The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us. We are no better than you…Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes…”
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

The static scratch of a turntable needle plucks into a trumpeting groove of dramatic bombast, bringing Zarathustra’s fire from the mountains for fight-to-the-finish phonetic fisticuffs at tonight’s full-court, one-on-one, make-it-take-it poetry rumble. We find ourselves in medias res, the joust afoot, vendettas flagged and fallen, the bitter taste of beer and too much cigarette smoke fueling hearty wordsmiths to more and more feats of fearless foolishness on the microphone passing hands, the masses encircling victors and consoling the vanquished, and always the words, oh the words, representing all sides, cultures, and peoples in a microcosm of this country’s formative tongues: formal verse, free verse, monologues, mano-a-mano sonnets, parables, odes, ballads, schizophrenic rambling, antichrist rants, hip-hop meditation, old-school rap, new-school lyricism, athletic assonance, dirty limericks, head-to-head haiku, twisted tales, iambic pentameter, napkin-scribbled words of wisdom, beat-box scratch-verse, abstract experimentalism, drunken-master mind-over-matter magic—all styles and subjects for the sport of the spoken word.

Welcome to the Slamdome, a literary alternate universe wherein the poets are gladiators and the spectators lust for word blood. If you’re lucky, you might appear on the arena’s Jumbotron to spout an impromptu heroic couplet, as the Slam Silver Dancers flex choreographed, pyrotechnic mimes to the rhythms of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” and the crowd does the wave at the drop of a smooth-sounding slant rhyme. It’s a brave, new world of startling possibilities, and people all around the country are turning this vision into reality bit by bit through the hybrid artistic medium known as “poetry slam,” the passport to contemporary pleasures of the spoken word.
Poetic Pugilism
Despite burgeoning popularity, even in Chicago, the birthplace of the poetry slam, most folks do not know their populist poetic counterparts, who weekly do battle in smoky bars and yearly trek to the Mecca of spoken-word sport: the National Poetry Slam. Witness an open invitation to this art-turned-sport through the anthology Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry. Some years ago, I lived and performed in Chicago as a spoken-word poet but had no experience whatsoever of poetry slam, despite its popularity among some bards my age. I had only murky information based on secondhand reports of vicious heckling and verse-almost-come-to-blows at the Green Mill Tavern slam venue, with no inkling of why Marc Smith, former construction worker and founder of slam, was prompted in his own time to create such a gimmick as poetry with scorecards to get audiences to listen.
When I moved to San Antonio, Texas, in the spring of 1998, the city’s cultural contrast to Chicago led me to some of the reasons why Smith had been driven in the early 1980s to break from standard open-mic events and readings. As he stated in the Chicago Reader (Aug. 13, 1999): “‘The scene back then was smaller, pathetic, stupid, boring, pompous, and very elite…If you weren’t in the higher circles, like from the School of the Art Institute, you were incredibly snubbed.'” I found similar elitism and lack of energy in San Antonio, though I met individual poets with astounding talent unrealized and unheard by potential audiences who were, perhaps, rightly turned off by largely self-indulgent literary exercises in navel-gazing. Moreover, there was no solid community with support networks creating opportunities for no-name poets to actually thrive at their artistic profession, because big institutions and published writers seemed content with sporadic events but showed little interest in weekly forums.
And then I attended the National Poetry Slam in August of that year, held just up the road in Austin, Texas. I saw 45 teams (of four poets on each squad), bards who slammed their way out of regular local series all over the country in order to qualify to converge on Texas. I saw 1,200-plus fans pack the Paramount Theatre, with scalpers on the sidewalk outside. I saw CNN and NPR following wordsmiths from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which sends a brand-new team of rookies every year to the national finals. (They won the championship that year and propelled once-unknown bards to national stardom.)
On May 4, 1999, the doors opened at a San Antonio indie/punk-rock club to a standing-room-only crowd (150-plus), kicking off the weekly “puro SLAM!” series that I founded and hosted. That night, people drank too much beer, consumed more than 40 poems at a sprawling show that lasted until nearly three in the morning, and mobbed the poets afterward like Wheaties-box superstars, with freestyle-rap intermissions and verbal competition spilling over into spontaneous microphone melee driven by all-out oral athleticism—a state of self-possession by one’s own words in which the poet’s body is whipped into motion and the crowd into a frenzy over the most elemental of art forms.
The Secret Revealed
But how can a few scoring and heckling gimmicks generate interest in poetry to such an effusive degree? Gary Mex Glazner, editor of the Poetry Slam anthology, producer of the first national contest in San Francisco, Calif., in 1990, and pioneer of the form, answers this question in his introduction to the book, citing respect for the audience as key: “In 1986, Marc Smith started the Poetry Slam in Chicago with the idea of giving the audience a voice, letting the audience say if they liked a poem. By cultivating their participation, poetry slams build an audience for poetry, bringing everyday workers, bus drivers, waitresses, and cops to a poetry reading and letting them cut loose.” Glazner recounts how Smith empowered the Chicago audience as valued critics, giving five randomly picked spectators scorecards to rate individual poems on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0 and encouraging on-the-spot vocal reactions from everyone else, with a tournament structure and prizes for those scoring highest. From there, the seed spread to both coasts, culminating in the first national contest and the continued diaspora of Chicago performance poetics to all parts of the country. By extension, the anthology charts the growing popularity of slam from the old days to its current status as an international phenomenon, having inspired a documentary film (1998’s SlamNation: The Sport of Spoken Word, directed by Paul Devlin), coverage by major media outlets (including a 60 Minutes segment in November 1999), and the sprouting of slams all over the globe as a grassroots American cultural export.
As a sort of textual counterpart to the documentary film, Poetry Slam the book charts the development of the form, from neighborhood-bar happening to global forum. It contains a considerable compilation of poems as well as essays and e-chats on everything from poetics to strategy to the logistics of running a slam. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the anthology is that it captures a multitude of voices (about 100 poems and a baker’s dozen of essays/chats) through the verse and commentary of what is alternately called the “slam nation” or “slam family”—the elders and the young turks of slam alike.
Among the contributors to the volume is multimedia poet Reggie Gibson. His “Eulogy of Jimi Christ” sits seemingly dormant on page 162, though I’ve seen this multi-vocal piece come to life on fire in noncompetitive contexts in Chicago and then again in Austin, where Gibson won the 1998 individual championship title. Through my local series I helped produce, manage, and then coach the first-ever San Antonio team to go to the Nationals in August, and in our semi-final bout, we encountered none other than Team Chicago Green Mill, with Reggie Gibson on point deploying his powerful, psychedelically flavored “Eulogy” against us as his team’s opening salvo (his team also included Daniel Ferri, Tyehimba Jess, and Maria McCray, all contributors to the anthology). And so, the poem I alternately contemplated, rooted for, and then battled against carries all these contexts on the page. Similarly, since my first encounter with slam in Austin, I’ve been watching the aforementioned documentary film SlamNation avidly, as it comprehensively covers the 1996 national contest in Portland, Ore. That year, Team Boston included one Jack McCarthy, an elder slammer and senior systems analyst by profession, who is captured on camera reading his touching, contemplative “Careful What You Ask For” (on page 27 of the collection), which he would repeat in a prelim bout this year pitting his Team Worcester against my Team San Antonio.
The anthology captures such “multi-culti” styles while suggesting the true coup of slam: its inclusiveness. Diverse along lines of age, ethnicity, race, and economic background, the national circuit includes Vietnam veterans, roofers, and cops. My experiences in San Antonio have led me to debate aesthetics with pet groomers, waitresses, ticket-takers, convenience-store clerks, active and reserve members of the armed forces, candlestick makers, and yard laborers, among others. Interestingly, this past summer, before nationals in August, Glazner slammified the concept of the bookmobile and organized a 32-city national tour (in part to support the anthology’s release and to realize a dream of touring gigs for poets “on the road”), involving more than 100 poets along the way from California to Providence, R.I., and showcasing the divergent voices of poets who sometimes compete head-to-head yet nonetheless think of themselves as “family.”
But with so many people in on the game, doesn’t this inclusive poetry party displace the cocktail cognoscenti who, prior to slam, had a corner on the poetic market? Doesn’t this poetry of mass appeal get watered down by the mainstream? It must be the case that, if everyone is listening, no one is really listening. And there must be someone to safeguard poetic “quality,” a job for which the cultural technicians will need to be brought in.
Everyone’s a Critic
With the advent of slam internationally, even those who once had ivory-tower immunity from the grumblings of the groundlings have had to stop, take notice, and comment. Witness Harold Bloom in a round-table discussion published in a recent issue of the Paris Review (spring 2000):
And, of course, now it’s all gone to hell. I can’t bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.
Let me try to put aside my amusement at the paradox of an academic critic declaiming, with rant and nonsense, the death of everything in startled reaction to new cultural currents. (The end of history and the last man have come and gone, yet we still seem to be decrying and therefore celebrating perpetual apocalypse.) Despite the fact that slam emphasizes, in its judging criteria, both the writing and performing of a given poem as the reference points for deciding on a score, the stress on performance seems to be what makes many academic and text-based poets nervous. In the 60 Minutes piece, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky attempts a more measured criticism of slam with a definition of “classic poetry” in contrast to “slam poetry”: “Not to be pompous, but anybody tries to be an artist. You’re competing with Shakespeare and Dickinson…You’re trying to make a work of art that does not depend on your presence.” For Pinsky the emphasis on performance compromises the art of poetry conceived as concerned solely with language, independent of the author’s utterance.
This reminds me of one night when I faced the drunken, stinking masses at “puro SLAM!” and asked, “What is a poem? How is a poem different from a novel or short story?” Someone shouted, “Novels are long!” to which I answered, “Have you read Beowulf lately?” Does anyone remember that poetry originated as a spoken form in preliterate societies?
Is There a Homer in the House?
In The Nation (June 14, 1999), Alice Fulton suggests a more expansive, holistic sense of “poetry”: “…the everyday is where poetry is ‘lived,’ where it acquires the force of majority. The Zeitgeist is expressed more clearly by the obscure many than by the acclaimed few. It is within the ordinary gossip and buzz, within the thousands of unacclaimed poems, that poetry takes shape.” The valences of orality, community, and ritual subsist in “texts” produced by preliterate, pre-printing-press societies. In his attempt to get back to these roots of poetry (as a genre distinct from other types of “writing”), Marc Smith probably would see Homer or Shakespeare as nothing more or less than a product of their audiences. Considering the audiences for text-based poetry versus slam poetry and the rates of poetry publishing/readership, slam represents a return to poetry rooted in its people, with and without the permission of textual gatekeepers.
Of course, with such emphasis, the form and content of a given poem might differ radically from what came before. The author(s) of Beowulf employed alliteration in part as a mnemonic tool (for practical, not just aesthetic reasons), and similar observations can be made of the slam form, in which poets try to get their messages out in the space of three minutes to avoid overtime point penalties. Beyond aesthetic considerations, slam is concerned (seemingly as a part of its artistic mission) with expanding the audience for poetry despite its cold reception in some quarters. So, for example, there have been slams in prisons (from the Pacific Northwest all the way east and across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom.), national youth slams since 1997, plus slams in schools in every region, alternate routes of textual production through self-publishing (that in some cases completely funds tours and helps poets clear small profits), and the creation of independent publishing houses.
At its best slam aims to return the word to all potential poets and their communities. Maybe that’s why such cultural commissars as Bloom are so threatened by slam poetry: because it takes them out of the equation and empowers everyone to be a participant, regardless of specialized degrees or published words. Poetry is no longer the domain of specialists or “gifted” bards who can be understood only by the enlightened few. In fact, it never was.
By Benjamin Ortiz, special to