Marya Summers has a lot of exposed flesh and most of it is covered in Sharpie marker. Poetic phrases like "Words begin the ending they began" and "My children will be named things like Fucknut" adorn her extremities. As we speak, a man, who happens to be her boyfriend, has her bent over a chair with her skirt pulled up as he adds his own comment to her ass. "We have a policy about sexual harassment here," says the surprisingly comfortable Summers. "All the time, in every way, to everyone." Her boyfriend finishes up, and lets her know with a light smack. "You call that a spanking?" she calls back. He tries harder.
The contestants at the 4th Annual Hot Air Slam in West Palm Beach are not a conservative bunch. We are in an Irish pub down the street from where the main event is going to take place. Poets run from table to table, meeting with the other teams and rehearsing, revising and reviewing their own material. From the bar, one poet says, "My soul is an inner extension of my being," followed quickly by, "I'm not going to get up and say some clich?d shit like that."
Summers founded the Hot Air Slam in 2001. "I really wanted to commit to my art," she says. She was also looking to give Florida poets an opportunity to test their mettle and network before the National Poetry Slam in August. She serves as the Del Ray Beach slam mistress, and as such has had to deal with a lot, further proving her commitment. "Most of (the poets) aren't really well socialized," she says. She's had to put up with everything from temper tantrums to drug habits. But it's worth it to her to "create a sense of community" between artists of the quill. Herself a gifted poet and writer, Summers contributes to several Southeast magazines and is one of the few paid slam hosts. She has competed at every level, including at the National Poetry Slam. Though she likes the people, this is not where she wants her own work to end up. "Slam is not really what I want to do," she says. "Slam is a little too wed to the hip-hop aesthetic."
"Not," she clarifies, "that there is anything wrong with the hip-hop aesthetic."
This innocent comment hits home in regard to a secret plaguing slam poetry today: The higher one climbs on the slam circuit, the higher the stakes of the competition, and the more one hears poems about the social despairs of minorities. They grab the audience. And they score well. People tiptoe around why this happens, fearing the word that is the cause: racism. Reverse racism, if you don't care about verbal accuracy.
It comes down to one question: Does being a minority and discussing minority issues help win slams? Who is surprised to learn the answer is yes and no? In the beginning
To understand the crux of this vexing problem (I know you're all vexed), one has to return to the roots of slam poetry. It isn't the poetry you may be used to, taught to you from textbooks on English literature. That is "academic" poetry. This is slam poetry, the hair-metal, rock-star version of spoken word.
Slam's origins are hard to pin down. People have tied it to the punk movement of the late '70s, and to the hip-hop of the early '80s. What is known for sure is that in 1985 Marc Smith, a white construction worker and informally trained writer, started hosting a read at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago. His night focused on performance. Smith had a mission: "To maintain the idea of the responsibility the poet had to communicate effectively." To keep to this principle, and make things a little more interesting, he instituted a judging policy.
There began the most serious of the complications. Before formal slam, the academic world was still the only way to gain recognition as a poet, and the academic world did not welcome unschooled street poets with open arms. These outcast artists were the folks Smith was reaching out to, so his judging process didn't rely upon old rules or ideas of poetical merit. He bypassed the academic world entirely, and chose his judges from the audience. (Technically there are five judges, chosen at random, who rate on a scale from one to 10; the highest and lowest scores are dropped.)
Literary critic Harold Bloom referred to this as judging by an "applause meter," saying it was the "death of art." It would certainly appear that way to a scholar like Bloom, as slam judges don't account for things like structure or subtlety. They are interested in what gets them screaming, laughing and rocking their head to the message.
Now take a wild guess what political side of the fence most people who attend poetry slams are on. At the National Poetry Slam last year, during a meeting of the visiting delegation of European slam poets, one visitor remarked that "you hear a lot blatant political advertising." When someone tried to raise the free-speech argument to him, he replied, "In Germany, we're perfectly allowed to say 'Fuck the chancellor.' But no one would like it. They would want us to say it a different, more subtle way."
It helps when you are talking about battling hardships set down by biased, bigoted institutions, and color lends authority to such claims.
All of this comes up at tonight's competition. At Respectables Bar in West Palm Beach, the stage is lit with candles and verbal attacks. Ft. Lauderdale's Spitt Fi'Ya team has cultivated a new catchphrase by the end of the second round of the semifinals. People yell, "Spit fire!" whenever a poet says something clever, relevant or mildly coherent.
After the pieces about the stereotypes holding back the Asians, and the ignorance in ignoring black prophets, the race card is practically leaping from the deck. However, race isn't the only issue. The judges also look favorably upon plights related to gender, sexual preference and, best of all, poverty. Massachusetts poet Tony Brown traces the problem to classism. "The voices of those who have traditionally had little access to the acceptable avenues for cultural expression, and who have thus turned to alternate forms of expression, have traditionally included many of the voices that have been locked out of other aspects of the society," says Brown.
The strength of the speaker's voice also can tend to overshadow his or her message. Most slam observers have lamented that obvious tripe, when delivered correctly, can move the judges. Hip-hop sounds like critical manifesto in the right lighting, and that affects the outcome of the competition.
No one is saying that poets shouldn't be able to express themselves any way they want to, or that slam doesn't produce brilliance. Even when old Beat Lawrence Ferlinghetti says that "slam kills poetry," he also applauds certain slam poets for their talent. Lovely tirades
And now that I've gotten all of my inflammatory language out of the way, I should say that the event itself was well balanced. Out of eight teams (Orlando, Winter Park, Del Ray, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, two from Miami and a last-minute entry from West Palm Beach), only three had primarily white members to begin with. Though Spitt Fi'Ya, an all minority-group team, was the winner, Del Ray (all white with only one female) did place in the Final Four.
We heard a lot of sociopolitical tirades, but the quality for the most part was excellent. Topics ranged from loving portraits of jazz and Harlem to getting drunk friends into the car to teenagers who cut themselves, reminding anyone on the verge of losing faith in the genre how wonderful it can be.
Orlando and Winter Park both got knocked out in the semifinals by the Miami Lips, Tongue, and Ear and the Ft. Lauderdale teams, with Winter Park missing their finals shot by two-tenths of a point. One of the more surprising moments of the night was when J. Bradley of Orlando, his team already too far behind to make it, delivered a poem decrying slam as a "drinking game," where people down shots on buzzwords like "oppression."
More surprising was when Knowledge from Tampa's The Write Side Poets had to be taken away in an ambulance. According to sources close to him, he had a fever before the show and the stress of competition didn't help.
One of the punks at the table behind me wore a shirt that asked, "What Would John Brown Do?" Yes, that John Brown. I think it's as appropriate a question as one could ask about this event. Are slams a great forum for debate and nonviolent social dialogue? Or are they the bloody start to a genuine altercation? And where can I get a broadsword? firstname.lastname@example.org