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Slam comes out of spoken word, hip-hop, bar poetry, speechifying, the mongrel mix of the jazz cutting contest and the old gong show (as it has become more a commodity of the universities it has lost the gong show aspect and is beginning to effect a gravitas that disrespects its own origins and plays to the same snobbery as academic poetry). Slam replaced spoken word. Spoken word was never a commodity. It was a true alternative to academic poetry–albeit, with no possibility of making cash or meeting the target market for media (ages 18 to 34, and then you don’t exist). it was done for the sheer hell of doing something different, good, bad, or otherwise, and had a true communal meaning. Slam mimics that communal meaning while being largely pro-clique and power driven. This is the difference between folk art, any kind of true grass roots art and what I’ll call commodity.

Because folk art never strays far from the pub, the fire place, the kitchen, the porch, its forms evolve organically: the packaging is loose at best and allows all sorts of influences to enter and exit in a more natural unpremeditated way. It is based not on expertise, but on a daily life line to the experiences of its locality. Where group expertise is involved (little children exposed to polytonal and microtonal harmonies and rhythms will very easily assimilate them) amazing and complex musical and literary structures can grow from very humble and poor soil. Where individual genius is forged in this same environment, the local legend, the great fiddle player or story teller or bard (or black top hoops player) remains within the community and speaks for it, not above it. Such performers are often packaged by outside forces based on commodity and then we have a merge point between folk art and commodity art. The natural, the root, the raw artists rising from the “primal” is always an artist spoken of in the language of commodity art. He or she is being packaged, limited to a sellable category–a niche. In this respect, the “genuine” is always false. If an artist is truly genuine, no one has to say it, and, if someone says it, commodity is always the background of this utterance. Gatekeepers decide what is “genuine.” They decide that folk music can only be played on acoustic instruments, or it can only use a certain number of chords, or it must deal with certain themes and in certain language. They do this to “identify” and sell. This is never the way of folk. If I had to define true folk instruments it would be: Anything that makes a sound, electric or acoustic, that gives expression, pleasure, and duration to the dirt you stand on, and that you can warp to the needs of the moment.

This definition, then includes the original record player scratchings, and boom boxes as well as beat makings of rap and hip hop culture. Folk is, by necessity, always impure. it steals whatever it needs to steal, and leaves the package loose. If you could still go to a back mountain somewhere, and you brought some classical records with you, the resident musician would be all ears. His eyes would light up. he’d say: that sure is pretty, and, if he could, he’d take something from it–whatever riff was available under his limits, wherever riffs made contact with his dirt. This is how jazz and folk and all music evolved–someone took a little something from wherever they could find it and made it his or her own–with no apologies. Only scholars and businessmen believe in purity and property. Land is not the same as property. Property can be owned from a distance; land has to be worked and stood on.

Spoken word was a folk culture. If you read in a bar and were a cut better than most, you got recognized by your fellow readers–no scores necessary. The feature at a bar was based almost always on local reputation. I consider myself a spoken word poet–not by the definitions of commodity art which would dress spoken word in the drag of its obnoxious gatekeepers (who always get it wrong on purpose) but by how I did my poems: I went to open readings. I waited my turn. I read in the open–one or two poems. People liked it. They asked me to feature. My pay was either a pat on the back or, sometimes, a collection from the hat, or, on rare occasions, 50 bucks. Being a folk artist, I didn’t think it unnecessary to read Wallace Stevens or Neruda or Whitman or any of those guys. No folk artist has to try to be a folk artist by keeping his influences pure. In point of fact, I read such poets almost exclusively, and skipped Bukowski and the so called recognized “heroes” of the spoken word–not because I was a snob, but because that was the ground I stood on. You don’t read what you’re standing on (you’ll bump your head into a tree staring at your shoes). You look toward the horizon. I didn’t think of these poets as sacred cows. They were making pretty music, and where I could, I copped some of their chord changes.

My poems were often stories–sad and funny, very different from what I read, but I’d flavor them up with what I’d seen on the horizon. I was listening to the poets at the bars, too, and learning from them. I had no “standards” except pleasure, and transport, and the motley accident of being curious and an avid reader (with no given assignments). I read Williams the same way I read vampire comics: for pleasure and for the purposes of theft. This is the folk art way, and it survives commodity art even when it is packaged and sold–if it knows what’s good for it. Artists who become “pure” become gatekeepers and jailors, and shit asses. You don’t steal what you have; you steal what you don’t have. I stole the Spanish surrealists, and the modernists, and the contemporary academic poets I liked because I didn’t have those boys and girls. People in bars would try to compliment me by telling me I was like Bukowski (Meaning I was narrative. I have no other relation to Bukowski) or that I was raw (meaning I cursed, but everyone curses in Elizabeth–it’s an art) or meaning I was self taught ( everyone, for your information is self taught. Otherwise, you’re just brain washed).

So this is why I say Spoken word is folk art, and why I say academic and slam poetry is commodity art. Now before you go off thinking I’m saying one is better than the other, let me explain myself: great commodity art is made. It’s whole point is to be good, or, at least, competent, and it often succeeds (though the definitions of what is good or bad are often inaccurate). Great folk art is made, and if it is great, it is bound to be commodified or, at least, commemorated in the minds and hearts and memories of those who knew the local legend–the great man or woman who stood on their dirt and sang for it, but the purpose of folk art is not necessarily to be good. Folk art does not truck much in standards. It is more about doing the thing, and learning it so you can enter. The purpose of folk art is to express what is necessary, and true and particular to that locality and time, and to infect that locality with something different when it needs something different. No one gate keeps there–at least not as official critics or keepers of value. In the folk way, you do what you do, and good or bad, you keep doing it, and no one stops you because no one owns the porch, the kitchen, the field, or the bar except those you’ve known and lived among all your life.

When greatness rises from a place where the point is not to be good, but to do what you do, it is recognized in a different way:

1. Everyone sees that great player or story teller as reflecting their own experience–not as a special commodity to be envied, but as an extension of who they are, and they take pride in him or her, and allow them to get away with less labor or certain eccentricities because they know talent needs some leisure and time to waste.

2. No one cares if that person is on a national stage. This is not star fucking time. It’s like inner city basketball: a local street legend gets talked about as much as an NBA all star in his or her own neighborhood.

Commodity art’s first action then is to define what is “good” and standardize it. It’s chief activity is to narrow by defining and packaging the product. When slam first started out, any kind of spoken word artist could win–short poem, long poem, comedy routine disguised as poem–it didn’t matter. There were rules, but these were basic, and evolved from the typical open: three minutes, don’t hog anyone’s time. Hal Sirowitz could not win a single slam today, but he could win major slams in 1992. Patricia Smith has been so copied and ripped off, and by young slammers who don’t know their history, and don’t even know who Patricia Smith is, and, while they know 100 slammers, they often don’t know a single fucking poet except what they were forced to read in high school. Patricia would still place well, but she wouldn’t win, not because she isn’t great but because she’s not in the mix–the gatekeepers box. She helped make the box, but she ain’t in it.

Slam is a reduction, a commodification of spoken word–a limiting of it for the purpose of commodity. Gone are the hecklers and the different kinds of styles. It has dumped many of the traits of spoken word poets, including the fact that most spoken word poets I knew were very well read, and didn’t just know each other’s work. Like me, they were reading all kinds of literature and using it in their poems. Some were L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (Boni Joi), others performance artists (Dave Lancet), still others lyrical types, or nature poets, or heavily political (Elliot Katz). It didn’t come down to a formula. Spoken word is a folk art that slam refined, defined, commodified, and killed. There are no bar readings the way there once were–regular readings you can count on every month where the feature and the open readers are in the same ball park, and no official contest is taking place. Features are important. I don’t agree with opens only. That’s soccer mom, everybody is equal falsehood. Poets that put their time in ought to get some propers once in awhile–especially from their local scene. Pretending everyone is on the same level is a lie, but, in folk tradition, the poet rises by public and invisible assent. In true folk tradition, those who excelled were honored–not forced to be just part of the background. They weren’t idolized, but they were loved and given ample room for expressing the best their community had to offer.

Now Slam pays lip service to these traits, but doesn’t really honor them. A slam voice, even a slam body, a def jam mentality now owns this sector that once belonged to spoken word, and there is money and even tenure to be had in slam. For this very reason it must be defined, packaged, and sold as a product.

The universities know slam puts seats in their colleges, and slam is the new academia–the commodified ghost of a folk culture. Great poems come out of slam, but only under the defined limits. You know something is commodified when it is not allowed to flourish outside its own boundaries. Slam is the new academic poetry. it has workshops, coaches, and experts. It confers power and withholds it beyond the secret engines of the folk. This makes me sad. I never became an academic even though I was given a lectureship at a major university. I don’t know how to be an academic. I am not a folk artist by definition, but by accident. Academics refuse to hear any pretty music that isn’t defined by them, and the slammers are fucking just like them. I have no place for any group that refuses to hear music other than their own. They kill art and make it far less dynamic than it could be.

Signs of slams commodity: the agist demographic of 18 to 34 (just like most media) and the emphasis on a look, a style. When this is recognized, there will be senior slam leagues, and everyone will have their fucking niche after they are forced to retire from the 18 to 34 demographic. The money made is not in slamming so much as in touring, and giving workshops–just like academia. There will be slam courses and professors at universities. Spare me the horse shit of slam not being academic. I never had any problem with its unfair judging, or its competition. This was honest dishonesty, and I accept that. What isn’t honest is its pretending to be an alternative to academia. Rigidity and forms of right way and wrong way to slam ARE academic. That’s the very soul of the academic: rules of thumb and theory. That is the very definition of academic.

I think much slam is more competent than the spoken word scene I knew–but it is also more limited and limiting, and the greatness that rises from it won’t stand up because the whole point of commodity art is to make sure only the “standards” stand out. Anyone who does something truly different in slam will get low scores until they can somehow “same” their changes and make the gatekeepers think it was their idea all along. With all this said: I am going to write a full primer for my classes on slam. And it will be a good primer because me and the spoken word artists I knew are the origins of this shit.

Can a good poem be so intellectual that most readers don’t get it, and is not “getting it” an impediment to enjoying the poem? Hell, I sure hope not.One of my favorite poets is Wallace Stevens. I will admit I do not get Wally. As a young man, I fell in love with his verbal confidence. He “conjured” me (alluding here to a slightly better poet than Wally). I hate snobbery, but not if it can earn its lofty perch, and sneer at the masses because it is truly beautiful. The snobbery of gate keepers and young poets trying to make a name for themselves makes me ill. It is sad because it is fearful snobbery (I must own the gates) or premature snobbery (I have been published in the Paris Review; I am destined to be a professor who is tenured and on anti-depressants).

In terms of Stevens, I was smitten and terrified by the same thing the people seemed smitten and terrified by in regard to Jesus: “He speaks with authority.” That vatic voice, that voice which flows from a mind and aesthetic impersonality so vast that I can no longer care about sincerity, or insincerity—that is what thrilled me, and I no longer cared what he meant. I was enraptured by what the Irish critic, Dennis Donaghue called “the gibberish of the vulgate.”

Years later, I was able to see some of the mechanisms of thought and feeling in Stevens and I said to myself: “Joe, you can now sound out the idol, and make a more judicious appraisal on your hero. You can sit back and see his faults, and still admire him, albeit, without fear and trembling.” I was wrong.

Being wrong, I turned to Lacan. Why not? If you are wrong, it is best to turn to the French. They have been making correctives almost as long as they have been making wine. So I looked at Stevens in an extra poetic way.

Snob A: The one who, through his supreme talent, must find a rage to order, must ignore the rabble, must be an asshole in the service of heaven.

Snob B: The one who called Gwendolyn Brooks a “nigger,” who enjoyed every drab pleasure of old shoe Harvard; the one who could behave like a lesser Tom Buchanan out of The Great Gatsby: a man so larded with his self-regard, with his cigars, with his trips to Florida, with his success, that he made Hemingway a hero (supposedly Hemingway punched him out); the one who had no trouble living in an icy marriage, and resembled a sort of well done beef Wellington: a cliché snob, a snob fit only for graduate students who have pulled a Kafka and transformed the Beef Wellington of the first half of the 20th century into the couscous of this more “enlightened” age.

Snob C: The one who, like all of us, wants to be a rabbit as king of the ghosts, who wants the cat of death to be a mere bug in the grass; the one who is lofty because he knows at the end of the day, that he, too, must end—and never well. No one ends well. We lie. We die. Lord, have mercy on us!

I took all three of these snobs into consideration, tossed them into the blender, and realized that my aesthetic test for music when I was 13 still applied: if I play a song one hundred times in a row, and, on the last playing, it still has an effect, then it is part of my synaptic hit parade and can never be vanquished. It is the love Shakespeare speaks of when he says “No! It is an ever fixed mark!” This “fixed mark” only exists within instability. It is what the eye or ear or heart seeks and finds while everything else is wobbling. It is a lie, but such a beautiful lie that God (like the gods with Theseus) understands that our lie is wanton in the best sense, and “hath a spirit precluding law.” Such a lie allows us to retrieve what has been lost to the underworld. It is the necessary lie of rising from the dead:

just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound:
And thus it is that what I feel,
here in this room, desiring you.

Thinking of your blue -shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Helen Vendler made a whole book showing Wallace Stevens was not heatless. Of course he was heartless—all the better, because that meant his liver, and kidneys, and wonderful eyes, and faithfulness (almost) to the tropes of 19th century poetry (the best 19th century American poetry) brought him to a place where only snobbery A and snobbery C mattered. I hope after all these years, I still love Wallace Stevens.

Picture Credit.