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Journal, Day Five

By Tyehimba Jess

From Slam to the Academy—Is It Really That Long a Stretch?

I learned a lot about poetry on the stage of the Green Mill, the birthplace of the National Poetry Slam. There, I was able to hone the art of delivering a poem, and I was able to learn a few things about how to write a poem. Slam, for the uninitiated, is a kind of Poetry Olympics, where competitors hurl their no-more-than-three-minute poems off of a stage with no props or music, while a group of random judges gives scores from 1 to 10, 10 being the best. You can get more info at http://www.poetryslam.com

The beautiful thing about slam is that the audience, often a beer soaked crowd of regular folks, from electricians and janitors to doctors and elementary school teachers, is very loud and clear about what they like and don’t like. Marc Smith, the founder of the Slam, encourages the audience to boo a boring poet off the stage, and is not shy about wisecracking about your poem after you finish—so you gotta be thick-skinned to get in front of the slam audience! Poetry is NOT for the weak of heart!

Common criticisms of slam are for the poems’ lack of craft, their reliance on identity politics, and over-exuberance in the “performance” of the poems. I am not going to deny that many of these things are true—I have sat through many a slam poem and wanted to roll my eyes and walk out the door. But it ain’t like I haven’t wanted to shoot myself in the head when reading or listening to many of the boring, uninspiring, academic poems that get published in many of the “academic” journals out there!

One of the things that bothers me about many “academic” poets is that they have never been to a slam and wouldn’t be caught dead at one—that is a shame. They will miss out on the sheer fun of the folks there, and many of them could learn from the care and passion that slam folks put into their readings. They eschew the idea of “performance” poetry—but aren’t we all “performing” somewhat when we read our poems aloud? If the audience gets no insight at all from a monotone, dry reading of your work, nothing they couldn’t get from reading it at home sitting on the commode, then why exactly should they come out to see you read?

On the other hand, many slam poets would do well to learn from the craft and care that “academic” poets have labored hard to achieve. A LOT of slam poets don’t read anything beyond other slam poets’ chapbooks. Fortunately, there are those who are walk both sides of the academic/slam line—folks like Patricia Smith (winner of the 2005 National Poetry Series and four time National Poetry Series Champ) Jeffrey McDaniels (author of three books of poetry and a NEA award winner), Regie Gibson (National Slam Champ and just had a poem published in Poetry Magazine) … the list of slam poets who are infiltrating the academy is growing each year—and I’m lookin forward to it.

Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, February 10th, 2006 by Tyehimba Jess.