Washington DC poetry slam, 1993-95
A few weeks ago Patricia talked about her coming up through the slam in Chicago, how that is where she emerged wholly as a writer and performer. That a writer of her caliber could emerge from the slam community is a testimony to the possibilities of that community. The slam was not my first artist home, but it was an important early one.
I was in grad school (an MFA program) outside Washington DC at a place called George Mason University. It was the spring of ’93. I’d been sending out poems to magazines for a few years, and had gotten work published in Fine Madness, Exquisite Corpse, Willow Springs, and Ploughshares, and I was editing the school literary magazine, Phoebe. I was also involved in a group called Poetry Theater at George Mason run by a wild grad student named Christopher Carpenter. Poetry Theater was a huge production put on twice a year, involving poetry, dance, film, music. We regularly had crowds of 400 people. I performed with projected slides. I danced. I read poems in a dress with make-up. With a three-piece rock band, I wrote and rapped a song called Straight Outta The Basement (playing off the idea of Straight Outta Compton). I made and projected homemade videos of me torturing a piece of Cheese Whiz into a candle flame, and other deranged vignettes that would be perfect for You Tube. So when I read an article in the Washington Post about poetry slams in April ’93, I was revved.
I went down to the 15 Minutes Club where the slam was being run by a guy named Art Schuhart. I had no idea what I was getting into. There were a lot of people there because of the article. The idea of reading my poems in a nightclub to a bunch of strangers was kind of terrifying and thrilling. I was still drinking alcohol at the time, so I started sucking down Jack and Gingers. That night I read the same poems I was taking to my MFA workshop. There was no slam poem style at that point in DC. It was just people reading their stuff, mostly off the page. I finished second out of eight poets that first night; came back two weeks later and won, which qualified me to be in the “slam finals”, where a bunch of slam winners would compete for a free trip to San Francisco to represent DC at the 1993 National Poetry Slam. I made the team and my life changed.
I traveled to San Francisco with three other DC poets: Silvana Straw (who was like the big sister I never had, she was a really seasoned performer with an infectious laugh, she still performs in DC, sometimes nationally with Guillermo Gomez Pena); the second poet on the team was Miles David Moore, an older formalist (I was 26 at the time, so anyone over 30 seemed old to me), who now has a book out and used to have a bunch of rhyming poems in the voice of a character named Fat Slug. The third poet on our team was…I forget his name, all I remember about him is that we were taking a cab from the airport in San Francisco into town, and he started talking to the cab driver about all the intense psychiatric medicine he was on, and I was thinking, “man, I don’t even know these people.”
I could go on for pages about the slam in ’93, about Gary Glazner leaning out of windows and screaming poetry in Jack Kerouac alley. About my now publisher’s husband puffing a bone with me in an alley and mentioning that Manic D would be interested in publishing. I weird Blog World overlap, DC actually went up against Boston in a semi-final, and Patricia and I read head-to-head, though I’m 99.9% sure she doesn’t remember me, as she was the reigning indie champion, and I was just some long-haired punk from DC. I didn’t meet that many people that first year, though I did get an invite from Hat Guy (Bob Holman as Matt Cook likes to call him) to read at the Nuyorican, and Marc Smith invited me to read at the Green Mill in Chicago. Both great gigs.
Oh, wait—here’s an example of how open the slam was back then, how undefined; a guy from Sweden (one of Kenny Goldsmith’s homeys?) came from Sweden to compete, and when he stood up to read to read his poem, he held a notebook and “read” silently to himself, for three minutes, flipping the pages of his notebook, then quietly sat back down.
Silvana and I came back to DC revved up. We hooked up with other younger poets who we admired, like DJ Renegade, Jose Padua, Kenny Carroll, and Brian Gilmore. The list goes on. The slam manifests itself differently in each city. In DC it was pretty open and fluid, so a lot of different kind of poets came through. I loved the ethnic diversity, especially when compared to the homogeny of my writing program.
One of the beautiful things about being a poet in a smaller city like DC is that it’s easy for the poets to get to know one another. Silvana and I would run into language-y poets Rod Smith and Mark Wallace at a bar called Dante’s and do exquisite corpses on napkins. I’d go out after readings with Kenny Carroll and DJ Renegade and listen to them have the most brilliant arguments in the universe. Richard Peabody was around. Quique Aviles. Then Kenny Carroll became the director of WritersCorps, a poets in the community job, and a whole bunch of us were hanging out and leading workshops and doing readings.
One of the cool things about the national slam is not just how it can energize you in your own community, but it also helps build bridges to the poets in other cities. After the National Slam in ’94, Silvana and I started a reading series at a punk club called the Black Cat; we invited poets from New York to come down and read with DC poets. And then poets from other cities would invite us in to read. Man, thinking about all that now, I am so glad I ransacked this country on tour several times, ransacked Europe, sleeping on people’s floors, reading poetry each night to dinky crowds and big crowds. I’m almost 40 now, and with a wife and kid, it’s just not in the cards to go sleeping on floors anymore, reading for fifty bucks and a chance to sell books.
In the slam back then (93-95), there were some wild, beautiful spirits: Danny Solis, Pat Storm, Paula Friedrich, Matt Cook, Sean McNally, Jennifer Knox, Justin Chin, Beth Lisick, Karl Hancock Rux, Crystal Williams, Hal Sirowitz, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Patrick Lawler, Keith Roach, Lisa Buscani, and many others. The least interesting thing was the competition. I hated slam strategy and group pieces (because they scored higher). I wanted it to be pure. I’m not sure where there is going. Maybe I just wanted to give some love to the old days, some kisses to the old heads.
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...