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Marc Kelly Smith
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Continuing on from yesterday’s entry here are more of the principles that have fueled Slam’s worldwide success from Stage the Slam published by Sourcebooks: The death toll of most poetry readings doesn’t ring, it politely pats its paws together to form golf applause in response to the droning monotone of a pedantic, stunningly pompous poet boring the universe with his obscure allusions and endless meanderings of self-indulgent observations gleaned from his morning journal. At most slams such poets had better pull on their thickest rhino hide and get ready to duck. Slam audiences are allowed, encouraged, and sometimes prompted to be brutally honest, to react and respond to what they like and dislike. And they're not stupid. Audience participation is a key ingredient in the slam recipe. It’s the yeast that makes a slam crowd rise to its feet and roar. It takes time to convince a body poetic that it’s okay to talk back and get a little rowdy, but once they taste the nectar, they never go back to their hand-sitting, tongue-biting ways. At the Green Mill, the first sign of trouble is finger-snapping. No, that’s not dig-me-daddy-o finger snapping, it’s more akin to whistling at a bull fight or the rattle of a snake that's about to strike. If the snapping doesn't clue the poet that something has gone awry, folks start stomping their feet. When all else fails, they groan like grizzlies – a low, nasty, threatening groan. Seasoned slam audiences have mastered some specialized crowd controls. One of the most playful is the feminist hiss, which traditionally was used to gently slap a male poet down for using one too many sexual references in a lonely-hearts poem. Nowadays, audiences use the feminist hiss for just about anything a man does as soon as he steps onstage. Guess-the-rhyme is another popular game. If a particular poet's rhymes are all too predictable, someone in the audience chimes in by announcing the rhyming word just as it trickles out of the poet’s mouth. It’s great fun to watch the poet’s face when nine out of ten of his hard sought rhymes are guessed and shouted in unison with his recitation. Around the world slam rituals give the audience a voice and permission to add that voice to the performances they experience. In Jerusalem, slammers serve up their poems onstage as fodder for an open discussion by audience members about the merits and failings of the poem. Then the slammer presents an edified version of the poem and receives a score from the judges who’ve heard both the poem and the discussion. In Wiesbaden, Germany, the entire audience scores the performances on ballots passed out at the beginning of the evening: one to five for content, one to five for performance. Included at the bottom of the ballot is a space for comments and criticisms. The rituals adopted by local slam events that nurture and encourage audience participation are essential to a show’s success. Honest and immediate feedback has... Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Prior to the poetry slam movement (and even today in many literary circles) poetry readings were, for the most part, poets reading to other poets. If there happened to be a genuine audience of non-poets present ready to listen to the art they cherish, they were usually droned into a dazed stupor by poets mumbling in a monotone and the stifling nature of the reading event itself. Slam changed that. Poetry slam events are word circuses, school rooms, town meetings, playgrounds, sporting arenas, temples, burlesque shows, revelations, mass guffaws, holy ground, and possibly all of these mixed together. The audience is the primary judge of the quality of the poetry and its presentation. They have permission, in fact a responsibility, to talk back. Maybe there have been occasions when you’ve found yourself seated in the front row of a poorly ventilated auditorium listening to an award winning poet recite the best of his or her works and have been sorely disappointed. “Time and time again, the crème de le crème of the printed page have displayed no interest in performing, or even a faint desire to add a little inflection to drive home a hot metaphor. They smugly drone on like dust caked ceiling fans.” In our book, Stage a Slam, published by Sourcebooks Joe Kraynak and I laid out clearly the principles that have poetry slams and slammers so successful: Slam invigorates poetry by giving as much weight to the performance as it does to the text. At a poetry slam, a light-hearted scrap of doggerel performed passionately can prove stronger than a superbly crafted villanelle recited by a poet who barely exhibits any signs of life, and by the same token a fine poem partnered to a fine performance can bring the rafters down. The goal of performance poetry is to couple the best possible text to the best possible performance - to compose superior poems and perform them with razor-edged precision. The points are not the point... the point is poetry. This adage, coined by slam poet and organizer Allan Wolfe of Asheville, North Carolina, is often repeated at the commencement of slam competitions around the world to remind us that competing in a poetry slam is not about getting the highest score, walking away with a pocketful of cash, or trying to fill a trophy case. The true goal is... to inspire people from all walks of life to listen to poetry, appreciate and respect its power, and ultimately to take the stage and perform their own original works. The competitive aspect of slam poetry has succeeded at achieving this goal. Slam draws droves of people, some of whom swore off poetry in high school and college, to its bosom, and most are shocked to discover that they actually like it, or at least like some of it. Although the first show to be called a slam was at the Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern, the seeds of the slam movement were sown at the Get Me... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks to Best American Poetry for inviting me to be this week’s guest blogger and my apologies if what I present does not satisfy the expectations of their readership. My expertise is limited to a discipline I resurrected from the closets of disuse. Performance poetry, a.k.a. slam. Some say it has changed the game for anyone pursuing a vocation in poetry. Others scoff at it. From inside and outside the slam community prejudices and misconceptions have twisted the principles that fueled what I and those who followed my lead spawned over thirty years ago. Even Poetry Slam Inc. (PSI) the national non-profit organization sends a skewed message: Simply put, poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they're saying and how they're saying it. No. The principle definition of slam poetry, the practice started in Chicago in I984, is performance poetry -- the remarriage of the art of performing verse with the art of writing it. Two art forms entangled into one offering more choices for effective poetic communication than exists on the unspoken written page. But yes, there is a very popular competitive element embedded in most performance poetry communities. Competition has fueled much of what is known worldwide as slam. But without passionate and professionally crafted performances no competitive format, however well conceived, could have kept (and continue to keep) people engaged and eager to be engaged again and again at poetry slams. The Uptown Poetry Slam at the Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern, the first performance poetry show to be called a slam, is the longest running night club show in the city, maybe in the country. Anyone who has attended it will testify to the fact that the slam competition is game, a dramatic device for focusing an audience’s attention on a platform of performance poetry presented by poets daring enough to be vulnerable as both writers and performers. Two art forms melded into one. This was the starting point for what has now spread across the globe. It is what I and others dared to partake in back thirty years ago. We performed our stanzas. We brought the emotions and images, the attitudes and conviction, the music of the words we wrote to life with our bodies, voices, and minds. And it pissed off the old guard who claimed that “acting” poetry defiled it. But so what, we had a growing audience and they didn’t. Time has proven that what was once dismissed as a barroom fade has staying power and importance equal to any other school of poetry in the history of literature. Tomorrow I will describe some of the root principles essential slam’s initial and ongoing success in gathering and expanding an audience for poetry never thought possible. Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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May 4, 2015