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slam poetry

Portland just feels different. That can seem like an unfortunate statement to anyone already living here, because the rent spikes another forty bucks every time it’s uttered, but that doesn’t make those four words any less true. They seem especially true now to those of us in the local literary community, because everything that has made Portland a Mecca for musicians and visual artists for the last decade or so is here in earnest for the poets, too.

“Community” is an important word. While it feels like there have been small pockets scattered around the city of close friends, or trusted confidants, who write together, offer feedback, and support each other’s efforts, bringing those groups together into a larger, more diverse local presence never seemed quite possible until recently. There have been some touchstone figures and organizations working in the literary spectrum this whole time, to be sure—Kevin Sampsell, small press guru of Burnside Powell’s and seemingly tireless driving force behind Future Tense press immediately comes to mind as a kind of figurehead for the local indie press movement, along with the Independent Press Resource Center (IPRC), helmed by Justin Hocking. There’s also Literary Arts, which brings in figures from all over the upper stratosphere of the literary world, while constantly working to support local writers, publishers, and journals. There has also been a guardianship of Oregon’s literary tradition maintained largely by organizations like the Friends of William Stafford (the board of trustees includes Paulanne Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate and reads like a who’s who of the national poetry scene spanning the last few decades).

It’s not like Portland woke up one morning and joined the larger contemporary poetry world in progress. Considering how much of the year we spend covered by thick, flat-gray clouds and perpetually soaked by the fine mist that hangs in the air everywhere all fall, winter, and spring, Portlanders have a lot of time to engage in their “indoor” hobbies and pride themselves on being a well-read crowd. You are equally likely to get turned on to a new author while mixing concrete on a construction site as you would while wandering around one of the many libraries and bookstores. Portland is a well-read city in the midst of a well-read state and has more than its fair share of writers, which has been made patently clear over the years.

At the height of the popularity of slam poetry during the nineties, Portland made waves in the national scene for having the lowest-scoring audiences in the nation. It seemed like this city was an excellent place for performance poets to get their egos raked across the coals any time their material favored pure performance over literary merit, or substantiality.

As slam fizzled out locally (not to effectively reappear until very recently), about a thousand open mics seemed to pop up around the city. These ranged from quiet bookstore or library affairs to rowdier barroom readings sometimes accompanied by musicians and DJ’s. I hosted on of the latter type for a year-and-a-half, learning a lot about that particular scene from several sides of the picture.

Those open mics were a great thing for a lot of budding poets. Even now, they can create a space to work on reading voices, make friends with people who are also into what can feel like one of the more despised art forms in America (especially for those of us who have friends that like to bitch about how much they hate poetry), figure out their craft, and occasionally (very occasionally) meet someone to date. But, as much as open mics are a great way for new poets to start figuring things out, they have problems, too.

After visiting a number of these around town, and running one, I started to notice that the same group of people would migrate around and read the same set at every single open mic that fit their schedule. Since most of these were weeklies, the homogeneity was palpable. This group of regulars made up the bulk of the readers at each open mic, and seldom—if ever—played the audience role well. If a new person (especially a woman, the bulk of the regulars all seem to be men) wandered in to the open mic, all the regulars would break out their “big guns”—whatever got a good response from that particular crowd in the past—which would be fine, excepting that the same set might be repeated over and over every week depending on how many strangers showed up.

The close quarters also seemed to lend it to deep, jealous rivalries. Little, sometimes one-sided, wars would break out among regular readers.  Keeping track of who hated whom could drive a person to drinking heavily, especially since so much effort on the part of whoever had a grudge went into trying to recruit supporters. Since the same general group would be at each reading, there might be no escape from the machinations of angry regulars.

Granted, this behavior was only really common among the divas in the group—primarily male, prone to redlining microphones by screaming “fuck” a lot, and frequently given to rambling “off the cuff” medleys of their memorized work. Since the bigger personalities were often at odds with one another, it could sometimes be hard to see past them and find the distinct value in the open mics, especially if the goal was to check out some poetry. Of course, the value is there and its discovery can keep someone (like me) coming back week after week for the flashes of surprise that can make the open mic so worthwhile.

Despite the problems, fresh art can be found frequently at open mics, along with amazing feats of performance. I remember standing in amazement one time while a guy recited “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, and again while Tom Blood (who would later win the Oregon Book Award) “read” in his strange, lilting tone from blank sheets of paper. The surprises are what makes the open mics worth visiting—which is probably true everywhere—especially when there’s an energy to specific venues. The energy is more likely to attract diversity, and simple high school biology tells us that a diverse ecosystem is less likely to collapse. In fact, that surprise and that energy are probably the key reasons why Slam took off so hard in the nineties.

While some of the open mics struggled with inbreeding, and seemed to be providing fewer surprises, many of the smaller curated readings didn’t fare as well as one would like. Attendance could be abyssmal for numerous reasons: popular open mic regulars noticably absent anywhere but the open mics at which they read (often citing issues of authenticity), no reliable list of events to be found anywhere, only a handful running on a regular enough schedule (usually monthly) to predict.

Unfortunately, some curated readings would be followed by an open mic, as a strategy to build or keep audience, a practice that deeply violates my old punk rock ethos—whoever tours headlines!—but also creates an environment in which the open mic crowd starts noisily arriving somewhere in the middle of the last “featured” poet’s set. The host might then transition from the curated portion to the open part by saying something like, “we listened to you, now you listen to us,” which can seem hypocritical since the “us” in question often has just walked in the front door, or spent the last twenty minutes shuffling papers, not listening to anyone at all.

Many of the other curated events suffered from lack of publicity to a point where I might catch sight of some local poet walking into a café or gallery while I was out getting groceries and, if I dropped what I was doing and followed him or her, I’d wander into a reading that featured some touring poet whom I’d never heard. Sometimes the reading would actually be kind of a big deal, but news of its existence wouldn’t seem to make it into the light of day until after the fact.

The newspapers didn’t help. If anything the local weeklies and the Oregonian appeared to be pointedly ignoring the local literary scene. I remember sitting in an editorial meeting while working as an intern for Willamette Week right as there seemed to be a small, sudden influx of new energy in local poetry, mentioning an upcoming event as possibly being worth a blurb and getting “slam poetry is dead” for the trouble. Yes. Slam was (at least temporarily) dead in Portland. Of course, that’s not at all what I was talking about.

Then something changed. Just as more Portland writers started getting national recognition, an influx of highly active, extraordinarily community-oriented people showed up on the local scene, injecting the city with a new vitality. I don’t know who came first. It was like an explosion. Now the city is filled with people who really give a shit. Not just about the art, but about fostering relationships between everyone with a shared interest in the art. Willamette Week lists the slam almost every week (along with all the amazing stuff happening around the city), Oregonian has a poetry column that only occasionally is bumped, Portland Mercury thankfully lost or fired all their lit-crit Reed alumni and replaced them with people who only occasionally rip on poetry.

It is fucking awesome, and as far as I can tell, directly linked to a few key events.

I remember walking into my first (their third) If Not for Kidnap, held in the living room of a large shared house off of César E. Chavez Blvd. (it was 39th Ave, then). I was nervous as hell because the thing I can handle the least is being around a crowd of people. Plus, I wasn’t experienced with the kind of energy this group put out. It was a semi-BYOB event, with a couple of half-racks of Pabst parked on the table to fortify all the wine everyone brought. I was there with my girlfriend who’s also nervous in a crowd, carrying a bottle of red wine and wishing there was someplace nearby to get a whiskey shot. We were, of course, a little early.

Although I don’t like crowds, I do like readings, and I wanted to try to be as close to the readers as possible. The hosts, Donald Dunbar and Jamalieh Haley, were still busy putting the living room together. I’d met Donald Dunbar before, but tonight he was radiating waves of calm energy. It felt good. In fact, I’d never felt so completely welcomed into a space in my life. Kate Bucko, a friend and classmate from PSU, was a roommate in the house and provided shots pilfered from a secret stash. We went out to the back porch, to get out of the way, and met Marshal Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen (who we’d later learn are the engine behind Poor Claudia, one of the prettiest journals I’ve seen). By the time the reading started, it was packed. People were all over the floor, directly in front of the microphone to watch Emily Kendal Frey and Lisa Ciccarello. The excitement in the room hung on everything like humidity.

I’d never seen a reading like it in Portland. In the last twelve years, I’ve been to bookstore readings, library events, slams, literary variety shows, readings by extremely famous poets in massive venues, and countless poetry open mics. I’d talked with people about what a “good” reading looked like and heard a gamut of ideal events ranging from boozy rowdiness to church-like silence. This reading got silent, but it didn’t have the stuffy feeling of being at a strict protestant service. People were drinking, but nobody in the audience reached the point where they had to heckle or shout or otherwise make themselves more important than the readers. It was rapt attention. Everyone in the room was really into the poetry. And the poetry was good. It was funny, strange, and sometimes sad. It felt great.

Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger kicked off the Smalldoggies reading series (named after their press and magazine) a little over a year ago at a bar off of Hawthorne that boasted impossibly cheap pints of Ninkasi IPA. The bar closed and they’ve moved it to the basement stage at Blue Monk, a venue that has historically shown solid support for the literary crowd in Portland. It’s a remarkable event, and has been touted by some as one of the more important regular readings in Portland. Part of what makes it incredible for an audience member is that Carrie or Matty are right there at the door, despite having a show to put on, to say hi and take donations. Their presence is thread throughout the whole evening, as they swap emcee duties and prepare the audience for each new segment. The format is great, too. Since the beginning, they’ve had a band or musician open the show, followed by the readers—almost the reverse of any event I’ve ever seen. The music is often unexpected, sometimes raucous, and always contemporary—I think I’ve seen more indie-rock open for poets and writers at Smalldoggies than anything else, the most recent show featuring Curious Hands, one of my favorite local bands to see live.

Again, what marks Smalldoggies as being so great is that it has the same kind of intense energy as INFK; the audience’s attention is undivided. The venue helps. People who are more interested in socializing can hang out upstairs, leaving the fans to the work of watching, but it’s hard to think there are too many people bailing on the reading, the seats are almost always completely full and the entire back end of the room is regularly filled with people standing near the bar without ordering drinks.

Bad Blood shares this feeling. Drew Swenhaugen, Joseph Mains, and Zachary Schomburg originally put these readings together at the Work / Sound gallery right off of Morrison, moving them to ADX after a while. Bad Blood comes out of nowhere, sometimes, and can happen any night of the week. The news of a new show releases anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in advance, depending on what’s being booked, giving the events the feeling of being like a party the hosts threw together to break up the wet, gray doldrums of Portland weather. This is a group that’s also not afraid to mix it up, often inviting filmmakers to show off work. The readings feel cathartic, making Carolyn and I crazy about running off somewhere to talk about every little moment, the way we do after watching a movie.

I’m not sure what started this, exactly, but I’m glad it’s happening. Portland is changing by strides, so much so that the poetry produced from this city is significantly different than what has come before. Categorizing it is the job of more critical minds, but there is a real shift away from quiet meditations on the Pacific Northwest landscape and a move toward touching, dreamlike visions, absurdity, and dry humor. There are well put together readings several times a month that have all the energy, excitement, and audience I’ve ever dreamed of seeing at any of the smaller, independent events I’ve visited over the last decade or so and there are really good poets just hanging out everywhere.

It’s a renaissance. Maybe that’s too big a word. Nobody is inventing the new physics here (that I know of), but there’s a clear change in the fabric of Portland and it’s making the city love poetry again.

In part one, I tried to enforce the idea that folk art is not necessarily superior to commodified art, and most art that we know and is brought to public consciousness, and endures is a combination, a dance so to speak between the genuine and the packaged, You have to cut the hog up to transport it, and a cut up hog can never be a free ranging pig, but it can give you the full flavor of what people in those parts love and have grown up on concerning the pig that ranged. You need to package the genuine in order to carry it to a new audience. One could make a case that the entire folk music scene from which Dylan, country rock, and long, often self indulgent singer-song writer songs emerged was far more in the category of commodity than folk–even as sacred a character as Woody Guthrie. A true folk artist wouldn’t worry about the purity of what he was doing, and if he can make good money for the people back home, and not be broke, he or she is going to let them cut up the hog–but only so far, and he is going to lament, sooner or later that, in cutting up the hog, they forgot the beauty and intelligence of the pig, and he may even be horrified at what they’ve done to his hog. This is why we have counter movements, and nothing is ever fully agreed upon.

Now the word academic can be taken in many ways. We could look at the glorious work Alan Lomax did, his scholarship in recording field hollers, convict songs, Appalachian music as well as Delta Blues. Instead of cutting up the hog, he did what a good scholar does: attempted to transport it whole, and preserve it so that it might be seen in its fullness and purity. This is scholarship. This is the good thing about Academic: it is work heavy, arduous, develops methods of qualification and research that tries to keep the hog in its full glory. Such scholarship is often brave, even fearless. often, no one understands or sees the value in some Northern Yankee running around the fields, and through the chain gangs in search of a song. No one understands why a scholar might spend thirty years codifying all the variants in the different versions of a single folk song sung mainly by half senile old ladies on their porches. The scholar, in this sense, is no less heroic than Beowulf.. He or she is going up against the dragon of half truths, and full out lies, and rumor, and finding the gem of what is complicated, and incremental and pain staking. This has none of the romance of the philosopher or theorist, none of the sweep. It is a daily, small, relentless contact with what can be recorded, verified, and put towards a body of research. All that said, the scholar works from the myth of purity, so that, for all his or her brave work, the best he or she can produce is a more accurate, far more exacting, far more useful falsehood–a falsehood that is then qualified, and corrected by equally brave and painstaking scholars, all of whom fine tune, and take a tooth brush to a thousand mile desert and start brushing.

God Bless them. For me, there is little as exciting in this life as a conversation with someone who has spent a life time knowing one small thing so well that it has become a world unto itself. Only trouble is, most scholars are terrified to expound and generalize since this is the work of theorists. I would rather talk to a good scholar who was willing to talk, than to a theorist who never fucking shuts up, but good scholars are often bad talkers, and they can be concrete at such a microscopic level that only another scholar knows what the hell they are talking about. I once spent three hours with an expert on 18 century prosody. It was heaven because I knew just enough to understand what he was discoursing on, but this is all too rare. Most of the time a good scholar is a bad theorist–not always, but often, and most theorists, rely on scholars because they aren’t exactly drudge workers. The worst nightmare for both theorists and scholars goes something like this: the scholar has spend 2o years studying the anatomy of a single kind of dinosaur. His research makes a big stir in the community of scholars. It is published in the best journal. It comes out on Yahoo or in the papers as:
“Scientists discover: Dinosaurs had lips!”

This same nightmare haunts theorists who have their whole complex spiel reduced to a single sound byte, and the sound byte is what people remember This is the academic version of: “look what they’ve done to my hog!”

The culprit here is purity on both ends. Purity in terms of the full hog, the free ranging pig, and purity in terms of how the hog is cut up and packaged. I will note four kinds of purity, all of which get us into trouble:

1. The purity of what something “really is.”
2. The purity of essentializing beyond substance.
3. The purity of subtantializing to such a degree that the essential is lost (the part of the elephant that is mistaken for “elephant.”).
4. The purity of correctives (reform, qualification, exceptions).

These four kinds of purity get mixed, and very often reduced to either/or: for example, either slam or academic, either oral or written, either uttered or read, and on and on. Folk art as I define it is not very interested–ever–in purity–until it gets packaged and firmly packaged in the myth of “what it really is.” Then nothing is more purist or snobby. Now let me try to list some of the traits of what I perceive as academic poetry, but I will list them in their laudatory, neutral, and dyslogistic registers:

A. Laudatory: It is poetry which is complex, multi-faceted, employing Empson’s types of ambiguity, more prone to showing than telling, and above all adverse to simplistic “issues.” it is what Barthes called “writerly.” It is highly mannered whether it is going for the decorative or the Zen form of simplicity. It is deliberate and careful not to say anything in an overt or obvious way. When it does say something overt or obvious it is always toward the ironic or the Dadaist.
B. Neutral: it is nuanced, understated, and covert.
C. Dyslogistic: It says nothing in perfectly wrought and well crafted lines,, is interesting only to its fellow adherents, is too often a code language for the MFA program the poet attended, and is snobbish, boring, and not at all interested in any audience other than the major small press magazines. It hates the idea of being entertaining, or of engaging a general audience, and it deals with nothing important. It is apolitical, amoral, and purposely read in as boring and dead pan a way as possible.

I am giving the three registers to get at different attitudes in terms of what people mean by academic poetry. Because “academic” has somehow become a pejorative, Those whose attitude is laudatory or neutral will just consider this sort of page poetry not to be academic, but to be true poetry, and all else is suspect and false. Those whose attitude is in the dyslogistic register, will see all nuanced and complex poetry as false and bogus (I know academics who see it that way!)Sadly, these folks are just as snobbish in their way as the supposed “academic” poetry they attack. Nuff said at the moment.

Other useful and informed falsehoods:
A. The academic purposely reads his or her poetry in a neutral, fully reading voice so as never to be confused with performing the poem.
B. The academic plays it safe, never curses, never uses mixed registers of speech, seldom pulls his nomenclature and word choice from different sources. if he or she does use the language of the volk, it is always in a measured and consistent way. Academic poets never mix registers because then they lose their academic sound. They always place semiotics above the work.
C. Academic poetry is fed, promoted, and preserved by art funding and university support and, left to fend on an open market, it could never survive. It is on permanent life support.

I think I have noted some of the basic ideas of what constitutes academic poetry. If put into bi-polar relationship with slam, it is defined by what slam ain’t. My purpose here is to skip all this usual stuff, and re-define academic poetry as commodity art. as such, it can produce works of lasting merit, great poems–but within the limits of its packaging. Whenever that package is challenged and loosened, this usually indicates that some force outside the package has been working on it, and making it looser. it is being infected by the impurity of what I define as folk art, but by what might better be called the force of the vital and the necessary. Systems are not destroyed so much by being challenged (since usually, the challenge is internecine–a fight between those on the inside). Systems are destroyed by radical obedience. A system is a form of desire. Desire dies when it is fulfilled. A system that becomes too completely what it is, becomes fulfilled and dies the natural death of fruition. All systems, just as all life rises from decay, and death. The rank stink of fertilizer is upon every systematic root. This is true of academic poetry and it is true of slam. All evolves toward fulfillment (or reduction), and the system that becomes aware of itself as a form seeks not to die. In order not to die it must have an opposition, an enemy against by which its absolute fulfillment is thwarted and by which it defines itself. As long as we have a tug of war, neither end can die, but if that tug creates the intimacy of opposition (Holderin’s beautiful phrase) than each system can be perpetuated, usually under new names. Commodity art is all about names and semiotics. It must look, smell, taste, sound, and feel like academic poetry in order to be academic poetry–the slavery of the packaged.

Same for slam. When a new element is introduced, people force it into the mold. By doing so they can change the mold without suffering the crisis of difference. Before this happens, the one who introduces a new element will not be perceived as doing so. They will usually be disparaged or ignored by both ends of the tug of war–seen as an anomaly, neither fish nor fowl, just wrong. Those who consciously challenge a system will be understood within the terms of challenge. This is not true folk. Folk does not challenge. it obeys some inner necessity and, by doing so, remains vital, invisible. No sooner is it seen as this or that than it stops being vital and becomes packaged. We can only be willfully “open.” We are never so open except in theory. Human beings package things and put them into categories no matter how post-modernist they pretend to be. We seek the portable. Packaging makes a thing portable. So commodity is not always evil–just limiting by its very definition. I define both slam and academic poetry as commodity art. They are limiting. Neither can ever be the vital force because the vital goes unseen and unknown through the veins of the scene. It moves as the blood through all things that would not impede its flow. Spoken word was motley and large enough, and undefined enough to allow the force of the vital. Academia does not allow for a good, rhetorical, overt rabble rousing poem and this is regrettable. at the same time, I knew people on the spoken word scene who wrote poems like Creeley or Oppen, and read them as such. I knew people who did shtick. It was wide open. Being an old man I know nothing is allowed to remain wide open. it will bleed out and be butchered. Slam does not allow for Oppen or Creeley and this is unfortunate, Academic and slam poetry are not friends of the vital. The vital will come to these camps only by cross breeding, or by the restrictions being so perfectly adhered to that they die as a result of being fulfilled. Obedience, which unlike conformity, is ferocious and dynamic ,will always destroy what it obeys by fulfilling the law. The absolute perfect slam poem or academic poem belongs neither to slam or academic poetry: it belongs to the spoken or written word and allows both systems to die into freedom from the law. My qualms with both academic and slam are situational. Before such great and unseen moments of perfect obedience, both slam and academic poetry restrict and limit the life of the vital.

As a teacher, my job is to inform my students of as many schools as possible , both their virtues and limtations, so that, choosing what they must obey, they destroy all schools and allow the vital to flow. My motto was always: learn from all schools, be faithful to none. One is not faithful to the law. This is conformity. One fulfills the law. This is necessity or obedience. The inner necessity of art is never a system, cannot be confined to a system, for it is longing and desire itself. My definition of academic is that which would commodify, reduce, and package, and make its laws of letter superior to the laws of the spirit. Under this definition, slam is not the true opposition of the academic, but another form of the academic. Good work can come of it, but only when it is escapes its commodity, or fulfills it to the point of making change not only neccessary, but inevitable. Slam has changed in the 25 years since it grew as an off shoot of spoken word. Because of its exposure on television, it became more about a look, a set of semiotics. This is horse shit. This is what art comes to destroy.

From what I’ve seen of student work, many are fascinated with fantasy/science fiction and what one of students called nerd consciousness–anything but emotional nuance and or engagement with day to day reality. Since few have an adequate template for poetry on fairies, ghosts, and the like, they tend not to write fantasy poems. This leaves love and slam. Slam poetry seems highly invested in the personal as the political: gender and sexuality, cutting, fat acceptance, suicide, drugs, family dysfunction, all tied together by more and more polyglot metaphors and an overly sold voice that makes “pass the salt” sound far more dramatic than it has any right to be. There is a slam voice that goes up in the register (this is usually done by white boy slammers) and sounds almost like a strangled or thwarted gobble. Usually this is reserved for an apostrophic address to some absent but all pervasive victimizer: America, racism, mom and/or dad, or some ex lover who is almost always brutal and has destroyed our hero/poet so that he might make metaphors between black holes, intergalactic space, and their destructive love. I do not hate spoken word. I hate ham acting. I would describe the current slam scene as anti-nuance. A low key slam poem is virtually impossible. Most slam might be defined as political correctness meets Oprah share session meets William Shatner doing the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” meets dysfunction meets metaphor as defined by the current writing initiative guidelines on effective personal essays. Slam is enormously popular and is now in the process of being co-opted by the Universities. Soon there will be fully tenured slam professors. Universities like money. They can speak about ethics all they want, but cash cows win. End of story.

And so I do not outlaw slam. If slam becomes the new orthodoxy, then highly talented, highly gifted young poets will be forced to fit the mold and, being, forced, will subvert slam and change it from within. At least, I hope so. At any rate, my qualms against slam:

1. It does not allow for the short, short poem (very rarely), and it does not allow for the long poem (very rarely) and is creating a fixed monologue poem (or group poem dynamic) that lasts from two minutes to three minutes ten seconds–an actor’s audition length of time. Slam, when it first appeared, had no set form except the time, but short poems could score high–poems of less than a minute, and acting chops were not required (especially ham acting and over selling). Enforced intensity and energy are as obnoxious as the purposely dead pan and flat free verse of academic poetry They’re the same thing: a fucking lie. When people stopped clapping at academic readings I think they did so in order to distinguish themselves from entertainment. Poetry readings have become more and more boring as a result. It’s like going to church without even having an interesting statue of some tortured saint to look at. I am hoping that academics will learn to respond again, and I am hoping that slam cuts out their fucking pep rally, and allows the real energy of the poem and audience to flourish. I doubt it on both counts.

2. The stakes for wining have become so high that no one takes chances, further creating a uniform and tyrannical sameness. Those who score high, eventually tour and teach and this makes money. Slam is as much about acting chops as poetry. Actually, slam comes as much out of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, and the anti-joke, social commentary tradition of post-fifties stand up as it does out of poetry. This is true of spken word as a whole, but slam in particular is about winning over an audience through identification. Everyone is preaching to the converted–a hipster’s pep rally. It’s pisses me off. I almost would prefer a monster truck show.

3. Slam is corporate, fitting the agist demographic of media: the 18 to 34 year old target market. This is in direct contradiction to its foreparent: spoken word. Those who defy this demographic inhabit the back waters of slam obscurity. Spoken word had an understated, but true sense of community. Many of the poets I met on the spoken word scene when I was in my early 20s, were 20 years older than me. I did not grow up in the suburbs and so did not have the same demographic sense of age ghettos, and boundaries. I became close to many of these poets. On the slam scene, community is pushed as an agenda and has all the artificiality of a talk show kiss on the cheek. Phatic closeness scares the shit out of me.

4. Slam abandons a true embracing of difference for a largely virtual advocation of multi-culturalism. Yes, it is multi-race, but each race seems condemned to its semiotic indicators. This is the tyranny of semiotics–identification rather than diversity. This is also a problem in academia, in the whole of American consciousness: identity is insisted upon through semiotics because of brand recognition.

Putting these qualms aside, slam has some potentials I advocate:

1. The return of rhythmic and cadenced speech and rhetoric to an at least equal priority with the image. This includes the re-emergence of extended and Homeric metaphor, anaphora, apostrophic address, hyperbole, decorative speech, and the idea of poetry being an utterance distinct from neutral registers of language. Good poets never abandoned these devices, but mediocre poets could, by the triumph of modified forms of imagism, get away with having tin ears, flat voices, and no sense of rhythm and cadence whatsoever. In short, overly simple prose with line breaks.
2. A return of the body and physical presense to poetry.
3. Energy and intensity as values which are not discouraged.
4. Appeal to an actual audience.

Of course, some of these potentials are tied in with the worst aspects of slam as well, and, truly, spoken word (which is much larger and less limited than slam) was already reviving these aspects of poetry. Slam has merely added commodity and a movement toward uniformity to the proceedings.

UPDATE: Here are some YouTube videos that clarify what I’m talking about above.

Here, the extention of metaphor in this poem and the formula hperbolic slam voice. The next poem is identification slam 101.

This is one of the more famous slam poems. Note Anis does not play the usual slam formula, but there is still a cadence that many slam poets mimic. Listen to how he says the word alone. Shake the dust, the tag line is a quote from the bible.

Note the tremolo in Sierra’s voice. She is doing a persona poem as Dahmer’s mother–a steal from Particia Smith’s persona poems (like Skin Head, from which it derives), and also Cornelius Eady, but note how she over sells the poem. You can find Patrica Smith and Hal Sirowitz on youtube. I’d compare them to what Anne Carson is doing, also Sharon Olds. All available on YouTube.

I always think that a poem “off the page” becomes an “act” of language rather than a poem, a thing made out of words. As such, its visual appeal (or lack thereof) is lost, but its actions are magnified—how it moves within the act of being uttered. It is no longer a poem, but an act of language. By this way of thinking, even a modernist or post modernist poem—fully constructed for its visual as well verbal appeal, even a poem as a “made thing” becomes an “act of language” when read aloud. Such poems often suffer when translated from the realm of the page to that of the heard text. They were not meant to be heard. They are of the cognitive brain, and their affective, animal body is absent except as a structure of intelligence. This does not mean they become bad poems, but it does mean they are at least, flawed acts of langauge. They have a paucity of repetition, rhetoric, and tone. They have little or no mimetic force. The page poem is not poetry. Rather it is a construct in which poesis may or may not occur. By the same token, neither is the uttered poem poetry. Poetry does not reside in either page or oracular form; poetry resides in something both caused by and beyond its words and this is true even when the poem is fully on the page as words. I call this something presence.

I strive for presence in my work—not for visual or oral appeal, but for a presence beyond the overt trickery of either. I am known for being a good reader of my poetry, but, if you listen to me on tape, you would not find my reading voice to be at all remarkable. I do not use acting or oral chops. I am actually reading with a far from mellifluous voice—but it is always a “Speaking voice.” It is the voice of my consciousness. There are three basic kinds of speaking voice:

1. The voice aware of itself speaking, and, thereby, speechifying. This voice will include various devices of rhetoric such as amplitude, hyperbole, adynaton, apostrophic address, extended metaphor, anaphora, rhyme, alliteration, cadence. Slammers, at least over the last few years, are prone to what I call “shot gun” metaphors—a series of extended metaphors that decorate a basic issue oriented trope—very much like menology, especially monology as it was evolved post Lenny Bruce—humor as recognition and identification rather than as punch line or story. Slammers have also fallen into a definite slam cadence, one which irritates the hell out of me unless it is done with some nuance. But the voice aware of itself speaking pre-dates slam. It is the voice of the orator, the con artist, the preacher, the rhetorician. It is exactly this voice that modernism and postmodernity sought to mute. Now onto a second form of speaking:

2. The voice as conversational lyric—the poet’s consciousness moving, and ruminating, and allowing an audience to overhear. This “voice” has been a dominant entity in poems since Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ginsberg, Stevens, wildly dissimilar poets, employ the conversational lyric. it may be formal, or casual, confessionalist or impersonal and vatic, but it has the one shared quality of being “overheard”—a voice caught in mid-consciousness. Such a voice enables the poet to mix registers of speech.

3. The voice as relaying information—without attitude, simply reading. Somehow this is considered the most honest voice by certain aficionados of poetry (especially those who hate spoken word or slam) but, in its radical rejection of any tone or attitude, it, too, is a literary conceit.

I have used all these forms of “Speaking,” sometimes in the course of a single poem, but I do not “perform” poems. I read them. They exist as scripts for me, and I often change them as I read—much as a musician might decorate a note, or leave out a chord passage depending on the mood of the moment.

So I am not a performative poet, and certainly not a slammer, but I am a reader of poetry—meant to have a speaking voice, a voice that often shifts according to my consciousness. I construct my line on the page as I am writing the poem, not for visual appeal, but as a sort of flow chart that changes and shifts in such a way that, if read out loud, the presence of a speaking voice will be the result.

I bring all this up because yesterday, after I had read at the West Caldwell magazine festival, a very nice woman named Bess came over to compliment and praise me. She did not buy my book because she already had it. She asked me where the poem “Poem for Advent” appeared. She said: “I loved it.” I smiled: “it’s right in the book you already purchased.” She looked surprised. “I read that book cover to cover… I’m sure I would have remembered it…” Then she paused and continued: “of course, it’s the way you read your poems. You’re such a good reader… you should do a recording… whatever you do, it’s not on the page.” I said: “you’re both right and you’re wrong. It’s both on the page and out loud, but it’s really neither. The force does not come from my performing the poem, or reading it with any special talent. My only talent as a reader is that I’m clear, and change speeds as I read… But thank you.”

This troubled me. Was “Poem for Advent” only good when I read it? The poem received a great crowd reception, and yet it was not a poem you would typically read to wow a crowd. It was not that I read it well, but rather that what I had written on the page (and always on the page) had managed to create a presence, a speaker. The speaking voice was not lost even in the page version. I write my poems as I think—they move with my thoughts. Now I want to analyze that poem as if it were not mine to see why it might go over well with a crowd of listeners—most of whom were published poets in their 30′s, 40′s and beyond.

The world takes us at its leisure…

This is the first line, not exactly a thrilling hook, but there are things going on here. First, it’s an opinion, a wager, a statement. Second, it does not yield its meaning immediately. What does it mean for a “World” to take us at its leisure? I am using personification, ascribing to the world a character. Taking is an aggressive act, whether it is sexual or a species of theft. To do so at its leisure implies a certain toying with us. Of course I was not thinking any of this when I wrote that first line. I was probably not thinking at all, but “sounding” my way into thought. I never have an idea I translate into poetry. I have sounding I shape, and within those shapes the thoughts of the poem begin to form. In this case, I had a title first (unusual for me) so I consider any poem that has a title first to be somewhat occasional—to serve the occasion, in this case Advent. If you are a reader of the Gospel, you will know we do not “belong” to this world, but this is my instinctive, rather than premeditated first act. Sound wise, it contains Uh, Er, long A, Uh, aah (the gag vowel), small i, high e, and er again. World and leisure share chiming sounds. IN terms of vowel sounds, it is only missing the long u as in ooh, the long oh as in boat, and the sound, Ah as in Ska. Note the dentals as in d at the end of world, t in takes, at, and its. So, in sonic terms, a lot more is happening than I might think until now. Still, this is not a poem seeking an immediate bang. I think takes is a strong verb. Much poetry on the page is wary of strong verbs. Floaty gerunds have somehow become more “lyrical.” Beats me, but let’s continue:

The world takes us at its leisure
by increments of infamy
or “virtue.”

Now the listener can’t see the quotes around virtue, but increments of infamy is a distant cousin of “weapons of mass destruction” or jack boot of the state. It uses the common sound of “in” as Joyce did with agin bite of inwit. In point of fact, Joyce is secretly hidden in my ear along with Stevens and Williams because I spent years reading them (and not out loud, though, sometimes). The ur sound serves as a rhyming function (world, leisure, virtue), but, as with hip hop, it is never in a predictable position. It’s sneaky rhyme, so sneaky I have no idea I am doing it. This helps create a speaking voice because people are often rhyming without knowing it. Still, no metaphors, no meter, and nothing that sounds like common speech exists here. The first two lines are 8 syllables, but not metered.

In short, there is nothing in this poem so far that makes it spoken word friendly. There are several unusual phrases that get developed later, there is a play with the idea of conning, and evangelizing, and the poem moves into the darkness of advent, into a sort of freely improvised meditation on what is genuine and holy and what is false in terms of the spirit, but nothing in this poem is overtly oratorical. If I had to think what makes audiences like this poem, it is probably the presence of a consciousness moving from thing to thing, yet never forgetting to circle an intention which is to meditate upon the false and the genuine, and more so, upon the merge points between them. At its close, it becomes a plea to God: Maranatha. It employs the mystical oxymoron of “despairing more deeply into joy. Somehow, I am able to convey my sense of struggle with faith and conscience. I also compare the “lascivious” grin of an old Chrysler to Burt Lancaster’s smile in Elmer Gantry, and that is a good simile, a very good simile, and visually accurate in an odd way. There are moments of anaphora, and alliteration, especially toward the end when the poem reaches its climax, but neither is used as a chief shaping agent. So why would my voice, a voice that is reading, not performing, win over an audience. I don’t think the answer lies on either the page or in the performance. I think it lies in presence. Presence is of a body—a form. I become my poem or my poem becomes me, and this thing of the body transcends either entertainment in performance or the sight of the poem on the page. This is the magic of the conversational lyric. Hell, beats me. I know I did not think the poem up. I wrote it one line and word at a time, not knowing ever exactly where I was going: the same way I talk. Maybe people were just being nice.