also mini essays and group e-mails. You want to know the basis rules for slams? Go to page 13. Poet-provocateur Taylor Mali gives you inside tips on how to win at slam, and slam veteran Daniel S. Solis outlines strategies for both teams and individuals. From haikus to rants (including "I Don't Want to Slam," Staceyann Chins remarkable anti-slam-poem declaration), Poetry Slam is a comprehensive, truly representative book on slam.

Burning Down The House Selected Poems from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe National Slam Champions

Roger Bonair-Agard, Stephen Colman Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Alix Olson & Lynne Procope Soft Skull Press, May 2000, $13.5 ISBN 1-877-12848-4 Although slam started at the Green Mill Bar in Chicago, it's the Nuyorican Poets Cafe that is the mecca of slam poetry. There is some resentment and some jealousy about the Nuyoricans acclaim, but there is no denying that the institution is responsible for producing an amazing number and variety of slam poets. Plus, the Nuyorican has a rule prohibiting poets from repeating as slam team members, thereby insuring that there is always fresh blood flowing through the house. In 1998 the Nuyorican team, coached by Roger Bonair-Agard, won the National Poetry Slam:Burning is an anthology of their work. While Poetry Slam covers the waterfront, Burning makes its mark by focusing on five poets whose styles and backgrounds are widely varied.


Poetry Slam, Inc. is the official organization and website for slam. Here you will find rules, history, news, archives, chat rooms and a catalogue of poetry books, CDs and videos. The site also includes information on the upcoming College Union Slam Invitational to be held April 14 & 15, 2001 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as well as information about the 2001 National Poetry Slam in Seattle, Washington.

The slam family has an open listserv on which an amazingly wide range of issues are passionately argued, discussed, cussed, aired and sometimes beat to a pulp. Whether trying to decide on rules and regulations for the upcoming slam championship or discussing racism and sexism in the slam community, the back and forth has all the energy of an orgasmic slam. If you want to get the lowdown on whats happening with slam day to day, this listserv offers the full 411.

New Orleans editor and writer Kalamu ya Salaam is founder of Nommo Literary Society, a black writers workshop; leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble; and moderator of e-Drum, a listserv for black writers and diverse supporters of their literature. His latest book is the anthology 360 [degrees] A Revolution of Black Poets (Black Words Press). Salaam's latest spoken word CD is My Story, My Song. Salaam can be reached at Read his feature on the black leaders of the Poetry Slam movement beginning on page 46.
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Title Annotation:slam poetry
Author:ya Salaam, Kalamu
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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