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Performing the Academy

The first in a series examining the divide between the page and the stage.
Is what Harold Bloom said about poetry slams being full of “rant and nonsense” true, or can the academy and the slam community come together? In the first of a series, Jeremy Richards talks with Susan Somers-Willett about slam, and how she manages to straddle both sides of the page / stage divide.

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.
  • 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...


Performing the Academy

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

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