returning to the national slam as an observer, 8 years later

In an earlier post, I spoke about participating in the National Poetry Slam in the early 90’s. Here I will talk about what I saw at the National Poetry Slam in August 2006 in Austin, Texas, when I returned as an observer. I was invited back to take part in a reading of old-timers and to be on a couple of panels. Because I hadn’t been in almost a decade and because I like Austin organizers (Mike Henry and company), I accepted the invite. On a personal level, it was good to return and see people I still had love for (such as the big and smiley Danny Solis, and the wild and wacky Matthew John Conley, and many others.) For people unfamiliar with slam, “the Nationals” is when teams from all over North America assemble in one place for a frenetic 4-day competition. There are “bouts” at venues throughout the town, and teams and poets get eliminated quickly, so there’s lots of excitement and tension. The poets are stuck in this catch-22—they are taking serious a competition that was designed (by Marc Smith) to make fun of serious poetry competitions.

A lot had changed over the years. 1. The competition got bigger. There were 72 teams in 2006, 48 teams when I last participated in ’98, and 24 teams in ‘93. 2. The participants are generally younger these days. When I first showed up in ’93, there were very few poets under 25, and not many under 30. Now the rarity seems to be a poet over 30. 3. There were a lot more “group pieces” in ’06. In 1993, there was one group piece in the whole competition. In ’06, about 50% of the pieces were group pieces. 4. Slams seem to be narrowing from a format into a genre; almost every poem is exactly three-minutes long, and many have similar curves and are delivered at the same speed. Thematically the poems have narrowed as well; people have seen what works and are emulating it. For instance, in ’06 I hear a number of I-am-a-teacher-trying-to-change-the-world poems; (We saw the genesis of this sort of slam poem in the documentary SlamNation, about the 1996 National Slam, as Taylor Mali and Daniel Ferri teacher-ed it out.) There are also a handful of I-survived-a-horrible-catastrophe poems. There’s nothing wrong with writing a poem about personal tragedy, but the language in these poems often seems to be flat and uninspired, as if transcribing the event is enough to make it a poem.
Another different thing about the 2006 National Slam was that there were workshops and panels and lively satelite events. It’s interesting that as more and more ex-slammers are being absorbed into academia (myself included), the National Slam is beginning to have some events that one might find at a more traditional writers conference. But the slam is light years away from AWP, and it was always a pleasure to board the glass elevator at the Austin Hyatt and see the lobby filled with poets from a multitude of backgrounds with dyed-hair and dreadlocks and crazy outfits. At one point, an older white dude in a business suit, standing next to me, scrunched up his face and asked jaggedly, “what is going on here?” I wish I could say that I replied, “poetry, pencil ass,” but I just smiled.
I felt more at home at the satellite events (the Hip-Hop showcase, the Nerd Slam, the haiku slam, the poetry karaoke) than the actual competition. During the competition, I felt like a grumpy old man; several pieces engaged me, but too often I could predict where a poem was going, too often the narratives were too linear and plodding. As a writer you never want your reader to beat you to a spot (in basketball they call that a charge). It was kind of disorienting to hear the audience go bonkers for pieces that I thought were mediocre at best, but just when I was on the border of disenchantment, there would be a poem that surprised me, a poem that moved and breathed in original ways.
Anis Mogjani—small, yet lanky, seemingly elastic; with longish dark hair culminating in ringlets—loped across the stage and dazzled. The mood of his poems is light and breezy, but they can build in power rapidly and hit crescendos. His voice was irrational and whimsical, with a hint of Ginsberg. John Goode was another poet who caught my ear with a poem about why he (a black man) will only date black women. The poem is a skyscraper of anaphora. His repeated phrase is “a woman so black…”. The audience howled at lines like “so black she can go to funerals naked. So black if the devil saw her he’d scream, ‘damn, you’re black as hell’.” Anaphora works well in slams. Anaphora is a phrase repeated at the beginning of a line. The repeated phrase creates a rhythm, and it’s easy for the audience to stay grounded, as the poem keeps coming back to the same starting point before radiating out in new directions.
At the five-team, team finals, Louder Arts (New York City) and Denver, the eventual champion, impressed me quite a bit. Denver was exuberant, youthful, passionate, risky. Louder Arts, with a team of talented veterans seemed only half-invested in winning; most of the people on their team had won before. In many ways, Louder Arts embodies all that is good about spoken word; they are involved with several vibrant reading series in New York (Bar 13 in Union Square, Acentos in the Bronx). They are interested in the community, doing workshops in prisons. They take themselves seriously as writers. They invite a wide cross-section of poets to their events.
In the team finals, there were a number of really powerful solo pieces: Katie Wirsing from Denver, Marty McConnell and Rachel McKibbens from Louder Arts, but there were way too many group poems. A “group poem” is a highly choreographed piece that involves well-synchronized performers. A group poem often seems to have more in common with bad experimental theater than poetry. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in the power of one voice addressing the tribe. At one point during the team finals, I was in the back of the 2000 seat air-plane-hanger-like space, and I was thinking about how the language in the group poems often felt flat and denotative, more akin to what I might expect to find on television, and then I laughed as I realized that I was actually watching the performers on a giant 12-foot-by-12-foot TV screen, placed on the side of the stage.
The most compelling group piece was by Denver. It revolved around the Homeland Security phrase “if you see something, say something”. This is a common slam tactic: to take a popular phrase or slogan and spin it in a new direction, so that the meaning gets altered. The piece was smart and insightful, though I kept wishing it was performed slower—the language zoomed by before I even had a chance to taste it. I could never be on a slam team these days—it’s way too much work. All the group poems. You must commit to weekly rehearsals for several months. You gotta barnstorm from state to state, competing in regionals. You gotta rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. But it’s good to see that there is still space in the slam world for unique voices like Mogjani and McKibbens and Roger Bonair-Agard and others.
Slam remains a haven for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere else: comedians not quite home in the realm of stand-up, rappers not quite home in mainstream hip-hop, slackers not quite at home on their sofa, teachers not quote at home in the classroom, and poets not quite at home in their workshops. In many ways, I am more interested in the ripple effects of the slam, and what people have gone on to do, than the slam itself these days. Flaco Navaja, Sister Spit, Derrick Brown, the communities that coalesce around reading series like Acentos and Bar 13, the teen poetry events that have popped up all around America through the work of organizations like Urban Word, Youth Speaks, and WritersCorps. Still it’s pretty damn amazing that this little thing that Marc Smith created in a bar in Chicago in 1986 is going strong in North America, and throughout Europe.

Originally Published: June 30th, 2007

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...