Interview

Performing the Academy

The first in a series examining the divide between the page and the stage.

Susan Somers-Willett interviewed by Jeremy Richards
Conceits can be more convincing when they rhyme. But, “page versus stage,” a phrase often used to compare academic poetry with slam poetry, is as tired as it is misleading. Are all page poems stuffy and abstruse? Are all poetry slams loud and sweaty, full of “rant and nonsense,” as Harold Bloom famously wrote in The Paris Review? Well, those stereotypes do ring true occasionally, but after 21 years of poetry slams, we need a better model than “page versus stage.” How about “headlock versus buttercup”? (I won’t say which is which.)

In the match between headlock and buttercup poems, an increasing number of poets have blurred the boundaries and rubbed sweet, sweet butter all over the angular holds of both forms. To illustrate this trend, poetryfoundation.org editors asked me to curate a series about poets who are accomplished as writers and performers, academics and slammers, lockers of head and cuppers of butter. In short, a series not about “slam poets,” per se, but about poets who slam and why.

* * *


Performance poetry audiences lend an inflated currency to persona. That prompts a commonly heard critique of slams—they rely too much on charm, brio, or intimidation. Susan Somers-Willett, though, twists classical personae into characters for slam poems. In “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String,” Somers-Willett speaks in the voice of Hamlet’s spurned lover, yet places her in a New Orleans strip club. Here, we have the quintessential crossover, a poem that plays to the rowdy bar and the lecture hall, yet succeeds on the page even after the “pump and swagger across that stage.”


Jeremy Richards: What first attracted you to poetry slams?
Susan Somers-Willett: I’d always been attracted to giving poetry a voice off the page. Slam challenged me to embody the poem through performance for three minutes and ten seconds. Unlike academic workshops, slam made me envision the poem in the realm of sound and performance. It gave me a new set of tools—vocalization, gesture, singing, improvisation, music, dialect—tools that opened up another way of looking at my writing.

Of course, the competitive aspect of slams attracted me too. To think that I could be crowned queen of poetry for an evening, even if it just means I get a gag Kenny Loggins LP as a prize, excited me. What kept me coming back, though, were the relationships with the audience and the other poets. A real community exists at a slam, whether the audience numbers 30 people or 300.

Slams let poets directly engage the audience and get feedback in the form of scores and applause, and in the audience’s faces as the poem unfolds. It’s a thrill to witness that, even when the poem fails … in fact, especially when a poem fails. Performance is a real litmus test for the strengths and weaknesses of a poem, and so slam has made me a better editor of my writing.

Finally, there’s the fun stuff. For anyone who’s wondering, the slam is a great way to meet members of the opposite sex, and let’s not forget the beer. My husband of four years asked me out for the first time after I knocked him out of contention for a slot on a national poetry slam team. The beer helped his ego, and his case.


Does your writing change when you cast it for performance rather than publication?
Absolutely. When I’m writing a poem, I usually know early on whether the poem will be part of my performance repertoire or my page-oriented work. Other poets, such as Patricia Smith and Jeffrey McDaniel, do a much better job of combining the two.

I have a handful of poems that work equally well in print and performance. And, you know what? It’s okay to have two bodies of work. We process information differently when listening to rather than reading it. Why should we expect a poem to work the same way in text and performance? Part of being a seasoned poet is recognizing the medium in which a poem best succeeds, and then letting it live there. After all, it’s not as if you can use all the same criteria to evaluate T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as you do Regie Gibson’s “The Eulogy of Jimi Christ.” How do you conduct a new critical reading of a human wah-wah pedal?

Rhymes or images that might seem facile on the page can dazzle in the music of performance. Repetition and narrative tend to work well in slams because the audience is listening rather than reading. When I write for the page, my phrasing and allusions can become more complex, more surreal, long, difficult, or formal. It’s not a matter of dumbing down the poem for a slam audience; it’s knowing the audience has only one pass, so if there’s a difficult line on which the poem hinges, you do your damnedest to make sure the audience is paying attention at that moment.


How is slam influencing academia?
For a long time, academic critics and the mainstream media have treated slam as a literary oddity or novelty—a dog and pony show of verse. It’s only in recent years that some critics are more open to serious critical inquiry of slam—Dana Gioia in Disappearing Ink, Christopher Beach in Poetic Culture, Joseph Harrington in Poetry and the Public. Their treatment is somewhat descriptive and cursory, but at least the academic world is starting to pay attention. As a Ph.D.-wielding critic myself, I’m interested in pushing the academic conversation to consider the cultural and political dynamics of poetry slams and media venues for spoken-word poetry.

There is a new generation of writers, such as Tyehimba Jess, Regie Gibson, and Tara Betts, who move between worlds and apply the best techniques of both. Over time, I believe critics will regard poetry slams as influential as the Beat and Black Arts movements were in their eras (and perhaps as failed too).


What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?
That slam poetry is improvised. Although some slams do have improv rounds (often for tie-breaking), most poets spend a good deal of time composing, memorizing, and rehearsing their poems. Some even read from the page.

Another misconception is that slam began at the Nuyorican Poets Café and/or has its roots in hip-hop culture. These institutions are incredibly important now to slam and its poets, and plenty of hip-hop traditions have influenced slam poetry’s current iteration (toasting, call and response, cyphers), but its origins are far from either. The first poetry slams, orchestrated by Marc Smith in the mid eighties, were held in white, working-class bars in Chicago during vaudeville, performance art, and cabaret-style events. That those origins have been have been obscured speaks, I think, to the ways in which hip-hop culture and slam poetry have been allied through commercial media projects like Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

Yet another misconception is that slam is all the same. Sure, standards of writing and performance have emerged over the years so that we can speak about a body of work called “slam poetry” But not all slam poetry fits into a particular politically-angry-in-your-face-listen-to-my-pain narrative that led Harold Bloom to declare slam poetry “rant and nonsense” in The Paris Review. Part of what helps keep the slam fresh is its open-door policy—anyone can slam, anyone can attend, anyone can judge. That policy means that, in terms of quality, there’s always plenty of chaff with the wheat, but it also keeps waitresses and professors and rappers and cops and cabaret singers and sonneteers on the roster of poets.


What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?
This is such an important question. Some poets and critics are so wrapped up in the apparent (and false) tensions between these camps that they can’t acknowledge how each can inform the other. I first started competing in poetry slams as a student in a graduate creative writing program, and developed my work in tandem in both arenas, so I really do see my writing as a product of both influences.

The academy can learn something crucial from slam: how to put butts in the seats. It’s ironic that, at the same time critics were debating “Can Poetry Matter?” and lamenting the death of poetry for the general reader, slams were starting to emerge across the nation. Slam found poetry’s so-called lost audience, and instead of instructing it to sit quietly, hushed and reverent in the presence of the author, it said to react to the poet—boo, hiss, applaud, give the poem a score of a 10 or a 2.7. Having an actively engaged audience helped the slam grow into what it is today—a series of national competitions that sell out large venues in major U.S. cities.

The academy can also learn about the life of the poem beyond its publication. For too long, we’ve equated expanding poetry’s audience with expanding its readership. I love reading poetry and want to encourage more of it, but thinking of poetry’s audience only as readers reinforces a solitary not a communal relationship. If we define poetry as oral performance as well as textual—then we can study how poetry creates communities of authors, audiences, and critics.

Slam can learn from the academy a measure of variety, history, and perspective. Some slam poets are, I believe, trapped in the styles, influences, and subjects of the moment. If you can write a winning slam poem, I believe you should also be able to write a good sonnet or villanelle. So, from the academy, slammers can learn to read and listen broadly as well as learn the critical perspectives necessary to appreciate poetry of different styles and periods.


Headlock or Buttercup: Where do you stand?
What, pile driver isn't an option?

Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology

by Susan Somers-Willett

The air tonight is thick as curry;
like every night this summer I could cut it
with my wine glass, spray it with mace.
Over and over it would heal together
like a wound, follow my click and pace of heels
down Conti Street, St. Ann, Bourbon.

Oh Hamlet, if you could see me now
as I pump and swagger across that stage, cape dripping to the floor,
me in three-inch heels and a technicolor g-string—
you would not wish me in a convent.
They’ve made me a queen here, married me off
to a quarter bag and a pint of gin.

The old men tend bark and splatter, rabid
at each table. I think they stay up all night
just to spite the moon. They bring their diseased
mouths to the French Market in the morning,
sell Creole tomatoes to tourists who don't know
what they are. Each bald head shines plump and red.

It seems like so long ago that I modeled
for those legs outside of Big Daddy’s—
the ones over the door that swing in, out, in, out—
the sculptor made me painted as Mardi Gras.
I thought you might recognize them if you ever passed
with the boys, parading from Abbey to Tavern,
or think them royal feet in need of slippers.

Someday I expect to find you here,
sitting at the table between the first and second rows,
fingering bones or something worse.
And in the end you will throw me a columbine,
light me a Marlboro and take me to a 24-7 where
jukebox light quivers, makes us as thin as ghosts.

But for now, I will dance for the fat man
who sits in your place and sweats his love for me at 3 a.m.,
because only he knows I am Horatio in drag.
"Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology" 1996–2002 Susan B.A. Somers-Willett.
Originally Published: June 7, 2007

COMMENTS (18)

On June 8, 2007 at 10:44am genevieve wrote:
Syusan is TOTALLY brilliant. You should make her queen of poetry every day!

On June 8, 2007 at 12:46pm Scott Woods wrote:
Excellent work!

Susan's work is so above what Slam's critics have said through the years. Kudos to PF for hosting this discussion! Let's see more of that bridge-gapping.

On June 8, 2007 at 1:10pm Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz wrote:

This article raises so many interesting questions! I would love to see this more explored!

I think it's interesting that "academia" and the "poetry slam" are often pitted against each other, I suppose, to stand in for "print" vs. "oral poetry."

The question always seems to be, "Can't we all just get along?" but do we really need to?

Can't "academic" poetry and "slam" poetry serve their separate audiences without feeling like its some how cheating the bigger picture?

Ooh! This is making me really look forward to reading more from this series! Kudos!

On June 8, 2007 at 2:26pm Victor D. Infante wrote:
Excellent work. Somers-Willett is a truly important contemporary poet, and her work demands recognition.

On June 8, 2007 at 6:42pm patricia smith wrote:
Not only is Susan a stellar wordsmith and definitely huggable, but her hubbie (the poet she destroyed in the slam) is HOT.

On June 8, 2007 at 11:44pm Francisco Aragón wrote:
I would venture to say that the way Susan

Somers-Willett articulates, in this interview, the

real possibility of being nourished by both of

these worlds is the best thing I've read on the

subject.

In short, I'm looking forward not only to more in

this series, but to her scholarly book.

On June 9, 2007 at 8:24am Michele Leavitt wrote:
I'm so glad to see this discussion brought to public attention. In the 1990's, I frequently attended (and occasionally participated) in the poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Patricia Smith, who learned to slam at the Green Mill, and Jack McCarthy, among many other fine poets, performed. My interview with Smith, "A Question of Audience," was published in The Connecticut Review in 1998. In the interview, she addressed many of the issues raised in this interview about the tension between "headlock and buttercup."

Since you are in Seattle, Jeremy, I hope you'll consider interviewing Jack McCarthy for this series. He now lives in the Seattle area and continues to be active in the slam scene.

On June 10, 2007 at 10:22am H. R. wrote:
Yes, yes...I enjoyed this interview. Good points and questions.

And strange as it sounds, having observed the debates about "page vs. stage," I mean, "headlock or buttercup" for years now, it still seems that we have a long way to go to really get clearer on things.

For instance, how does the very debate about academic poets vs. slam poets obscure the fact that for the most part, academic poets compete with each other for attention in their realm, just as slam poets compete with other slam poets for the attention of their audiences?

Oh well...thanks again for the interview. I'll look forward to reading more.

On June 10, 2007 at 5:42pm Susan B.A. Somers-Willett wrote:
Great question, H.R. The appearance of the tension between academic and slam poetry really does disguise their similarities. But this perceived tension also serves a very important purpose for both parties--perpetuating the tension helps to constitute the other and give it its own flavor. It's the self-same tension we see in conflicts between lowbrow and highbrow art, street and academic writing, dominant and underground culture. That tension may not be real or even accurate, but both parties benefit in some way by saying what they are not.

I am so glad to see this many people interested in the conversation about slam and performance poetry. I hope the PF continues to explore the many modes of verse out there in such intelligent ways, through this series and beyond.

On June 11, 2007 at 12:11pm Jeremy Richards wrote:
Michele,

I already interviewed the five poets for the series, but Jack McCarthy is a friend of mine and a poet I admire greatly. If you have a chance, look for his essay in "The Spoken Word Revolution Redux," where he also addresses the themes of this series.

On June 11, 2007 at 12:19pm Mongo wrote:
Wonderful interview (and podcast!) and I'm so glad to see the Poetry Foundation sponsoring this series!

I'm especially intrigued by the point Susan makes about how slam audiences get "one pass" through the poem, and how that impacts how a poet selects their words.

I often ask myself how I as a "consumer" of poetry am expected to approach a piece differently that is coming at me from the stage, as opposed to from the page. What different tools do I need to engage the text effectively? What more (or less) does the poem demand from me when I hear it via one medium or another? Do I cede some degree of interpretation to the performer when I hear a piece, that I might otherwise take on when reading it?

I'm really looking forward to more in this series!

--Mongo

http://performancepoetry.indiefeed.com

On June 13, 2007 at 1:46am Matthew John Conley wrote:
An informative interview. I am glad to see that the imaginary walls between poems of all types are beginning to be broken down. If there is any distinction I see between the page and stage, it is this: that poems presented on the stage, while subject to scoring, are not analyzed as intently or intensely as poems presented on the page.

On June 15, 2007 at 12:59am Rick Steadman wrote:
An excellent interview, thank you. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. I particularly like the idea of Headlock vs. Buttercup. Most media can broken down in that way.

On June 16, 2007 at 6:00am Mozart wrote:
Thank you for this interview! I tink it's very

important to have this type of discussions for

slam/spoken word to continue to grow and

mature.

Keep them coming

On June 22, 2007 at 2:54pm Danielle Chapman wrote:
I really enjoyed this articulate interview and

the general attention to performance poetry.

I have a question, though. When Slam poets

use the term "academic" as a catch-all for

written poetry, is it meant to be derogatory? I

imagine that it was intended to be, at least

initially, because the word itself conjures up

rules, regulations, and sitting in a little room to

defend a dissertation (i.e. the antithesis of

Slam). It's a confusing word to use, though,

because much "great" written poetry has

nothing to do with academia or school of any

sort. Maybe the word is meant to refer to some

kind of technique taught in creative writing

programs, though I don't think that any MFA

program has ever declared to have its own

technique.

And what about Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats,

Frost, Wallace Stevens, WCW and all the greats

who never set foot in a classroom--is their

poetry "academic"?

Thanks again for an interesting article.

On June 23, 2007 at 10:48am H..R. wrote:
Danielle,

Your questions get to what I was trying to think about in a much better way.

Since I am neither a slam poet nor academic poet, but an observer who's tried to follow, I suppose that some of the tension involves the group of poets who are associated with MFA programs, hence the derogatory, or at least skeptical use of the term "academic." Not surprisingly, you will rarely hear the poets who are referred to as academic referring to themselves as academic poets.

And yes, you're right: it seems that the most well-known poets are usually historically-significant, which makes me think that contemporary poets (by whatever name we decided to call them) face common struggles of adequate recognition.

On December 12, 2007 at 3:54pm rnhpnb@yahoo.com wrote:
Again, the misconception is that there is a difference between slam and academic poetry. The college I attended in actuality held and sponsered many slams and sponsored no "traditional" or "academic" readings (in my years of attendance). In my personal experience, the slam has been the more academic... perhaps due to tendency of colleges to try to condescend to its students or what it thinks is "hip" etc... and the whole polemic of MFA-academia vs the "Hip-urban-slam-poet" leaves many in the gray. (Its really a primitive feudalism...)

I recall a slam in an independent bookstore basement in which a young "poet" pulled a (hopefully un-loaded) gun on the adience as part of his performance piece- maybe Bloom was there when he conceived the "death of art?" A good poet doesn't need fireworks for illumination... maybe.

On March 16, 2008 at 8:47am Charles D. Stillman wrote:
Wonder if anyone of you have heard of a book "Pedals of Life" or "Pedals of Light" it is a book written by a singal author of combined love poems. Written about the 30's 40's or 50's I'm not sure who the author is and as you can tell what the the exact tittle is thats why I turn to you if you can help please do. If you can get a hold of this print an read it likeing love poems I garentee you will never need read another love poetry book for nothing can touch its ellagence

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Biography

Jeremy Richards is a poet and journalist living in Seattle. His work has appeared widely, including in The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, McSweeney's, Rattle, The Morning News, and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Day to Day, and All Things Considered. "Nietzsche! The Musical," for which he wrote the book and lyrics, premiered at Seattle's Market Theater in June 2010. Richards holds a BA from Gonzaga University and an . . .

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