Is It Art or Is It Competitive Therapy? The Paradox of the Slam

By Don Hall

I love poetry. My wife is a poet. I love listening to poets recite their poetry. I have amazing memories of Marc Smith thrilling me with his almost preacher-like facility with the spoken word.

I am frequently torn by the child he birthed: Slam Poetry.

A bit of history. Marc Kelly Smith decided back in 1984 to shift the tradition of the stale and uninspired poetry recital to a more exciting competitive event format known as Slam. What he saw was room after room of poets reading poetry to other poets and decided that poetry needed to be seen by the same people who went to sporting events and concerts, or become artistically irrelevant. The show was a huge success and moved to the legendary Green Mill Lounge and has grown from that to slams all over the world. George Dawes Green co-opted the format for The Moth, solidifying slam as the most popular way to present Live Lit of any kind.

I’ve performed DADA poetry at a few Smith events over the years and stories at a number of Uptown Poetry Slams at the Mill. Likewise, I’ve heard in the rumor mills surrounding that particular genre, tales of Marc’s reluctance to embrace the identity politics bred within the walls of the Young Chicago Authors space and his frustration with HBO’s Def Poetry Slam series. As is anyone who becomes a legend in his own time, that credit and notoriety comes at a cost. Blessing and a curse sort of thing.

Recently, I was asked to host two nights of College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) at UIC. Six bouts of 16 poems each. Effectively, 10 hours of slam. I was happy to do so—many of the people involved in Slam Poetry are friends and many are artists I deeply admire. Sharing in their playground and service to young poets is as much honor as obligation. This stated while at the same time being conflicted by the format and the results of competitive art. As with hosting The Moth, I found when the competition becomes the point of the exercise, something integral and essential is lost in the art. Formulas for winning are created. Winning becomes the primary purpose. Those artists with points of view unlike the others lose the rounds and thus have less opportunity to perform. It begins a process of homogenization of the work and begins to place ideology above the craft, personal pain over artistic merit.

At CUPSI 2017, I encountered exactly what one would expect at a college tournament of any kind. Like any collegiate sport or group, there is the infectious joy of camaraderie, the sense of an enclosed and esoteric community, that sense of invincibility that is so wonderful about being young. Unlike a sporting event or cheerleading competition, these are the kids left behind by the standard college extracurricular tribes. These are kin to the Theatre Geeks, the Bandies, the Math Club Goers. And, again, unlike those other tribes, these are the Tribe of Identity.

Angry children screaming beautiful words at each other. No minds to change or dissenting ideas. The singers of the choir singing for one another. Chess players playing chess for an audience of other chess players. In a complete turnaround from Smith’s initial idea, the Slam has become room after room of poets reading poetry to other poets.

Cries for validation. Demands for power.  Spitting ideas of the victimized. Of those society has denied agency. Using a microphone in a room the size of a living room and shouting in it to the point that the cursory AV equipment cuts out and in. None of the coaches bother to teach these students how to properly use a microphone especially when shrieking. But proper use of the microphone is almost beside the point as it is the outrage, the fierce, raw anger of these young poets that is most appreciated.

The passion is breathtaking. Beautiful. The amalgam of poems, however, becomes troubling. Rather than turning the poet's mirror outside to reflect oneself in a larger tapestry of the world, so many of the poems were turned narcissistically inward as if revealing only one's pain in the angriest manner was valid.

"Don't be nice, be necessary/nasty." — A frequent chant by poets to be supportive of performing poets.

There is a difference between being necessary and being nasty. Being necessary means not only being heard but being listened to as well. Being nasty is only about being heard. Being nasty while exposing personal things ordinarily saved for a therapist is only about being validated. It’s a one-way dialogue where anything less than complete acceptance of both premise and delivery is considered violence against the poet. Which is weird given that the format is constantly being judged and evaluated arbitrarily with points.

Finger snaps and positive murmurs at literally every utterance of either:
Pro-women narrative
Pro-black account
Pro-LGBTQIA POV
Pro-immigrant outlook

or

Anti-white rhetoric
Anti-male perspective
Anti-white feminism

Out of 102 poems I heard, 38 were about heartache, mental illness, abuse, sexual assault. The remaining 64 poems were any combination of the pro/anti list above, and even a few utilized all six themes. If those all-encompassing poems were read at an inside voice, they received decent scores but those that were screamed with a boiling rage that could only be sustained for three minutes received the highest scores of both nights. If the poet blew out the PA system at least a couple of times, the poet seemed to be rated higher.

The irony in this example—rage overtaking the narrative, rants being more important than the words—has been often exemplified by Marc Smith himself. In the many Slams I’ve seen, the sight of Smith kind of losing it onstage in a sizzling diatribe within the framework of poetry is commonplace. As if the whole format is spawned from the work of Sam Kinison. It works for Smith as, in those cases, he is the only poet who truly rants. In a compendium of poets, all going to that raging place, one after the other, it becomes a bludgeon.

It was no surprise, then, hearing that at the finals Smith came up as the featured poet, spit out some of his poetry and was effectively silenced by the crowd. Suddenly labeled both misogynist and racist, he was once again at the forefront of criticizing the status of poetry although now he is critical of the format he created.

Via social media, many of these young poets trumpeted the act of denying the man who created the very format that propelled them onto the stage and foregoing the points and judging for the night as "revolutionary." I can’t see it as any more revolutionary than a group of marching bands at a marching band competition deciding to publicly distance themselves from the white, cis-gendered John Philip Sousa or a group of two hundred flyers deciding to denounce airline travel due to the white, cis-gendered inventors of the airplane.  

Revolutions are made of stiffer stuff and, quite often, involve violent resistance. This, at best, was a rebellious symbol.

While an interesting symbolic gesture, it is doubtful that these students will transform Slam Poetry, an industry in and of itself, in order to become simply poets who create poetry for the sake of it. Smith’s creation provides them the platform for exposure and validation, so calling out Smith may feel good but the only way these students get out of the competitive edge of points and judges is to stop competing altogether. And I doubt that will happen.

For the record, here are the poems Smith performed that were deemed misogynist, racist and xenophobic: http://www.marckellysmith.net/poems.html

You be the judge. I don’t see it as anything more than a critical eye toward those students who have taken the Slam and made it a forum for their therapy but I wasn’t there (and I'm white and cis-gendered) so it’s hard to be accurate. The fact is, Smith created the format for dissent himself. Slam is democratized art in many ways, encouraging the audience to openly heckle poems and poets they deem unworthy. If the audience he performed for found the pieces unworthy, it’s right there in the rules for them to hiss and stomp them their feet and silence the poet.

For myself, the best poems in Slam are rooted in anger but avoid the histrionic scream as a performance technique. The best poems are focused—the rage and pain funneled into the language of metaphor and unique looks at the world that force my perspective. I do not subscribe to the beliefs that only those with the experience of pain are allowed to create from it nor that offense equals harm. It is a set of positions that puts me at odds with the majority of these collegiate poet/warriors and most Slam poets and it seems unfortunate that a dialogue cannot be brokered anymore than a conversation about climate control can be had with a Tea Party Republican.

But this is poetry, right? This is art, yes? While I can disagree with the coaches and students that this therapy session dressed as artistic expression is the best approach, I can still be inspired by the raw passion they have for this thing they do. I can still marvel at the craft of a poem spit by a black woman about wanting to write poetry like a white person and be floored by the beauty, anger and genius behind it. I can still be moved by a poem recited by a young, white gay man about the needless machismo behind violence and aggression in society and be thinking about it days later. Even if, as a white cis-gendered male, I am the enemy.

The experience of momentarily immersing myself into ten hours of Slam Poetry caused me to reflect upon the stridency of the Radical Left and the whole Monster that has become identity Politics. I surmise that those doing most of the screaming are performing for the rest of us—to be seen, to be heard, to get the highest scores in a social structure where likes and follows are the emotional currency of the new popularity.

I’m not sold that this approach is productive in the long term but I can appreciate the passion behind it. Even if, as a white cis-gendered male, I am the enemy.