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Hope You Like Slammin' Too

Slam poets Karyna McGlynn and Ragan Fox explain why they're compelled to leap right off the page and into your face.
The third in a series examining the divide between the page and the stage.
Karyna McGlynn

Karyna McGlynn’s first academic track was theater, in which she honed her instinct for inhabiting a given voice—for merging the motives of any character with her own. “The Camp River Poems” offers one facet of McGlynn’s work; it’s an impish poem with an old, spry soul and a swimmer’s physique. The poet says this is one piece that surprised her in its life beyond the page. In Chicago, I saw her perform it in a charged poetry slam in a crowded club of maybe 200 people. The bartender, sporting a nose ring and dreadlocks, was startled into tears. “That’s so not fair,” he said. “That was a fuckin’ POEM.”

Jeremy Richards: What first attracted you to poetry slams?

Karyna McGlynn: The competition. Hands down. Oddly, that aspect of poetry slam—more than anything else—gets a lot of academic poets all hot and bothered. I’m always the designated “slam expert witness” in university settings, and whenever any sort of page/performance question arises, everybody turns to look at me. I’m always amazed by how quiet, attentive, and fascinated non-slam poets are when I begin talking about slam. They lean forward, mouths slightly agape. It’s as if I’m talking about carnivorous plants or a sexual encounter with some celebrity. But then, there’s inevitably one person who begins to writhe in their seat, finally bursting forth with “But you can’t judge poetry!” or something of a similar ilk.

This particular form of shortsightedness always amazes me. We judge poetry all the time. What is an MFA program but one big invitation for others to judge our poetry? Perhaps it’s the public aspect of slam judging that bothers them. Perhaps most poets prefer to feel anonymously, silently judged in the privacy of their offices or bedrooms—wherever they open up all those little rejection slips.

I always hear poets whine about how competition destroys community, or how it muddies the waters in which poetry thrives. One imagines competition as some sort of demon which leads us astray, beckoning us into the backwoods of jealousy, resentment, and frustration. This is ridiculous. In its highest form, competition is a way of engaging completely with our communities. A healthy competition fosters an environment in which members consistently push each other to go further. In one-upping each other, we really one-up ourselves. As soon as comfort zones are created, they’re dissolved by some new standard. Competition keeps us sharp, involved, on our toes. Without it we run the risk of lapsing into poetic impenetrability, creative stagnation, limited scope, even delusion.

Does your writing change when you cast it for performance over publication?

Absolutely. I almost always know when I sit down to write whether I’m writing for publication or performance. There are a few poems I wrote for the page that ended up being surprisingly effective on stage. But, in general, I feel like I use a different part of my brain when I write with performance in mind. It’s similar to the cognitive shift writers experience when shifting between any two modes of writing. For instance, I feel like the faculties I use to write essays are different than those I use to write poetry. It’s a tonal thing, usually. There are oral-performative tropes I know I can use to create a successful slam poem that I would never think to put in a page poem. There are slam poets who are good page poets, but slam poems themselves rarely work well alone on the page, divorced from the actuality—or even the memory—of the poet’s voice, breath, and body.

How is slam influencing academia?

Is it a forgone conclusion that slam is influencing academia? I think what’s more likely is that slam poets are influencing the academy by infiltrating MFA programs in ever-increasing numbers. I think slammers tend to bring a certain vibrancy, real-world relevance, sense of humor, and understanding of audience to the work they do in academia. I think these are all traits the academy could use more of.

What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?

Top five popular misconceptions about slam: 1) Slam poetry is solely the domain of urban youth and hip-hop culture (like Eminem doing the dozens! Isn’t he a slam poet?), 2) Slam poetry is the same as beat poetry, which is the same as beatnik poetry (and therefore, if you go to a poetry slam, there will be snapping, berets, and soup bowls of coffee, like in the opening sequence of So I Married An Axe Murderer), 3) Slam poetry was a fad that died in the ’90s after Maggie Estep (like Doc Martens, ska, swing dancing, and baby-doll dresses), 4) [Allan Wolf’s slam mantra] “The points aren’t the point; the point is the poetry” (and other such “competition kills poetry” brouhaha. . . . ), 5) Slam poets actually engage in physical combat, slamming one another to the ground and putting each other in headlocks, all while reciting Walt Whitman (e.g., “I celebrate myself, and what I assume, you shall assume—you hear what I’m SAYING, Ragan Fox? You can loaf on the grass all you want, but you’re going DOWN! You’re in for a world of PAIN, my friend, and to DIE is different than what anyone supposed, and luckier. . . .”)

What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?

There are many things slam poets can potentially learn from academia: technique, control, subtlety, self-discipline, patience, range, brevity, familiarity with contemporary letters. In my experience a lot of slam poets don’t really read poetry.

Many slammers seem to harbor some sort of xenophobic resentment towards the larger poetic sphere outside of the slamiverse. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Slam poets often operate with poetic blinders on, as if this is a form of party loyalty or “keeping it real,” but they often get defensive when discussing academia, as if the academy were deliberately snubbing them. In my experiences on both sides of the fence, the great “page vs. stage” debate is largely a one-sided one. I often hear slam poets rage about academia’s holier-than-thou attitude, as if page poets are some privileged class looking down from their ivory tower and sneering at the blue-collar heathens below and their “outsider art.” This just isn’t the case. If the academy is dismissive toward slam, it’s mostly due to a lack of awareness. Most academic poets simply haven’t been to a poetry slam, or they’ve only been to one and think they’ve got slam all figured out. Any regular slammer can tell you what the chances are of wandering into a truly great slam on your first attempt: slim to none.

I actually think many academics are quite curious about and receptive to slam as an emerging art form. Just as I’d like to send every slam poet a copy of Daisy Fried’s My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again or Nick Flynn’s Some Ether, I’d love to hand every page poet a PBR and plop them down in the middle of a packed house at the National Poetry Slam, where they could watch people like Buddy Wakefield, Genevieve Van Cleve, and Anis Mojgani perform full-tilt.

Page poets, too, have much they could learn from slam, such as the importance of connecting with an audience; or the power of true catharsis to trump emotionally manipulative, self-indulgent, or impenetrable art; or the benefits of honest self-promotion over faux modesty; or, most importantly, the powerful art that can result when we allow poetry to return to its true home: the breath and body.

Headlock or buttercup: Where do you stand?

These days I’ve become quite the Princess Buttercup. I started slamming over a decade ago, which, in an art form as young as slam, puts me solidly in “dinosaur” territory. I still slam casually, but not with my former intensity. I think at some point the populist nature of slam started inhibiting my poetic growth. How experimental can you get and still win a slam when you’re being judged by random, poetically “unqualified,” and often drunk audience members? This isn’t to say that there aren’t slammers who have managed to explode the formula of “the winning slam poem” to great success, because there are, but for the past five years I’ve been more interested in publishing, exploring the possibilities of the page, and getting into the nitty-gritty of the writer’s craft. That said, the unabashed slammer in me will always exist. I can only go so long without “busting a move” slam-wise—putting my poetic opponents in a sweaty Texas headlock in front of a live audience. It’s exhilarating.

The Camp River Poems
by Karyna McGlynn

1 What the River Wants.
Its banks,
so it can move as if it has a destiny to fulfill.
Our bodies and our belongings and
the rain all at once, so it can swell up
like a tomboy and climb the trees.

2 The River as a Mirror of Self.
But you will only sometimes, after too much gin,
feel as though you waver that way.

You will forget how to do a back-flip.
You will forget how to skip stones.
You will forget songs that for three whole months
you couldn’t shake, like really bad hiccups.

You will tip beer into the river
as if it was asking for some, and that
may affect the river’s character judgment.

3 The River and Drowning.
Someday you will meet a gentle giant
who accidentally crushes your hand
when he asks: how d’ya do?

or, you will read Of Mice and Men
or, you will own a big german shepherd, who
despite his friendly intentions,
knocks all of your neighbors down.

You will think of Lucy, standing
by the edge of that ancient lake and wonder
what it was: the first suicide, a cramp,
a wild animal waiting for her to kneel
and drink,

and then you will understand.

4 The River and Jumping.
Be careful. The river is an artist—
so the bottom is a graveyard of abandoned
sculptures: stone skulls that hope to steal
your brain when you plunge in head-first.

Know that, if it is winter, the impact may
not kill you, and you will not immediately drown
Instead, you will freeze to death,
which is a different prospect altogether.

5 Things to Ask the River.
Did you let me win?
Are there parts of yourself that you don’t like?
Do you ever get thirsty?
Do you end triumphantly or unnoticeably?
Do you scare yourself at night?
Don’t you feel as though you are always
thrusting through the neck of an inside-out shirt?
Do you ever just want to stop being a river?
When’s your birthday?

6 Swimming in the River.
If you ever find the drain, don’t unplug it.

Don’t swim near the roots of trees—
there are eels and evil nixies there.

Understand that the river has no personal stake
in whether or not you come up for air.

Don’t do it with dumb boys
and a box of Chablis.

Don’t stuff your bikini—the river
likes to uncover embarrassing truths.

Don’t do it in an electrical storm—
the river is strongly connected to things like
fate and temptation.

Don’t do it during a flood unless you have an arc—
the river does not understand that people
are no longer demigods.

7 The River and Mythology.
You will never remember these things—
you will have to look them up again and again.

Don’t ask your geography teacher where
Alph, the scared river runs.

Try to memorize the difference between:
oceanids, harpies, nereids, naiads, spites, mermaids,
oreads, banshees, sirens, lymphae, dryads, hamadryads,
and nymphs.

Fail miserably.

Develop your own mythology. Remember
that time you canoed past the boundaries
and almost went over a waterfall. Remember when
you received a silver charm from an older woman.
Remember the rings of crocuses you
set afloat to honor Ophelia.
Remember when three girls came out
of nowhere and stripped you, throwing
your red shorts in the river.

8 The River and Aging.
Know that there is a point of diminishing returns
when it comes to your skill in the river. If you
can do a double somersault and swim from
one end to the other and back without
coming up for air, do it often, because
you won’t always be able to.

If there are lifeguards, flirt up a storm.
Remember what you looked like
in their mirrored sunglasses—it will haunt you.

Don’t throw rocks at the wrinkled necks
of sunning turtles.

You will both age, only, to the river
you will shrivel in what seems like seconds,
a plum left on the dashboard of a hot car, and you
won’t live long enough to see the river
change perceptibly, even if you eat wheat germ.

If you’ve had a perfect day there, I mean,
a really perfect day, don’t come back again
until you’re 80 and carrying a quiver full
of naked grandchildren that you let fly!
Graceful flesh arrows who arc into the water
and grin from ear to ear as every body
you ever loved surfaces and breathes again.

Karyna McGlynn grew up in Austin, Texas. She earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she received the Zell Postgraduate Fellowship in Poetry and a Hopwood Award. Her first book, I Have to Go Back to 1995 and Kill a Girl, won the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books. McGlynn’s recent chapbooks include Scorpionica (New Michigan Press, 2007) and Alabama Steve (Destructible Heart Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in Fence, Gulf Coast, Willow Springs, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Verse Daily, CutBank, and Ninth Letter. A former member of five National Poetry Slam teams, Karyna currently lives in Ann Arbor with multimedia artist Adam Theriault. Her Web site is www.karynamcglynn.com.

* * *

Ragan Fox

Ragan Fox comes to slam poetry from two separate academic disciplines, focusing on the performative and cultural aspects of the slam world. This intense study also gives him a measure of control against the histrionics of identity poetry. Where others have fallen into self-righteous indulgence, Fox avoids didactic tropes in favor of brutal, hard-won accounts of his father’s death, his past abuse, and his dissections of gay culture. In part, he embraces the poetics of outrage. But Fox gilds every feint and snap in his arsenal with a sardonic edge. As a professor of performance studies, he knows rhetoric, and knows how to make it sting.

Jeremy Richards: What first attracted you to poetry slams?

Ragan Fox: As a theater major in my first two years of college, I grew increasingly frustrated that there were very few fantastic leading roles for gay men. Gay actors who couldn’t pass as straight in the early 1990s were limited to AIDS plays. I had no idea where to go to perform personal narrative.

One day I performed a program of spoken word poetry for a Performance Studies graduate seminar at the University of Texas, and a fellow by the name of Phil West invited me to feature at the Austin Poetry Slam. After the feature, I watched an eclectic group of poets read work about familial relationships, drug use, sexuality, gender, race, suburban malaise, and politics. I thought to myself, “I can do that!” I performed the following week and became hooked. It was exciting to write about my sexuality in a state [Texas] where sodomy was illegal. People in the audience communicated genuine interest in my tales about gay culture. When your voice has been erased from grade-school history books, a supportive audience can redirect your life path. That's what happened to me.

Does your writing change when you cast it for performance over publication?

There are a few poems I write that wouldn't work in performance, and a handful of performance poems that wouldn’t work on the page. The page, after all, IS a stage.

Disciplinary lines play a large role in what a person values in terms of writing and audiencing poetry. If you’re in an English department and working toward tenure, it partially requires that your work be featured in a number of literary magazines, and so I suspect you’ll internalize the standards employed by your peer reviewers and editors. Kenneth Burke uses a term called “trained incapacity” to describe the ways in which one’s ability also functions as blindness.

How is slam influencing academia?

In my experience, slam is a gateway; folks who would regularly have no interest in literature and/or performance are seduced by slam. Slam’s applications in academia are virtually limitless. It may be employed as an object of study, method of inquiry, and pedagogical instrument. When we discuss critical race theory in my undergraduate survey of rhetorical theory, I bring in videos from the National Poetry Slam in which poets talk about gender biases in rap music and our country’s destructive colonizing practices. In certain classes, I ask students to write responses to units in the form of slam-style poems. In my research, I use bits from slam poems to exemplify points that may seem dull if I opt for a more traditional (and perhaps sterile) approach to academic evocation.

In my mind, speaking slam’s language enriches academicians.

What are the biggest misconceptions about performance poetry and slams?

Within the community, I think the biggest misconception about slam comes from some participants (both audience members and performers) who liken a particular cadence, rhythm, or set of topoi with “good” performance poetry, and score and write poems accordingly. People can get so lost in the fast-paced cadence of a poem that their radars miss lines that are rabidly homophobic, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric. I was competing in a poetry slam in Houston and stood in awe as audience members cheered on a poet who ranted about Elton John’s “faggoty ‘Candle in the Wind’ tribute to Princess Diana.” Some of the people clapping were gay. There’s something very tribal about slam. Getting lost in the rhythm and ritual is easy. I just fear what happens when people start clapping for lines that promote the objectification and marginalization of groups of people.

Outside of the immediate slam community, I believe that many people equate slam poetry with self-indulgence. Many folks despise first-person writing styles and abhor confessional tones and personal narrative. I think that there are significant connections between the personal and political, self and culture, individual body and social body. Sure, there is a lot of self-indulgent slam poetry; but there is marked self-indulgence in any artistic revolution. Not every Beat poet was Ginsberg, not every slam poet is Patricia Smith (although most of us aspire to be like her).

What can slam poets learn from the academy, and vice versa?

Slam and academia work in concert, as I mentioned earlier. Slam, in turn, pulls from, extends, and performatively renders theory in new and exciting ways. When, for example, Patricia Smith performs the persona of a skinhead, she exemplifies theoretical concepts, like perspective by incongruity, hybridity, identification, and dis-identification. My students learn about postmodern theory through poems in which Shakespeare’s identity can be appropriated and employed to talk about Super Mario Bros., as in your poem “William Shakespeare Gets Hooked on 8-Bit Nintendo.”

Headlock or buttercup: Where do you stand?

As an Oscar Wilde fan, I have to go with buttercup; it sounds more in line with the dandy aesthetic.

Fox’s poem “Heterophobia” on YouTube:

Ragan Cooper Fox (born May 9, 1976, in Houston, Texas) is a gay poet and performance artist who is a professor of communication at California State University, Long Beach. He received a B.S. and an M.A. (2001) from the University of Texas at Austin and a Ph.D. (2006) from Arizona State University. Fox and his work have been featured in Out and Genre magazines, Text and Performance Quarterly, Theatre Topics, Frontiers, The Journal of Homosexuality, Phoenix New Times, Cybersocket, The Bottom Line, VelvetMafia.com, GetUnderground.com, LodestarQuarterly.com, the Austin American-Statesman, Echo magazine, and Air America’s Harrison on the Edge.


  • 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...


Hope You Like Slammin' Too

Slam poets Karyna McGlynn and Ragan Fox explain why they're compelled to leap right off the page and into your face.


  • 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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