An incomplete history of Slam

Part 2: DiasporaBob Holman's destination for the slam was his own venue inManhattan's Alphabet City, the Nuyorican Poets' Café. TheCafé was itself a struggling organization. Its building satempty from 1982 to '89. After reopening, it ran through thefirst winter with no heat.

"Pedro Pietri and I had been doing some performance poetryshows called 'The Doubletalk Show' with ourselves as the twohosts," Holman recalled of his experiences in New York in themid-1980s. "We billed it as the world's only late-night TVtalk show not on TV. We'd have as guests our own buddiesfrom around the scene. We also featured dead poets such asWalt Whitman and Emily Dickenson. We had Sylvia Plathsinging Skeeter Davis' 'Until the End of the World'... [ Thedead poets would ] hype how good our own poetry was, and wereplayed by real poets.

[ photo: Bob Holman ]"One place we held our readings was in the Nuyorican Poets'Cafe in 1989." Holman ( pictured in San Francisco, 1993 )had a practical concern, similar to Smith's. "As the Nuyorican began to re-emerge it becameclear that what I had to do programmatically was to host theslam. It brought together all the possiblities... thosebeing a means of shoveling a lot of poetry into an eveningwithout calling it a 'poetry reading' and, since we werecompletely broke, a way to produce a lot of entertainment."It drew a small, steady, and growing contingent of poets andfans. Today, slamming is at the Nuyorican two nights a weekas a regular part of the poetry fare, and it has been so forfive years.

San Francisco's connection to slamming was less practicalthan aesthetic. Gary Glazner had been combining poetrywith dance, music, and costuming in college in the 1970s. Heput together performances in Bay area venues at Sonoma State,Cinnebar, Artists' Television Access, Club Nine ( now defunct), and the Art Motel.

"We considered the slam to be a performance art piece. Theflyer, the way that [ the event ] looked, the feeling theaudience had when they came into the venues were all a partof it," noted Glazner. "We'd have people selling hot dogs asthough they were at a boxing match. We allow people to useinstruments and costumes, and have a barker out front tocreate a carnival atmosphere.

[ photo: Glazner and Holman ]"I think most people who are involved in it think thatthey're in a slam, a competition. But what they're reallydoing is a whole performance. It was a way to combine thoseperformance things with poetry." Glazner( pictured with Bob Holman, 1991 Slams, Chicago ) had an attraction tothe slam borne of philosophy. "Unbenownced to Marc it wasa very Cagian way to present the poetry, not unlike castingthe I-ching to determine the instrument to be used in aperformance. It left a lot up to chance to determine theevening. We were coming from a Cagian mentality. The judgeswere totally different every night."

Back in Chicago, the Ensemble built entirely different scenesfor each of their poetry shows and few, if any, had thearchetypal advantage of admitting the audience to aprofessional fight. Anna Brown, a founding member theEnsemble, revealed a different appreciation of performanceart versus performance poetry. "I always felt a little oddbecause I was bringing in my performance art aspect as well.That was part of why I [ eventually ] didn't work with thegroup. To me, performance art is a completely different thingcompared to what performance poets think it is.

"I think a lot of performance poets are basically so happy tobe reading their work in front of an audience that they tendto pander a little bit. Not that I don't," said Brown as anaside, "but I tend to get a little more aestheticallyinvolved in the performance. For the poets, the aestheticwas in the word.

"Performance art is an extensive concept based in theoreticalwork, whereas to me a lot of the good performance poets havegreat theatric personalities and happen to be great writers.They usually don't have any background in art theory or thevarious art movements." Privately, performance poets andperformance artists have often expressed this tension betweeneach other and their respective forms with less precision.

"It was a good, solid experience that taught me a lot aboutthe importance of the words and the audience, but I'm notconnected to it in any way but socially now," Brownconcluded.

In October 1990 in San Francisco, Herman Berlandt and JackMueller of the National Poetry Association organized afestival on a national scale which, for the first time,included slams. Gary Glazner produced the competition.Glazner uncovered the slam at Navy Pier and a reading forGwendolyn Brooks in 1989 with over fifty poets. There he metMichael Warr who directed him to the Green Mill.

Glazner contacted Marc Smith about the logistics oforganizing a slam. According to Glazner, Ann Arbor ( thesecond oldest slam in US after the Green Mill ) was alreadyin business, but San Franciscans were not aware of it at thetime, so Ann Arbor was ignored. The NPA invited Paul Beattyand Bob Holman to represent New York.

Jack Mueller extended the NPA invitation to Chicago and MarcSmith. Through Smith, word found its way to Lois Weisberg, oftheChicago Department ofCultural Affairs.With the assistance of her department, Weisberg was able todispatch four poets from Chicago who joined in the slam: MarcSmith, the new Chicago slam champion Patricia Smith, CindySalach, and Dean Hacker.

[ photo: Hacker, Smith, Salach ]
left to right: Dean Hacker, Patricia Smith, Cindy Salach, in Chicago, 1990.

At this time, slamming was reaching a peak in Chicago whichwas to skew the city's writing indelibly. For the firsttime, numbers of new local writers were able to get fastfeedback on their efforts. Readings were now plentiful, open,and reasonably absent of affectation. Also at this time,the split between the academy and theslammersbecame most pronounced. The character of Chicago's slamwriting has since been to play toward the audience, to bedirect and use plain, colloquial speech, to take socialissues head-on, to avoid rhyme and established meter, toemploy first person subject as in narrative, and ( curiously ) to avoidpublishing.

The competitive nature of the slam was obviously heating upChicago's literary climate. However, regarding the actualNPA competition Marc Smith recalled, "One of the mostimportant things was in our approach to San Francisco. We gottogether in a hotel suite and discussed it. We decided we hada style that was new and fresh. We could show it off andkick ass. Or we could go as ambassadors and approach the newaudience... It was a conscious decision. When we went in wepassed on to San Francisco the things we had discovered...We had five years of developing this new approach... Wethought nothing about competition... We were bringing a giftfrom Chicago to San Francisco."

Despite the differences between the academy and the Chicagoslam school, or perhaps because of them, the Chicago teamtook first in San Francisco. In the individual slam,Patricia Smith edged out Victor Hernandez Cruz. Slamming andthe Chicago voice were on the map.

[ photo: Smith, Brown ]After the slam in late 1990, Patricia Smith married MichaelBrown ( pictured in Chicago just prior to the 1990 San Francisco slams )and moved from Chicago to Boston. By early 1991, theyhad established a venue of their own, first working with T.T.the Bear's ( hosted by Jack Powers ), then moving into theirown venue at the Bookcellar, in Cambridge.

October of 1991 brought the National Slams from San Franciscoto Chicago and a packed Cabaret Metro. The finals, broadcastlive on radio, boiled down to Chicago, New York, SanFrancisco and Boston with Chicago very narrowly taking theteam championship. In the individuals, the first duel betweenLisa Buscani and Patricia Smith ( defending her title ) alsowent to the wire. Despite a case of laryngitis, Smithretained her championship. It seemed that, whenever one looked,the Chicago style was in full bloom whether thepoet emerged from Chicago or not.

By early 1992, the Cambridge Bookcellar was hosting packedreadings on Thursdays and Saturdays, with slams on bothnights. There Brown and Smith were cultivating a hotbed ofemerging writers. New England had an appetite; the young,literate atmosphere in Cambridge was energetic and supportiveto the Chicago aesthetic which, in rapid time, became greaterBoston's own. The often-mentioned Chicago/Boston rivalrybegins here.

[ photo: Lisa Buscani]A lot of noise has been made about the face-off between Chicago and Boston in these years, but most of it has beenfrom people more preoccupied with the competition than withthe poetry. For the first four national slams, PatriciaSmith won three individual championships and Lisa Buscani of Chicago ( pictured, in New York 1992 ) won the other while placing second in the other two where she competed. This begged a "battle of the divas"label in many people's minds, with expectations being thatthe fight would be fiercely personal. This representationwas unfair since Smith and Buscani were in fact good friendswith a mutual stake in the success of slam poetry.Further, since both their cities' teams drew from the samestyles, aesthetics, and politics, they have been frequentlycompared. Michael Brown and Patricia Smith successfullymigrated the Chicago style to New England with only minormodifications and, as they perceived, someimprovements.

Owing to the rapid growth of slamming in Boston, and to thesomewhat more aggressive political climate there ( in whatwas a very political year ), Boston was able to take the teamchampionship from Chicago in 1992 when Boston hosted theNational Slams. While the winner of the slam wasn'tpredicted, to some degree the shift of attention to Bostonwas premeditated in Chicago. Said Marc Smith in reference tothe slam finals held in Chicago, "For the following year [1992 ], we made a conscious decision to send the slam toBoston, to free it and let it grow." That event squarelycentered national attention in slamming outside Chicago forthe first time.

The local colors of slam poetry among the various citiesderive from each community's established writing prior to theadvent of the slam. San Francisco and New York have theirown literary traditions and the cities' slammers have beenrespectful of that. Noted one 1994 Underground PressConference attendee from New York, "The Nuyorican is acompetitive place. You have to be political there or have acause, the stronger the better. There are a lot of feministsand minorities. If you can't write for [ that politic ],then you probably won't like it there." He went on to notethat the Café is always packed.

[ photo: Sheila Donohue ]San Francisco's spin is a bit more sublime. In 1991, Glaznerhosted an on-air radio slam where the judges were the radioaudience at large who telephoned their scores. Kimi Sugiokaemerged the victor. In 1993, there was an "The FirstUnderwater Slam." Poets boarded the BART subway and rodetrans-Bay tube under San Francisco Bay to Berkeley. Theyslammed during the twenty-minute trip. Sheila Donohue ( pictured )recalls, "When Gary announced that this would be a weeklyevent on the train, people panicked. They started leavingfor other cars." Of course, it was a one-time joke.

Boston's own serious success spawned other venues around NewEngland. By December 1993, there were five poetry slams inMassachusettsalone, one in Rhode Island, and at least threein Connecticut. Many states still have none. Both New Yorkand California then had only two, and Illinois only theoriginal, the Green Mill. Yet the numbers don't really saywhere the slam style has spread, nor do they answer for otherstyles. Thus there is the suspicion, sometimes confirmedamong slammers who've traveled, that poetry in all its formsis becoming a much larger part of life across North America.

Jean Howard explains, "There are no two ways about it. Theword 'slam' that we hear now is common in the media. You canhear it on the radio and read it in a magazine on anairplane. It's a generic term now for the public. I don'tsee how Marc Smith shouldn't be given credit for that."

Today competitive poetry has at least two distinct culturesof expression. The Taos Poetry Circus has convened regularlysince its first bout and has acquired a personality of itsown. Jerome Salla remarked, "Al Simmons and Terry Jacobusknew Berrigan, and were doing stuff with Corso and Waldman.He [ Simmons ] was plugged into the pantheon of the LowerEast Side with established West Coast underground poets.They brought the circus with them. In New York there was amix of people from the Berrigan tradition."

Marc Smith reacted to New York's gravity in poetry. BobHolman commented, "When I showed up in '91 at Marc Smith'sdoorstep I could tell when I saw him that he had a lot oftrepidation about meeting someone from New York. But we spentevery night up late with [ Ron ] Gillette doing post-mortemson poetry readings.

"At Taos there is a certain aesthetic which is paid homage to,the St. Mark's post-beat, jazz influence, as emphasized byNtozake Change and Quincy Troupe. All the people there haveread at St. Mark's: Ann Waldman, Andre' Codrescu, VictorHernandez Cruz... all have stepped up to the bout." Holmancontrasted the bout at Taos with the poetry slam experience."The slam's about what goes on every week, about someone whorealizes that their voice can be weighed, counted, andheard." He added that, "Terry Jacobus and Al Simmons wereat the San Francisco slam in 1993."

While both cultures draw people from all parts of the USA,The Circus itself is localized to a single site and aspecific time of the year, and the participants are primarilywriters with established national recognition. The Slam iswidespread, regularly convening people either weekly ormonthly in better than twenty North American cities, withparticipants drawn from all parts of the writing/performingcommunity. Each culture has ensconced its high competitionin an annual gathering.

It may be worthwhile now to take stock of how poetry and thepublic have engaged each other this time around, and bemindful of the phenomenon's cause. An analogy for slammingmight be made with the invention of calculus, which iscredited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.Newton is held as the primary inventor, the man who createdand employed calculus first. But Newton didn't communicatehis discoveries well; he refrained from publishing anythinguntil Leibniz later became recognized for his own inventionof calculus, by such time Newton feared he wouldn't get anycredit at all. Today most mathematicians agree Newton'scalculus was first but Leibniz, who published and taught,was more complete and subtle and thus became more widelyembraced. The mathematical notations of both men havepermanent recognition in present-day science, and our rocketslaunch into orbit with no specific regard to whomever provedthey could stay aloft at over 17,000 miles-per-hour. Thecalculus simply exists, and it works.

[ photo: Marc Smith ] We might substitute Al Simmons for Newton, Marc Smith forLeibniz, and see the story all over again. A premise existsregarding the direction of attention, i.e. who needs it andwho gets it from whom; does attention pass from audience topoet, or from poet to audience? In which way should wepredicate a performed poetry? The socio-cultural stigmaswhich daunted poets trying to assemble a public readingencouraged Simmons to create a literal Poetry Circus. Hiswas an effort to re-assert attention on poetry and todemystify the poet. But attention runs counter-flow totransmission. It's clear that the phenomenon which desiredfirst to give voice to the audience gained the mass audienceas legion. Marc Smith contemplated the function of poetryand, in paraphrasing Wendell Barry, said, "It's not toglorify the poet, it's to serve the community."

Photo above: Marc Smith at the San Francisco Slams, 1993

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copyright (c) 1999 Kurt Heintz