Thoughts on LitSlam and slam in general.

October 23, 2012

So last week on Monday I attended LitSlam at Virachocha, possibly the hippest slam venue in San Francisco right now.  I guarantee you that no matter how I try to describe this place to you, I will fall short of its typewriter-filled, vintage-speakeasy, hardwood and washboard-lamp charm.  All in all I’d say it’s in my top five favorite rooms in which to experience poetry.

I originally walked through Virachocha’s doors for the New Sh!t show, which I’ve already gushed about a little bit on this blog, but I want to repeat: it was awesome.  I think it is artistically important for writers to have a place to share new work. Especially in this art form, which so often only acknowledges poems that are written in a certain style, the process of experimentation and creative variation can often use all the encouragement it can get.

These shows and others like them are doing something vital for the slam community: they’re creating platforms for slam poetry to start to escape some of its stereotypes. (If you don’t know what a poetry slam is, here’s a link to get you started.)

Before I go on, I feel compelled to say that everything that follows is not meant to be an authoritative account, but rather the observations of one writer.

I think one of the most interesting things to note in the evolution of the poetry slam is what prizes go to the victor.  In her outstandingly informative book “Words in Your Face“ Kristen O’Keefe Aptowicz identifies the publication of Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1994 as one of the major turning moments in slam.  When Aloud was published, winning a slam changed from being a mock-competition where poets would get scores from randomly selected judges in order to win a box of twinkies, a half-expired Metro card, or bragging rights and became a real competition, successes in which can get a poet published and advance their career as a writer.  Around this time, it starts to become possible to book a national tour by winning enough slams.   Soon after, as solidified with the premiere of HBO’s “Russell Simmons presents: Def Poetry Jam,” winning this competition can get you on national television.

It is impossible to have a mock-competition based on art with life altering prizes and expect the competitors’ art not to be affected.   (Especially in America, where we have tendency to get carried away with competition when television is involved).  I do believe that Slam has something outstanding to offer the world right now.  It is a truly open art form, and a truly American art form.  This is what we’ve made: jazz, rock & roll, and the poetry slam.

Many other people have written very thoughtfully on what the pitfalls of slam are, but let me try to summarize the main points that I have heard raised:  the slam format encourages lazy work.  The judges often reward poems for shock value.  Some poets end up “writing to the slam,” specifically producing poems that are neither genuine nor particularly well crafted, but simply writing poems because they want to win this game…this game that was meant to be a joke, a mock-competition.  Somewhere we lost this joke.  (I often repeat the phrase, “This Picasso is a 6.2, but this Cezanne is a 7.4!”  This should sound absurd, because it is.)

Slam also attracts many amateur artists.  I don’t view this as a negative, but rather a positive consequence of the slam, although there are definitely those who disagree with me.  This can have negative consequences when someone from outside of the slam tradition attends one random poetry slam, sees artists who are clearly new to the medium, and dismisses the entire performance form as sophomoric.

Slam is loud at times, which again has negatives and positives: some pieces demand volume, but often new writers experiment with performance without a strong backbone of craft and mistake loudness itself as a style.  Yet again, the result is audience members who will attend one poetry slam and assume that they have seen everything that the poetry slam has to offer.  I equate this with going to a middle school orchestra recital and assuming that you hate everything about the clarinet, which is actually a gorgeous instrument.

So yes, there are negative things about the slam, but this is all background for the question that is often on my mind:

How does one respond to the path that the art form has taken, not in a personal/artistic sense, but as an organizer and presenter of the art form? Can the structure of the slam itself be altered to encourage meaningful performance poetry?  What can hosts of poetry readings do to respond to the loss of the “joke” or “game” of poetry slam, or is the answer to get rid of the game altogether?

These aren’t so much questions for poets, as they are for organizers of poetry readings.

In my opinion, by far the most important thing that someone who believes in this art form can do is find the poets who are challenging and dedicated to producing outstanding work, get them on a stage and into the spotlight, and get them cash for doing it whenever possible.   The cash is not only to encourage and affirm that one poet, but to acknowledge the gift that they are giving the poets in attendance and the audience at large.

Almost every venue where I have seen outstanding poetry has a commitment to bringing out great features on a regular basis, but in addition to that, recently I’ve seen organizers taking steps to alter the form of slam itself to create a different attitude towards winning a slam.  (Which could, theoretically, affect the form of work the slam solicits.)

Poets Battle & Jam in Santa Fe has a potluck prize that goes to its winner.  They set up a paper bag by the stage and anybody can put in whatever they have.  Some people might frown on this as bush league, but I love it.  Getting on the Santa Fe slam team (qualifying for the local Slam Team, which then goes on to compete at ***the National Poetry Slam***, is often the function of a slam series) would not have meant much to me, but it was really cool to walk away with a bag of local squash, cucumbers, $5 and a copy of American Gods and Snow Crash.

LitSlam produces a literary magazine, Tandem, from their 10 month slam series.  The format for the poets is almost exactly the same as it is in a regular slam except for a change in time limits from 3 minutes in each round to ascending 1, 2, and 3 minute rounds, and the judges are called “editors.”  One of the editors is not selected at random as in a typical slam, but selected by the organizer.  In addition to scores, all editors also provide comments on the poem that are then given to the poet.  The winning poet gets 3 poems published in the literary magazine; the runner up gets one.  The magazine also publishes the work of any poet who features at the venue.  Their first volume is coming out on November 19th, I will likely post about it enthusiastically.  I really love this format: it encourages active listening in the judges, and the time limits prevent the evening being entirely filled with three-minute long heavily practiced slam poems.  I don’t know why this isn’t happening everywhere.   I think Northampton should get on top of this.  I think everywhere should get on top of this.

At Northampton Poetry I always made a point to have as many prizes as we had competitors, so it made no difference whether or not you won, because well…it was kind of like Little League, everybody gets a trophy just for coming out.  This was never really telegraphed to the audience, but the point was to break the idea of competition among the poets.  In his poem “Disclaimer” addressing the purpose of slam, Bob Holman writes: “We disdain competition, and its ally, war.”  Usually one prize would be, well, cooler than the others, but it was mostly gift certificates to local used book stores or cafes.

If it is impossible to have a mock-competition based on art with life-altering prizes without influencing the competitors’ art, Northampton Poetry attempted to level the playing field: there’s no reason to alter your style for a prize that’s equal to the reward for simply competing.  Santa Fe is doing something different, which is to make the prize donation-based instead of set, so poets are rewarded by the open generosity of audience members and other poets, while LitSlam is using the idea of a prize that appeals to poets interested in publication to create a forum that encourages and augments worked being created by the tension between slam and academic poetry.

I think it is wonderful that people are thinking about this.  I would love to hear about any different creative presentations you’ve seen of slam, or poetry in performance.  Have you seen any creative innovative presentations of slam?  Let me know!


One Response to “Thoughts on LitSlam and slam in general.”

  1. […] which I have written about here […]

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