|Poetry slam founder Marc Kelly Smith at the mic at the Green Mill.|
Ok, here I go exploring terra incognita. It’s time for me to man-up and admit that I know nothing about one of the most vibrant aspects of contemporary poetry—and one of the most popular. I am talking about the alternative universe of urban performance poetry as displayed in its natural habitat—the poetry slam. Just admitting my ignorance is evidence of my geezerish un-hipness.
Although this form has well established roots in the coffee house readings of the Beats, spoken word performance art, early hip-hop street rap battles, it was born at Chicago’s Get Me High jazz club in 1985—the same year I decamped the Windy City for the howling wilderness of McHenry County. I can tell myself that had I stayed, I surely would have ventured the experience. It was organized by Marc Kelly Smith, a construction worker and poet who wanted to inject some excitement into existing poetry open mics. The next year his weekly event transferred to the venerable Green Mill where the Uptown Poetry Slam was officially born. And it was a sensation.
The form established by Smith a/k/a slampapi has literally spread around the world. The slam is a contest. Although there is frequently a featured poet performing, others sign up with the host to get strict 3 minute shots. They are judged by a panel of five audience volunteers rating each poet on a scale of 1 to 10 in the old style of Olympic figure skating judging, high and low scores are thrown out. Poets must be the author of their pieces, cannot use props, costumes or instruments. They are judged on both the poem and the performance. The audience is encouraged to participate by cheering or booing. If enough poets perform, there may be second or third rounds after eliminations.
Audiences have been compared to those at professional wrestling matches and roller derby. A poetry slam is no place for a shy English professor, the re-incarnation of Emily Dickinson, or the earnest, matronly ladies who spend their creative lives imitating greeting card verse. Folks of those types have occasionally dared the stages. What happened to them was merciless.
Slam poetry actually takes the art form back to its earliest days around camp fires—oral tradtition. The poem is inseparable from the performance which must be in some way dramatic, comedic, scary, threatening, or cathartic.
Such an art form is, by definition, ephemeral. Most of the performed poems never see the printed page, or are preserved electronically on the intertubes. Even devoted audience members may not be able to recall the poem/performance that blew them off their bar stools five years ago.
So how was I to proceed in finding some examples? Good ol’ Google revealed that there are slam poetry sites where some work is preserved, and some contestants maintain their own web sites. A few have even made the leap to the printed page.
Here are three that my inexhaustive search turned up and which struck me as very good indeed. Of course the poets themselves would remind you that what you read here is a poor substitute for hearing them performed live.
Here is one by the founder of the slam, Marc Kelly Smith, who continues to host the famous Green Mill sessions. He is, by the way the same age as I am—65—which makes me doubly ashamed of my unhipness.
I Wanted to Be
I wanted to be so many things.
Bigger than I was.
A tall tower of building blocks.
A shoelace tied so fast.
Jelly spread smoothly
to the corners of the bread.
I wanted to be so good.
A smile on everyone’s face.
Folded hands. A clean desk.
All the numbers added up
digit under digit
I wanted to stand between the bully
and the frail kid.
Ready to take it. Ready to give it back.
I wanted to do the right things.
Pull the spit back into my mouth.
Scrape the gum-chewed secrets
off the bottoms of the chairs.
Drag the dumb, go-along laughs
out of the air.
I wanted to stand on an asteroid
whirling a mighty chain above my head,
flinging an outer space hook probe
into the heart of the Universe.
And by loving…
Whatever I wanted to love.
When I wanted to love.
How I wanted to love…
I wanted to grapple the Ultimate Connection.
So what happened?
What happened during that great revolution?
After we pinned our daddies to the floor?
After we made our mothers eat shame?
After we rolled all antiquity and tradition
into cigar size joints,
Sucking in whole rooms of humanity,
hoping to assimilate all the differences
and heat the world
with our spontaneous combustion?
when the chain on the asteroid
slipped out of our hands?
When the ones we loved
When our laugh became the dumb laugh?
When the spit shot quick and hard
from our teeth?
When we gave the kids the beatings?
What happened to our dreams?
What happened to me?
I wanted to read all the books
of unerring truth.
I wanted to tie my shoelace fast.
Spread jelly smoothly to the corners of the bread.
Build a tower, a tall tower.
Spell everybody’s name
top to bottom,
bottom to top
all four sides,
in and out.
I wanted so bad, so bad
to be so many things,
Without the whole thing
—Marc Kelly Smith
Raymond Ngomane is more diligent about preserving his work than many. I found many examples from the South African who identifies himself as an actor, comedian, and street hip hop dancer in addition to being a poet. He is an example of how the Chicago bread form has become truly international.
I wish I wrote that poem first
The one you described how a voiceless woman spoke in body language
Walking in verses and styles of her footsteps
Crossing trees growing love offerings in heels passing high hills
The poem you wrote about her politics and votes
With no ballot papers on poles selling her goals
I wish my fingers cooked syllables before you burned my syllabus
With images of the sun dancing to bass guitars so her dreams can peek on tomorrow's rest in peace chorals
I wish your famous Stars never described
The specs of her smiles like falling stars
Catching your wish-list attention
You beat my thoughts before
I speak how she designed her beauty
through bedroom eyes
Eyes that saw stars falling from poetry's gallery
You were too quick for my thinking Mr. Slam
Horizons defining how the sky cried in thunders after scandals
How the sky donated time and space for your fast paced baby slams
Her wounds never offered resistance though painted before eyes and ears
Round tongues described the flat tones planning to hijack deep kisses of her lips
How I wish I wrote that poem
Those pictures of her voice you recycled in metaphors
away from cemetery names that smells to live sadly ever after tales
Let me be your mic
Let me listen to your creativity as you design your desires
I mean it Slam
Let me be your microphone
I promise to echo your words in tuberculosis infecting any living soul till my diamond skeleton dies
Sickening all wannabes
Infecting all sick ideas you nursed before my brains/
Privately lusting over her virginity for stage
That idea was mine Slam
It hurts to watch you bleed cravings
It hurts to watch me watch you over the mirror battling to shape your poetry facial expressions
We are stark together please let me be your microphone
Drake J. Eszes is a California based poet and slam host who also has an irregular program, Stand as 1 w/Drake J. Eszes on Blog Talk Radio.
The Rejected Thesaurus
A faulty miscarriage of stanzas and exhaled anomalies,
Unto a Shakespearean passing
Verbal precedence above cedar scented opinions
While providing expired empathy to their disfigured reflection
Oh, how their insolent pride glimmers
Similar to Cubic Zirconium weddings
Oh, how their “manhood”
For even “thicker” pride
Another daftly implored lie
“Man” inhales pompous remorse,
Gripping rusted axe on toxicant bosom,
Declaring knighthood upon ignorant crowd
Another verse of celebrated memories,
Remains glued to authoritative eras of yesterday,
With forcefully dimpled “smile”
To surgically remove equilibrium's paralysis
But, humanity shall resurrect
Against demoted seer
To declare that this tide of “man”
—Drake J. Eszes
The world of slam and academic poetry do intersect, particularly as slams have become popular in off campus dives. A few can move effortlessly between the two. Adrian Blevins has not only won slams, she has harvested an armload of prestigious awards including the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation Award for Poetry, the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction, and a Bright Hill Press chapbook award. In addition to her 2004 collection The Brass Girl Brouhaha she has contributed to Poetry, The Utne Reader, The Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Drunken Boat, Salon.com, and many other magazines and journals. She currently teaches at Colby College in Maine.
Back when my head like an egg in a nest
was vowel-keen and dawdling, I shed my slick beautiful
and put it in a basket and laid it barefaced at the river
among the taxing rocks. My beautiful was all hush
and glitter. It was too moist to grasp. My beautiful
had no tongue with which to lick—no discernable
wallowing gnaw. It was really a breed of destruction
like a nick in a knife. It was a notch in the works
or a wound like a bell in a fat iron mess. My beautiful
was a drink too sopping to haul up and swig!
Therefore with the trees watching and the beavers abiding
I tossed my beautiful down at the waterway against
the screwball rocks. Even then there was no hum.
My beautiful was never ill-bred enough, no matter what
you say. If you want my blue yes everlasting, try my
she, instead. Try the why not of my low down,
Sugar, my windswept and wrecked.