Catching the slam wave
New trend in poetry pushing the limits of words
By Dan Szczesny firstname.lastname@example.org
The only thing worse than bad poetry is bad poetry shouted at you.
Such is the dilemma of the modern poet, particularly the poet of the open-mike slam poetry temperament. Unlike, say, a novel or a painting, everyone has a poem in him.
This makes the form both accessible and frustrating.
And the recent surge of poetry cafe open mikes and slam poetry competitions has also served a dual function: on one hand it’s brought poetry a much-needed adrenaline surge, but on the other hand any form of creativity that suddenly becomes something anyone can do, dilutes the work of the actual artists who know what they are doing.
Call it the snob factor. Academic poetry — meaning all that behind-the-podium, old, dead, white, European verse that you were tortured with as a college student — derives from a classical tradition where vocabulary trumps performance. Modernist poetry, particularly slam poetry, feeds on performance. It makes theater out of words.
In one sense, all poetry is about oral tradition — that’s the point, spoken words distilled to their most basic and raw meaning. And even the stodgiest of traditional poets, from Wordsworth to Frost, were performers of a sort. After all, poetry is also best when read aloud, but the opposite applies as well. Good poetry sounds better when read aloud; bad poetry sounds worse.
So it follows, then, that if anybody can do it, then more people will do it poorly. And if more do it poorly, loudly and shouted at you, it will sound even worse and be more damaging to the artists who do it well.
Joshua Beckmen, one of the editors of Wave Books, a new publishing house in Seattle that is taking a decidedly young approach to distillation of poetry, said that all poetry is about passion and commitment, regardless of the form chosen by the poet.
“It’s tough to talk about slam poetry in general because so much of it is about allowing the possibility of entertaining and engaging the audience through means of theater that can allow the possibility of a less challenged textual endeavor,” he said. “On the other hand, if you stand behind a podium and act square and aloof, you’re going to end up performing a square and aloof poem. You can tell when a poet is undermining his own performance in either direction.”
Wave Books is one of a group of new publishing houses, like Open Cities or CavanKerry Press, that are compiling a corral of young, new poets working in non-traditional forms. New writers like Noelle Kocot and Anthony McCann have performative styles where the reader is asked to stretch preconceived notions of poetry beyond rhyme and rhythm. In some cases, simply reading the words on the page is not enough.
The Wave Books release A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle is a perfect example of the type of modernist poetry aimed at the coffeehouse crowd. The central conceit of Ruefle’s book is that all words are contextual and can be arranged accordingly, even if they are not your own. Ruefle’s book is actually a short story published in 1889, and now reprinted by Wave. Ruefle painstakingly sorted through the original story, using white-out to eliminate some words. The result is a kind of backward construction of a poem. Like Michaelangelo insisting that his job was simply to bring the sculpture out of a solid block of marble, Ruefle is bringing the poem out of the story.
The result is haiku-like shorts that work well on their own but seem too abstract as a whole. For example, “the dead / borrow so little from / the past / as if they were alive” is a wonderful little word burst. But what to make of the form? Should the reader ignore the white-out? If that were the case, then Ruefle would simply write the words and not worry about displaying the context from which they derived. So, if the words that are not used are as important to the poet as the words that are selected, then the form supersedes the words themselves, and the poem becomes visual as opposed to oral. And when the form becomes more important than the words, then what exactly is a poem anyway?
When I leveled these questions at Beckmen, he just laughed.
“The fact that you’re dealing with the book on so many levels means you must be interested in it,” he said. “If we are publishing books that make people want to engage on other levels then we’re doing a good job. It’s the belief that there is something more there, something worthwhile and genuine, even if you end up not liking it.”
The act of public coffeehouse-style poetry readings is a fairly new addition to the literary culture. The Beats took the written word to the streets in the 1950s, but slam poetry began picking up steam only fairly recently. Many established poets of the time, such as New Hampshire’s main man of letters, Donald Hall, didn’t immediately take to coffeehouse readings.
“When poetry readings started I thought it was a fad, but it’s just increased more and more,” Hall said. “And now, probably more people have heard poems than have read them, and I love it.”
The Wilmot poet is more cautious when discussing the merits of performative, or slam, poetry.
“When I read a poem that’s printed on the page, it’s a performance, and slam overlaps that,” he said. “I have been to a good many such things and I get amused often and sometimes moved, but I never hear a line break, never hear any attention to sound. I hear, for the most part, stand-up comics, which is perfectly fine, but I’m reluctant to call it poetry.”
He adds, “I don’t want to be an old snob about this, and I can tell you that I enjoy it, but not exactly as I enjoy poetry.”
Hall may get a chance to match words/performance with some of the young poets in Beckmen’s corral, as Wave Books is going on a bus tour this fall in which they plan on hitting about 50 cities in two months. Along they way, Beckmen said, the plan is to pick up local poets who will join the Wave crew at readings.
Beckmen said he is looking into possible venues in New Hampshire. Maybe Wave can make Wilmot one of their stops.
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