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 enabled slammers to grow as performers and polish their art into highly effective modes of communication. Without a backdrop of honest audience interaction, it’s not a slam.
Throughout history, societies have placed their best poets, authors, and artists on lofty pedestals. They might have scorned and starved them during their lifetimes, but at some point (often after they were dead) the masses honored and glorified them.
Placing artists and performers on pedestals isn’t an unwarranted and unjust thing to do – assuming all artists of equal caliber have the same opportunity to compete for the pecking order honors. Problems arise, however, when a particular group of patrons and critics monopolize art and agree on arbitrary sets of rules that prevent other gifted creators from having a shot at the golden goose.
As Five Man Electrical Band sang in the 1970s in their hit song Signs, "Sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside. Uh!" In the world of slam the only thing excluded is exclusivity.
Slam poetry attempts to dissolve these arbitrary barriers by knocking pomposity off its perch and making poets recognize their humble yet noble role – as artistic servants to their culture and community. Slam poets learn early that they had better be tuned into their audience’s sensibilities to have any hope of surviving their stay on stage, let alone winning a competition.
In the poet-audience relationship, the crowd is the standoffish mate waiting to be wooed by the poet. The poet dances his words in a mating ritual over the ears and eyes of the soul mate audience that listens carefully ready to provide the honest feedback the poet needs to sharpen his or her skills.
Sometimes the feedback is encouraging. Other times, it sends the poet scurrying back to his desk in the dark corner of a dimly lit den to practice, rewrite, and practice again before returning to the footlights to renew his wooing performance.
The best slam poets know that they are audience servants, not sycophants. One of the most disgusting sites at a poetry slam is a poet who knowingly grovels for high scores or audience approval. The poet should serve the audience not only by entertaining its members but also by challenging them. The line is very thin, but performance poets who successfully straddle that line turn in brilliant performances.