On August 11-14, 1999, slam returns to Chicago, its birthplace, for the
biggest slam of them all, the Tenth Anniversary Edition of the National
Poetry Slam. There will be 48 teams, 200 poets participating in day and
night events for four days.
The recent IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) triumph of the Peopleís Poetry
Gathering, a three-day, 10,000 people, 200 poet, 100 event festival that
sprawled across Lower Manhattan, which Stanley Kunitz labeled "a
populist bacchanal," makes this a good time to check slamís continuing
embroiled embrace in the poetry world, and how slam itself has changed
in New York since I brought it to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe ten years ago.
Slam has been the most active grass-roots arts movement in the country
for the last decade, and has had a crucial impact in democratizing poetry,
and art in general, by pointing to the participatory aspects of performance
for both artist and audience.
The Beta Bete of the poetry world, slam was invented, as the hagiographical
resources echo, by ex-construction worker Marc (So What??!!) Smith, when
he and an intrepid band of poetry performers needed something to fill
in the last 15 minutes of a poetry show they were running at the Get Me
High in Chi-town, 1986. Hey, uttered Smith as the story goes, why not
a poetry competition with judges scoring each poem and we call it slam?
The slam took off. Literally too, soon moving to the fabulous Green Mill
Tavern, where Marc continues the Sundays at 7 events to this day.
The Top 10 things that blew my mind about slam ten years ago and which
continue to do so today:
10. Changing the sillyputty poet-audience relationship into a critical
one, with the poem as the medium of exchange.
9. Judges who donít have to pass a test to qualify to judge. Instead,
they are selected whimsically and score according to what they like. Point
being: we are all judges.
8. You cannot rate a poem. So it happens every slam.
7. Audience interactivity is encouraged. The audience is part of the
show. Heckles are poems. Democratizing.
6. The accessibility that slam audiences demand from the poets they listen
to. They don't insist that they understand the poem at first hearing,
but they seem to feel they have every right to punish poets for being
5. Poets are pushed to give it up, gladiatorially. After years of readings
being a means to introduce the audience to text or celebrating a bookís
publication, in slam, performance is emphasized as a means of poem transmission
that is the equivalent of text.
4. The whole hoopla caboodle is a parody of that which poetry opposes,
yet when done masterfully, works both ways always.
3. That itís called a Poetry say-the-word "slam" say-the-word.
The Roller Derby of poetry.
2. That it attracts crowds for poetry, not necessarily particular poets,
but poets reap the rewards. That it moves, fast. That it entertains, deep
(well, on occasion. I mean, it should).
1. That for each of these reasons, there is just as valid a reason for
I have come to change my mind about the 3-minute rule (at Nationals,
there are penalties assessed after 3:09! I was the lone holdout for no
penalties at the Slammasters Meeting in 1996), knowing it helps the show
flow. I still believe props/costumes/music are valid accouterments of
poetry performance, and that by outlawing them the slam community sets
itself up for controversy over minutiae rather than, say, organizing to
change the world.
Marc Smithís contention that slam is a community-builder has proven to
be correct. The slam experiment in community will someday be seen as the
closest thing we have to a 90s version of Black Mountain. But itís just
as true that slam is a marketing ploy: an emergent form in this Triumph
of Capitalism means being able to find a way through the billboard blitz
to the tender public. Slam is a way to ease an anti-poetic era into an
ear of plenty, enabling you to go to a poetry reading without having to
admit youíre going to a poetry reading. Slam! "Every slam a finality."
-- Bob Kaufman
And right here in town (when the town is New York City), poetry slams
have had quite a history. The New York slam team has held the National
Slam title for the last two years. I ran the slam at the Nuyorican Poets
Cafe for seven years, 1989-1997; Keith Roach has been there since, with
Dot Antoniades hosting the Slam Open on Wednesdays, and Steve Colman of
last yearís National Champion Nuyorican New York team coaching the slam
Two other slams are now held regularly in New York. The Urbana slam,
led by Patrick Anderson, Cristin OíKeefe Aptowicz, Amanda Nazario and
Beau Sia, is a continuation of the Chelsea Feast Slam, hosted by Keystone
in 1998. The Chelsea Feast Slam was in turn a continuation of the West
Bank Slam which provided NYC with its first National Slam crown two years
ago in Team Mouth Almighty (I). Urbana is a great scene, very young, with
Diva Slams, Goth Slams, and Prom Slams. All are very funny, very powerful.
"A little bit louder," at Bar 13, is hosted by Guy LeCharles
Gonzalez along with Lynn Procope and Roger Bonair-Agard -- all three were
on the National Championship Nuyorican team last year. There is a lot
of crossover between 13 and Urbana, the sweet camaraderie one hopes for
under slamís ferocious competitive cover.
The Nuyorican, Urbana, and 13 will all field teams at Chicago this summer.
Will New York threepeat home the Boot, as the Slam trophy is affectionately
known? Will internecine rivalries rock the National Drunken Boat?
But the biggest news now in slam is: Youth! Intercollegiate! High Schools!
The Bronx Writers Council just concluded a series of slams at Borders
(the mind boggles at the ironic allies of the late 90s), which were hugely
The teen volume has been amped by a fresh program called Youth Speaks,
which began in San Francisco and is now in New York thanks to the super
Teachers & Writers Collaborative. The National Teen Slam was held
in Santa Fe from April 17-18, with eight teams from around the country
competing, and the Youth Speaks Youth Slam at the Peoples Poetry Gathering
was an extraordinary event.
The nationís first Intercollegiate Slam was held at Sarah Lawrence College
last fall, and on April 7, 1999, the first NYC Intercollegiate Slam was
held before a screaming crowd at NYU. Columbia walked off with the trophy,
besting NYU, Bard, Sarah Lawrence, and Fordham, in a great night of, for,
and by poetry.
The Future! is the Future of Slam: by taking on the competitive model
in this horrendous (burp) era of The Triumph of Capitalism Over Everything,
poetry can demand parity with other competitive events, like football,
say. I want my kids to have the opportunity to letter in poetry slam.
And I want to hear those cheers, those public poems led by the poetry
cheerleaders. And I want heckleleaders, too!
Bob Holman teaches Exploding Text: Poetry in Performance at Bard College. He hosts the Poetry Site at the Mining Co. (http://poetry.miningco.com), and is editing the worldís first digital poetry anthology, The World of Poetry, www.worldofpoetry.org with Todd Colby.