more about Los Angeles
One cool thing about being a poet in Los Angeles, (a strange positive that perhaps came from being in the shadow of Hollywood, faraway from the power brokers of the literary world), was that when I met other literary writers I was genuinely excited, and there was a lot of space for unconventional things to happen organically. For instance, in 1999, I was hosting an event at Beyond Baroque to raise money to take six high school poets to a teen poetry festival in New Mexico, and one of the featured readers, an actor/writer named Sarah Koskoff, performed Plath’s Daddy. She didn’t just read the poem; she embodied it. Fiction writer Aimee Bender happened to be in the audience and came up with the idea of organizing a Dead Poets Slam, featuring Los Angeles stage actors and performers who would embody the work of dead poets. A couple weeks later, I was in Aimee’s living room, with several UC-Irvine grads (Genevieve and Alice Sebold—pre-Lovely Bones), mapping out potential teams; we finally decided on the Natural Deaths vs. the Unnatural Deaths. We rifled through sprawled anthologies, looking for dead poets to bring back to life. I can’t imagine an event like that happening, in the same small, funky way, in any other American city.
Aimee and co. organized a number of exciting Dead Poets Slams. One night at Beyond Baroque in 2000, we switched things up a little and hosted a Dead vs. the Living poetry slam, where actors, reading the work of dead poets, competed against living slammers. Boy, was that fun. It really made the audience decide which way they were going to lean: toward the slower-paced, theatrically-delivered work that had much stronger language, or toward the faster-paced, more contemporary, pop-culture-driven slam material. (In poetry slams nowadays, it sometimes seems like the audience must decide between coke or pepsi—two poets that sound very similar.) (Just for the record, the audience that night veered to the dead.)
Another funny tidbit. In 2001, I mentioned the Dead vs. Living Slam to two poetry organizers in Munich, Germany, (a couple of lovely ruffians named Rayl and Ko), and they have turned it into a financial success. They call their show Poetry: Dead or Alive. They use big-name German stage actors and have them compete against the nation’s top slammers in theaters that hold nearly one thousand people. Coindentally, Rayl just sent me an e-mail where he mentioned that they’re about to do a show in Switzerland, meaning they are exporting their version of the Dead Poets Slam. It's strange to think an event happening this week in Switzerland has a root winding back to a lightbulb flashing on in the chest of Aimee Bender as she watched a Sylvia Plath poem performed in front of fifty people at Beyond Baroque in Venice Beach, Los Angeles.
Incidentally, for the past five years at Sarah Lawrence, I’ve organized a Dead Poets Slam each fall. (It’s not a competition; we just use the word Slam because we want the audience to be loose and energized.) It’s a lot of work to put into an extracurricular project—about ten three-hour rehearsals, leading up to a seventy-five minute show in front of a couple hundred students—but the rewards are plentiful: seeing a poem grow inside someone is a wonderful process, and hearing great poems in rehearsal over and over, like John Donne’s Flea, beginning to learn the turns, the nuances like a hiking trail. Thank you, Miss Bender and co.
Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...