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Why I Do Not Slam

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AlWUlf OH PO et i' CS (part one of three) Jayne Cortez sets up a chant over funky rhythm: find your own voice and use it. Lester Young takes a slow blue bailad through nis veryown personal changes, breathycorduroy tone of a tenor saxophone, following his own advice: teil your own story. I ríes and echoes from before always talking through you, putting in their own colors, and your story has some of their voices in it. But the way you say your story, the personal voice, that should be your voice, telling your own story. Otherwise it's fairly shallow, or suspect, or wasteful, or disrespectful. It's good to be alive just now, with so many voices being found. Best of all is when they've actually got something to say. We underestimate the powerof naming. We are shoc kingly, dangerously careless with our voices. I have been among the worst; publicly and in private, l've abused the gift of voice. If I weren't so very involved in media I would've taken a vow of silence long ago. As a wise woman pointed out to me recently, anyone using words needsto be ableto shut up and work with the silence. There are two kinds of poetry, they teil me. Poetry of the page, and performance poetry. So exclusive has this second category become, that it's better not to bring any pages onstage. The idea is, you're supposed to commit your poems to memory and give us a really kickass show. If one has a special affinity with inked glyphs, then so much the worse. Even with the years I spent perf orming in theatres, in clubs and on the streets, this rejection of the printed page bothers me terribly. There's nodenying the powerof well-chosen, well-spoken words. And we do well to find a way to re-establish some oral traditions, since everything is going onto digital discs. If all of that memory gets erased somehow, we shall suddenly be very much in need of spoken memory, notto mention hard copy. Unfortunately, much of what's getting memorized and performed has mostly to do with entertainment We are hopelessly staing out on what Anthony Braxton calis Spectacle Diversion Syndrome. These Poetry Slams are getting more and more like stand-up comedy amateur nights. ("Comedy " is replacing humor as well as poetry in this society). The word "poetry" seems less and less accurate. It's been ghastly watching things mutate overthe years and at this point I am very happy to be withdrawing from the "scène." Trendification is a terrible thing. I liked it better when poets were just poets, not stars of the stage. About ten years ago we read our stuff in various places, small clusters of writers sharing their visions. Sottini's Sub Shop was a nice environment, bespectacled Mike Myers a gentle, fascinating host, with his almost painfully personal prose, at once funny and terribly moving. I specialized in Rant, and to some extent still do. Mare Taras would shine a quiet light on the inner pulsings of his private life, very romantic, always delicately woven. When a bearded fellow named Vince, who worked for the UAW, starled holding what he called Poetry Slams upstairs at the Heidelberg, we naturally carne along with it. But a Germán Beer Hall is a curious place to try and share your visions (Hitler did well in Munich). I never did get used to that space, not for poetry. I suppose if you drink lots.of alcohol it probably doesn't matter where you are. Vince had been to Chicago, where they had real fisticuff-flavored Slams which were an alternative to pretentious cafe readings. Real working-class stuff with an audience who'd just as soon chase you away as listen to you. Vince thought it was cool and he started up the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam. I participated for years. Emceed, read as a featured poet, even sat as a judge, hoping to divert the prize money to a worthy individual. But the idea that we should rate artists and their art always bugged me. As Miles Davis said in response to the Downbeat Jazz Polls and theirfive star rating system: "What are we, race horses?!" As for me, I never thought it was worthwhile to take my best work up onstage, read it to a fairly distracted audience, and if you make the drunkards laugh you win a cash prize. What the heil is that? Ron Allen, who has been organizing and hosting poetry readings in Detroit for years, points out that poetry slamming reinforces the hiërarchie principies which make this society so grossly racist, sexist and unfair. I quote from Rayfield Allen Waller's article on Ron Allen which appeared in the June 28-July 4,1995 issue of The Metro Times: "Poetry is a state of mind. Capitalism, status.. .have no part in the values you're talking about if you're talking about poetry. l'm not talking about the superficial. Not that crap we see being commercialized as 'New Age' but the real thing: spiritual rootedness. Poetry can heal us, give us a sense of community." The real challenge, says Ron, is what you say you're about, and what you really are about - what's inside you. "A lot of people are posturing and posing, but they aren't poets. They aren't poets because they don't have the calling to be poets - it's not in them to be. It's just something cool and hip to do. The racism comes into it because these people don't have inside them the spiritual resources, or the connection to community that makes for art and artistic expression. They just have money and status. "They think that they must obscure the power of others to release their own power. These people do 'poetry slams,' a form of acting out which I despise. It's about competition and aggression rather than community." It's a lot like big time wrestling. Grunt, grunt, grunt. Loud white men domínate the slams, and women who particípate must somehow cut through the atmosphere of gism bravado. And, too, this is the age of special effects. Most who show off at these events are trying to get and keep people's attention, first and foremost, for that is the criterion. Todd Spencer describes what he's doing as "theater for the attention deficit disordered." This is too true. I didn't attend the national slam competitions whichtook place inthistown recently. Instead my partner and I went North, examined the shores of Lake Superior, and visited an Ojibwa burial ground, something which poet and shaman Wolf Knight would agree is a worthy use of one's time on this beautiful world. I heard lots of tales when we got back into town. How guys in golf shirts hooted like hockey fans when theirpoetwenttoperform, and howan African-American woman from Boston won the big prize when she delivered what must have been a beautiful sort of love poem for John Coltrane. Which shows us that in spite of a lot of tripe, real artistic expression with substance and deptn sometimes gets the attention and rewards it deserves. But not always. Weeks ago, apparently, a Latino poet had been eliminated from the nationals when the Ann Arbor judges handed the laurels instead to a white American guy who did what sounds like a fairly racist Mexican gangster routine. Cheech and Chong backwash preferred over Latin American poetics? It grates pretty badly on the nerves to think about it. But maybe we should all give up on thinking and have ourselves another round of beers. Jill Battson, quoted in the August issue of Current, probably puts it best "The Slam doesn't have anything to do with poetry. It's just a huge hoot."


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