POETRY SLAM? Like “jumbo shrimp,” the phrase has wonderful oxymoronic possibilities: What could be more refined and sedate than poetry? Well, literary purists are in for a surprise. When the 1998 National Poetry Slam comes off in Austin over four nights in August, the atmosphere will be, yes, slammin’.
A poetry slam takes the main ingredients of traditional “highbrow” readings—passion, words, audience, public venue—and mixes in a punk-rock sensibility. Most of the pieces performed—and they are performed, not merely spoken—are twisted narratives on a mundane life offered up in dramatic intonations in three minutes or less; it’s not unusual to hear screaming and whispering, to see a poet prance and stomp around the stage. The setting, usually a smoky bar or nightclub, is a far cry from a quiet coffeehouse or bookstore. But the most unique element of slams is the competitive edge: Judges—chosen randomly from the audience, which is encouraged to voice its collective opinion during the reading—rate poets on content and delivery. The highest scorers advance to second and third rounds, with the highest scorer ultimately taking a prize of some sort, sometimes cash.
Before there were poetry slams, there were poetry bouts. Slam historian Kurt Heintz traces the roots back to Chicago in the late seventies, when bold wordsmiths, determined to make their work more accessible to a wider audience, donned boxing gear and verbally duked their way through ten “rounds” of poetry. The originators of the form are thought to be poets Terry Jacobus and Alan Simmons, who’ve since moved to Taos, New Mexico, where they put on annual bouts during the Taos Poetry Circus. (A recent New York Times story called the bouts “bizarre and whimsical.”) In 1985 poet Marc Smith, also of Chicago, refined the bout concept into what is now known as a slam—basically, the same thing without the boxing gear—and started having regular gatherings in his hometown at a bar called the Green Mill. Since then, poets around the country have gathered for weekly slams, and the best performers have been featured on TV (MTV loves them) and in the movies (Slam Nation, a documentary about the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon, played to packed crowds last year on the film festival circuit).
This year’s National Poetry Slam will be the largest such event to date, featuring 45 teams of four from cities far and wide, including Boston, Seattle, and Minneapolis. Poets will perform both individual and ensemble pieces in seven venues, with the finals being held at the historic Paramount Theatre. There, the top four teams will vie for a $2,000 prize—not exactly the cool million you get for a Nobel, but then it isn’t about the money. “Slamming is the best kind of public performance,” says Austin’s Genevieve Van Cleve, who will compete for the second straight year. “There are no rules about what you can say or what topics you can touch on: politics, romance, stupid TV shows, violence. And the nationals are like the Olympics. You want to be at the top of your field, to be respected by your peers, and to kick a little ass on behalf of hearth and home.”