April 24, 2005
Poets were the rock stars of the pre-electronic era. Even through the mid-20th century poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay sauntered through the culture commanding attention like The Beatles coming to America in 1963. But, in the last 50 years, poetry has lost much of its cultural energy and become the domain of the intellectual and obscure. As tortured, anguished, erudite souls poured their sensitive guts onto the page, most of us clicked the remote.
But poetry is back, thanks in great part to the "poetry slam," a performance venue that combines the best of the Olympics, "American Idol," rap music and WWE wrestling. It has turned out to be just the lifeline that poetry needs in an attention-deficit world.
A new information package called "Hewitt's Guide to Slam Poetry and Poetry Slam" drags poetry kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Written by Geof Hewitt of Calais, illustrated by Tim Newcomb of East Montpelier and published by Barry Lane's Discover Writing Press of Shoreham, this is a breezy compilation that combines an 80-page book text, illustrations, a DVD "Action Guide," and even templates for scoring sheets. (This is so you can cut up your book rather than look for a Magic Marker and some blank paper.) All together, it's an authoritative, informative, entertaining guide that gives teachers and students everything they need to stage their own slams. At $19.95 it's also a bargain.
By the time my ninth-grade English teacher finished cramming iambic pentameter down my throat (thanks, Mr. Gardner), I eagerly traded Robert Frost for Jim Morrison (of The Doors) and W.B. Yeats for Joni Mitchell. Appreciation of all things poetic stayed buried until a friend and poet convinced me that poetry is not meant to be read silently, but heard, or better yet, spoken. The human body is a musical instrument that resonates with words. I tested this in the Robert Frost Interpretative Forest near Breadloaf. First, I checked to make sure there was no one around, then cleared my throat, and read the poems aloud — just me and the trees. Whoa!
A poetry slam is like this. They are a growing national phenomenon in which poets have three minutes — like a round in boxing — to perform an original poem on stage. Five volunteers from the audience, chosen on the basis of willingness, not expertise, serve as judges. "This levels the playing field, and brings poetry out of its traditional settings and into the hands of the people," explains Hewitt. "Each judge scores each performance on a scale of zero to 10, with one decimal point."
Slam poetry grabs people by the scruff of the neck and drags them from the video screen to the coffee shop, church basement, library or gymnasium. Sometimes described as a combination of mud wrestling and a literary tea, the invention of slams is credited to Marc Smith, a Chicago construction worker who persuaded a local watering hole to host a weekly open mike for poetry. This was democratic poetry. Anyone could compete. Rounds were limited to three minutes to prevent long-winded self-indulgence. No costumes. No props. Anyone could judge. The audience participated. You didn't like the judge's decision? Well, you booed.
Soon the rules and strategies became more formal, although with considerable poetic license allowed; and slammin' spread across the country, finally reaching Vermont on May 5, 1999. One of the contestants – and the eventual winner – of that first slam was Geof Hewitt. He has gone on to be Vermont's 2004 Slam champion and twice has represented the state in national competitions. Slams are now sprouting like dandelions in spring across Vermont. You can try www.vermontslams .com for a list of upcoming events.
Hewitt's book covers all the basics — the history, the rules, and variations on traditional slams. Reflecting his experience as an educational consultant, he provides all the practical information to stage a successful slam. But he is first and foremost a poet. Much of the information speaks directly to the upcoming poets. He blends tips on writing and performing with the nuances that give a competitor an edge in the scoring.
I asked some traditional poets about slams, thinking I might find someone who also would decry our abhorrent decline of national literacy. I started at the top: David Budbill, the best poet on Judevine Mountain, if not the planet. What he said was unequivocal:
"I love slam poetry. It's full of energy and dynamism. When it's good it's wonderful, as good as poetry gets." But, he also sounded a cautionary note. "Over the years slam poetry has calcified itself as all poetic trends and styles do. Too often it falls prey to that bugaboo of stylistic rigidity."
Competition has a way of corrupting even the best ideas (Can you say "Little League?"). Let's hope that slam poetry can retain its exuberant amateur status.
There are winners and losers in slam. That's half the fun. The other half is the poetry itself. The competition can get rowdy but never ugly, because the overriding rule of slam is that "The points are not the point; the point is poetry." That was a quote from slammer Allan Wolf. So the slam is a unique blend of literature, rock and roll, and smashmouth competition. It has ragged charm. You can dress with as much attitude as you can muster. You can mumble into a microphone or shout from your coccyx. Be funny or be mad. Use real words or create some of your own. It's your three minutes.
In Vermont, slam poetry is still closer to novelty than calcification, and "Hewitt's Guide to Slam Poetry and Poetry Slam" will only increase its visibility and popularity. Now, if we can only get Hewitt and company to do a book on classical music.
Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer. He is the founder of The Public Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
published in Montpelier Times Argus on 24 April 2005
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