Poetry And Pugilism
From the page to the stage, despite differences and disagreements, book poets and slammers share a common ground.
Thursday, August 24, 2000
I touch you in the night, whose gift was you,
My careless sprawler,
And I touch you cold, unstirring, star bemused,
That are become the land of your self-strangeness...
--Stanley Kunitz, incoming poet laureate of the United States
At the extreme ends of the spectrum, it''s the difference between golf and boxing. Book poetry is languid, into the game for the long haul; drive and putt, and stroll to the next stanza. Performance poetry is a right cross to the nose, torn cartilage, splintered bones and bloodied words. The two art forms are so very different it''s hard to connect them except through a deliberate exercise of intellect.
The verse linkster, with the wide-open expanse of the written page before him, can take the time to craft flowing, lengthy poems with a depth that may only be realized after multiple readings. If he or she wants exactly the right word, the word with the right number of syllables, sound and nuance, he or she can use that word, no matter how abstract--after all, a reader can lay the poem down, research the word in a dictionary, then go back and re-read the poem.
On the other hand, the pugs of poetry, the slam poets, must write and perform pithy verse, poems that can grab the attention and emotions of an audience in three minutes or less. They take their short gems to the local coffeehouse or bar, and deliver them up to the unwashed crowds who cheer, jeer and judge their work. The poet has only one chance to impress the audience. And the pride from working under these constraints creates an attitude among slammers that remains even after they leave the stage.
Like a young Muhammad Ali with his poetic boasts, slam poets are claiming credit for the renewed interest in rhyme ''n'' meter. And, like Ali, there seems to be more than hot air backing them up.
"I know that slam has boosted the profile of poetry in the public''s mind," says Monterey slammer Garland Thompson. "And I know it has boosted the sales of books by written poets."
Somewhere around 125 people per day attended the two-day West Coast Regional poetry slam championships at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. In San Francisco, where there are multiple weekly poetry bouts, slammers estimate about 700 people attend the slams. At the national finals in Chicago last year, the audience numbered about 2,000.
By contrast, maybe 70 people showed up to hear celebrated national poet Galway Kinnell when he gave a reading in Carmel last year.
But even if slam has increased public interest in certain forms of poetry, it leaves open the question of whether slam''s radical sensibilities are producing enduring art.
me and my man;
we are a good kinda dirty room-
the kind where nothing''s in its place
but you know where to find it
we are hit and run
hurricane done been through here when no one was lookin''
maybe we been robbed!
but, hell-you could eat offa the floor if you could find it
from "I Wore a Coin In My Shoe When We Got Married"
Slam Bam, Thank You, Ma''am
Slam''s history is a relatively brief 15 years. Coming off his success with a poetry reading series at one Chicago jazz club in 1984, construction worker Marc Smith moved his show to another jazz club, the Green Mill. On Sunday, July 25, 1986, the Uptown Poetry Slam presented a model that has remained largely unchanged through the years.
In the typical slam, X number of poets sign up to compete for a cash prize. Judges are chosen at random from the audience. The poets perform their poems, and the judges flash a score card, rating the poet on an Olympics-style scale of 1-10. After multiple rounds, the poet with the best score wins.
And make no mistake: A good number of the competing poets are there to win as much as to make their words heard. Entourages of friends are encouraged to support their chosen poet with cheers and whistles that are more often heard at sporting events. And judges who mete out low scores get the same kind of catcalls and jeers that baseball umpires are subjected to.
At the West Coast Slam, the Los Angeles team huddled together, poring over a notepad. Working on a new verse? Deciding on the team''s next offering? No. They were handicapping the judging, with graphs keeping track of each judge''s scores and what they seemed to like. Bookies with a racing form couldn''t have been any more diligent or focused.
On stage the competition is fierce, with poets throwing their hearts, souls and bodies into the performance of their poetry. Voices shout with anger, quaver with pain, tremble with questions, stab with staccato accusations. The presentation resembles a cross between a convention of Pentecostal preachers, a meeting of revolutionary zealots and theater auditions for a Greek tragedy. The audience response to the heavy theatrics ranges from murmured empathy with the performer to shouted agreement and wild cheers. The poets may be speaking words from their soul, there''s no question that they''re playing to the crowd.
And that''s where some scholarly poets find reason to criticize slams.
Jerry Quickley''s "The Significance of Hip-Hop" was one of the most powerful performances of the day at the West Coast Championship Slam. Blending words that were both spoken and sung, Quickley pulled up field chants, rage from the streets and the despair of an oppressed people to explain why hip-hop was a music form uniquely suited to today. The theme resonated with the crowd, who were mostly in their 20s and 30s. But in the poem''s very strength perhaps was its weakness.
By focusing on a musical form that may--or may not--be extant a century, or even a decade, from now, the writer had limited the poem to here and now. If Shakespeare wrote a similar poem, say "The Relevance of Iambic Pentameter," it has disappeared from view, while a whole body of his other poetry remains.
Man, introverted man, having crossed
in passage and but a little with the nature of things
this latter century
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self love and inward conflicts
cannot manage his hybrids.
--Robinson Jeffers, from "Science"
"The only quarrel I might have with performance poetry, as such, is that there''s sometimes too much performance and not enough poetry," says local poet Bill Minor, a former teacher at Monterey Peninsula College. "A lot of what people are writing is a form of verse, not poetry. I would make a distinction between that and the poetry of Yeats."
Minor is a performing poet himself, so the criticism doesn''t come from an entirely uninformed source. And he remembers the tension between spoken-word poets and more academic ones goes back several decades. In the late ''50s, he remembers moving to San Francisco and getting caught in the battle between the Beats and the Squares.
"I was at San Francisco State, married with two kids and I won a poetry prize--and I had to read the poems," recalls Minor. Nervous, he recalls keeping his head down during the reading and missing the hip protesters at the back of the room. Laughing, he says, "I missed my own boycott."
Minor now says he enjoys performing his own poetry, and sometimes does so with jazz accompaniment. "When I look back at it as a war," says Minor, "I think it''s kind of ridiculous."
Frances Payne Adler, who teaches poetry at CSUMB, has a similarly sympathetic reaction to the notion of performance poetry. Adler''s own work primarily takes on political and social issues, and she has collaborated with Carmel Valley photographer Kira Corser on exhibits and books that take on topics like drug abuse, health care and children''s issues. Her first experience with performance poetry was at the Taos Poetry Circus.
"At first I said, ''What is this? Poets competing. That''s a terrible thing.'' But then I was absolutely thrilled by it because poets bring their poetry to life. What impresses me is how much the audience is engaged. Today, people are so inundated with words in commercials, the media and politics, and a lot of those words are not true. Poetry is one of the places people look for truth. And it''s exciting that people are beginning to rely on that."
Alex Vardamis, who taught literature and poetry at the University of Vermont and is now president of the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, takes a somewhat harder line when discussing performance poetry. Although he acknowledges the historical roots of poetry as a spoken medium, he also makes it clear that real poetry is not something that''s easily digested in one sitting.
Vardamis says there needs to be a depth to poetry that makes it resonate on many levels, that has enough significance that a reader can go back to the work again and again and find new relevance with each reading.
"All good poetry has to be analyzed," says Vardamis. "Good poetry, even going back to Homer, requires many hearings. [Robinson] Jeffers'' poems read beautifully, but it takes reading, over and over at the table to really get it at all levels."
On the other hand, Vardamis insists that good poetry must also sound good when spoken and cites Edgar Allan Poe as someone who cooked a rich meal of meat and metre. Although Poe''s poetry demands to be read aloud, it also has a haunting depth that gives it a broad appeal to many people and many generations. Vardamis isn''t so sure that performance poets quite live up to that same standard.
Even though the poems may have an immediate appeal to their audience, Vardamis argues, they may have no off-stage shelf life. Performance poems are almost doomed specifically because they must appeal to a common crowd.
"If it''s just a good-sounding poem, that may be OK for some people, but it doesn''t convey the full richness of good poetry," says Vardamis. "I think maybe my views are a little elitist, but probably the man on the street, the average person, is more engaged by a catchy tune or by a nice sounding word, and doesn''t want to invest a lot of intellectual effort. A good poem--and I know this sounds elitist--is like a good symphony: It requires a little effort."
But Garland Thompson says he''s heard that argument before.
"In my experience, I have picked up enmity from academics, and condescension from the academic poets for slam and performance poetry. They say we''re just pandering to the crowd, or doing standup comedy. From my experience, these are the people who couldn''t stand up and go head to head with a performance poet. They can''t put up and they won''t shut up. I think the thing that slam poets have over more academic poets is their ability to interact with their audience."
i have given gifts
inexpensive tokens of my affection
but with instructions
that you must pass them along
give them away
to someone you love and admire
and when you do
i am crushed
--Ric Masten, "Strings Attached"
The Middle Ground
Maybe it''s to the middle ground, the two camps agree, where poetry is heading, finding new audiences and new relevance. Poetry, after all, began as a spoken art, a way to transmit news, ideas and history. Norse skjalds and Celtic bards were entrusted with the near sacred responsibility not only of communicating the news but putting it into some sort of context, to help translate what it all meant, to impart relevance. Poetry was an art. But it wasn''t an art locked away in an ivory tower, or an art to be flaunted for its own sake.
"When I think of the troubadours from way back," says CSUMB''s Adler, "poetry began because there was no news media, and musicians would travel from town to town. They would make their words rhyme and set them to music so they could memorize them."
"I think we''re just going back to the roots of what poetry is," agrees Jennifer Lagier, a Marina poet who doesn''t do slams. She does, however, perform regularly as part of the "Women''s Voices" poetry show with Bonnie Gartshore and Laura Bayless, and in the annual "Women and Food" extravaganza that features up to a dozen poets from here and the Bay Area. "This is how we''re transmitting our history, our stories. The only difference I see is that instead of doing it in mead halls we''re doing it in coffeehouses."
Of all the local poets who have been performing their poems, probably none is better known (or better loved) than Big Sur''s Ric Masten. He''s been performing his poetry around the country for 30 years and has developed a faithful following of friends, admirers and supporters, locally and around the country. But Masten''s popular appeal has done little to open the doors of academia.
There''s a certain homespun quality to Masten''s poetry that never sat too well with the academics. He''s in demand as a speaker, and gets gigs from speech or psych departments at universities and even from various corporations. But he says he''s never received an invitation to address a college English class.
Elliott Roberts, another former MPC prof, says "Ric still feels the hurt [from being snubbed], and I understand that. He has some magnificent poems, but you can''t analyze them; many of his poems just hit you. What are you going to do for an hour [in class] if you can''t analyze the poem?" Alex Vardamis would understand.
At the same time, the slammers, too, understand that perhaps some of the gaudier aspects of their art form may need to be transformed.
Gary Mex Glazner organized the very first national poetry slam, in San Francisco, in 1990. He remains an active member of the slam scene, recently finishing up a month-long tour with the Slam America team that visited 32 cities across the country. He says he''s seen a lot of changes in poetry in the last 15 years.
"You''re getting quite a bit of crossover anymore [between book and performance poetry]," says Glazner. He says he recently watched the usually staid national poet laureate Robert Pinsky do a poetry reading.
"Right in the middle of it, he does this Elvis Presley leg twist, and his penny loafer slips to the end of his toes," recalls Glazner "It''s a really impressive move. It''s a trip to find out that the poet laureate is a loafer dangler. I realized at that point he was a closet performance poet."
Even so, Glazner looks at the slam movement and wonders if it''s time for the movement to move on. He still thinks performance poetry is a good thing, and that it provides both poets and audiences something they can''t get in books, but he''s not so sure about the competition.
"We don''t really need the gimmick of the competition anymore," says Glazner. "That was to raise audience awareness. It was a way to engage audiences and get them involved, but I don''t know if we need to do that anymore."
But even without the competition, Glazner thinks that performance poetry still fills an important niche that book poets can''t achieve.
Bill Minor recalls that Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once described good poetry as a love note in a bottle that washes up on a shore somewhere. If the finder (the "reader in posterity") feels like the note is addressed to him, then the poem is successful.
That sort of passive approach to an audience is all very fine for some poets, and a golfer would understand the patience needed for the poem-in-a-bottle to reach its audience.
But for Glazner and Lagier, the performance poet has a decided advantage. He or she can choose which poems will most affect any particular audience.
Lagier says, "That''s what I really like about performance poetry. It really puts the emphasis on the relationship with the audience. It doesn''t change the way I create or what I write, but I can change the selection of material."
But even poets who consider themselves primarily book poets give readings of their work, and even poets who are best known for their performances insist that a good poem starts on the printed page. And both sides agree that a good poem sounds as good on the tongue as it feels in the brain.
In the final analysis, when the boxers and the golfers drop their attitudes and talk about their respective sports, they seem to be talking about something else entirely. Like baseball, maybe. And somewhere in the agreement between the two, a new appreciation for the art form has begun to grow.