The critic Harold Bloom famously called slam poetry "the death of art." And homeboy never even had to sit through a slam! I sat through my share back in the early '90s, as a slammer, a judge, and an audience member, and while it could be excruciating at times, listening to variants of the same three poems over and over again (those three poems being "I had it hard in life," "Racism is bad," and "We all like sex, right?"), slams were just as often exhilarating and mind-blowing. And, twenty years after the first slams were held in Chicago, it seems that art has somehow managed to survive them.
Now Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz has written a book about the history of poetry slams called Words In Your Face. I asked her three questions about slam poetry and its history.
This is for the Best American Poetry blog, and poetry slams are all about judging what poems are the Best. Are the criteria for Best-ness similar in both cases, or not? Who do you think gets it right, slam judges or anthology editors?
It's funny, one of the poets I interviewed for "Words In Your Face" -- a former slammer and current tenure track professor -- said that he didn't think there was much difference between having your poetry judged in a poetry slam and having it judged for a fellowship, first book competition, etc., except that in the slam, you get to see who the judges are, you know, look them in the eye when they put up their scores.
Everybody has their preferences, everyone has their biases, and there are always going to be cases of dumb favoritism, whether it's a slam judge rewarding a poet just because he's cute or a series judge rewarding a former student, and thus leaving a more deserving poet on the cutting room floor. I'm not sure if seeing the people judging you makes it easier or harder, but I think in both cases who is chosen to reward the work (judges, editors) makes all the difference.
So in the end, you just got to hope that the people calling the shots know what they are doing, that they don't concern themselves about what people "think" should be rewarded, but instead trust their gut, their heart, their ear and sometimes their funny bone too.
How have you seen the slam scene change over the years you’ve been involved?
The first Poetry Slam held in NYC happened in the late 1980s; in the nearly two decades since, the scene has changed a lot. My book is actually broken down into three distinct Waves, described as "times when the attention paid to the slam surged or waned, when certain styles of poetry were favored or discouraged, when certain factions within the community got along or were at one another’s throats." Additionally, the opportunities and projects that the slam attracted, and the type of people who might make up the audience have all wildly vacillated over slam's long history.
One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something -- a style, a project, a poet -- will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.
Having been in slam for nearly a decade myself, this is the thing that keeps me coming back: what is going to hit next? who is the voice that I never saw coming? what poem is going to break my heart tonight?
You cover the last two decades of slam poetry, and that includes twenty years of gossip. Was everybody a total drunk slut, or what?
One of my favorite moments interviewing for the book was with the poet Maggie Estep, when she recounted her time on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994 (the one year they had a "Spoken Word Revival Tent").
In the middle of dredging up the specifics, she suddenly remembered that during the course of the tour a totally wasted (and recently widowed) Courtney Love approached Maggie, said, "So you're Maggie the Poet?" and proceeded to shove her tongue down her throat.
I had, however, heard this story before -- my very own boyfriend Shappy (emcee for those Lollapalooza slam, and current bar manager of the Bowery Poetry Club) had the exact same experience with Miss Love: "So you're Shappy the poet," tongue et al. He said her kisses tasted "like cigarettes and sad."
We slammers certainly have our times of debauchery, of drunkenness and wanton lust, but the lesson I learned is that our percentages would shoot up dramatically if only Courtney Love would frequent more slams.
(Note: I did the St. Louis to Detroit leg of that tour, and Courtney Love never tried to ram me with her tongue, because I was so obviously second-rate.)
(Oh! Also, Cristin will be reading from Words in Your Face, AND hosting a poetry slam, with poets including Taylor Mali and John S. Hall, and young-people poets Urban Word, on April 14 at 7pm at The Strand on 12th Street and Fourth Ave in New York City. Facebook says I'm attending!)