An incomplete history of Slam

Part 2: Diaspora

Bob Holman's destination for the slam was his own venue in Manhattan's Alphabet City, the Nuyorican Poets' Café. The Café was a struggling organization. Its building sat empty from 1982 to '89. After reopening, it ran through the first winter with no heat.

"Pedro Pietri and I had been doing some performance poetry shows called 'The Doubletalk Show' with ourselves as the two hosts," Holman recalled of his experiences in New York in the mid-1980s. "We billed it as the world's only late-night TV talk show not on TV. We'd have as guests our own buddies from around the [poetry] scene. We also featured [characters playing] dead poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson. We had Sylvia Plath singing Skeeter Davis' 'Until the End of the World'... [The dead poets would] hype how good our own poetry was, and were played 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 Marc Smith's. "As the Nuyorican began to re-emerge it became clear that what I had to do programmatically was to host the slam. It brought together all the possiblities... those being a means of shoveling a lot of poetry into an evening without calling it a 'poetry reading' and, since we were completely broke, a way to produce a lot of entertainment." It drew a small, steady, and growing contingent of poets and poetry fans. Thereafter, slamming was at the Nuyorican two nights a week as a regular part of the poetry fare, and it has been so for five years.

San Francisco's connection to slamming was less practical than aesthetic. Gary Glazner had been combining poetry with dance, music, and costuming in college in the 1970s. He put 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. The flyer, the way that [the event] looked, the feeling the audience had when they came into the venues were all a part of it," noted Glazner. "We'd have people selling hot dogs as though they were at a boxing match. We allow people to use instruments and costumes, and have a barker out front to create a carnival atmosphere.

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

Back in Chicago, the Ensemble built entirely different scenes for their weekly poetry shows. The scenes were staged as performances, but performance art was not practiced by most of the Ensemble. Anna Brown, a founding member the Ensemble, spoke of her appreciation of performance art versus performance poetry. "I always felt a little odd because I was bringing in my performance art aspect. That was part of why I [eventually] didn't work with the group. To me, performance art is a completely different thing compared to what performance poets think it is.

"I think a lot of performance poets are basically so happy to be reading their work in front of an audience that they tend to 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 theoretical work, whereas to me a lot of the good performance poets have great theatric personalities and happen to be great writers. They usually don't have any background in art theory or the various art movements." And shortly after slam poetry began taking the spotlight in the public media, performance poets and performance artists began to express the tension between each other and their respective forms with less precision. Even though slam artists sometimes got assistance from performance artists outside their home-base venues, some members of both sides derided the other.

"It was a good, solid experience that taught me a lot about the importance of the words and the audience, but I'm not connected to it in any way but socially now," Anna Brown concluded.

In October 1990 in San Francisco, Herman Berlandt and Jack Mueller of the National Poetry Association organized a festival on a national scale which, for the first time, included slams. Gary Glazner produced the competition. Glazner discovered the Sister City slam at Navy Pier and a reading for Gwendolyn Brooks in 1989 with over fifty poets. There he met Michael Warr who directed him to the Green Mill.

Glazner contacted Marc Smith about the logistics of organizing a slam. According to Glazner, Ann Arbor (considered the second oldest slam in US after the Green Mill) was already in business, but San Franciscans were not aware of it at the time, so Ann Arbor was overlooked. The NPA invited Paul Beatty and Bob Holman to represent New York.

Jack Mueller extended the NPA invitation to Chicago and Marc Smith. Through Smith, word of the San Francisco slam found its way to Lois Weisberg, of theChicago Department of Cultural Affairs. With the assistance of her office, Weisberg was able to dispatch four poets from Chicago who joined in the slam: Marc Smith, the new Chicago slam champion Patricia Smith, Cindy Salach, 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 new peak in Chicago which was to skew the city's writing indelibly. For the first time, numbers of new local writers were able to get fast feedback on their efforts. New readings were becoming plentiful, open to all, and reasonably absent of the affectation that Smith disliked in more institutional settings. Also at this time, the split between the academy and theslammers became most pronounced.

The character of Chicago's slam writing almost always played toward the audience. The emerging aesthetic was to be direct and use plain, colloquial speech; to take social issues head-on; to avoid rhyme and classically established meter; to employ first person subject as in narrative, and (curiously) to avoid publishing.

The competitive nature of the slam was obviously heating up Chicago's literary climate. However, regarding the actual NPA competition Marc Smith recalled, "One of the most important things was in our approach to San Francisco. We got together in a hotel suite and discussed it. We decided we had a style that was new and fresh. We could show it off and kick ass. Or we could go as ambassadors and approach the new audience... It was a conscious decision. When we went in, we passed on to San Francisco the things we had discovered... We had five years of developing this new approach... We thought nothing about competition... We were bringing a gift from Chicago to San Francisco."

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

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

October of 1991 brought the National Slams from San Franciscoto Chicago and a packed Cabaret Metro. The finals, broadcast live on radio, boiled down to Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Boston with Chicago very narrowly taking the team championship. In the individuals, the first duel between Lisa Buscani and Patricia Smith (defending her title) also went to the wire. Despite a case of laryngitis, Smith retained her championship. It seemed that, whenever one looked,the Chicago style was in full bloom whether the poet emerged from Chicago or not.

By early 1992, the Cambridge Bookcellar was hosting packed readings on Thursdays and Saturdays, with slams on both nights. There Brown and Smith were cultivating a hotbed of emerging writers. New England had an appetite; the young, literate atmosphere in Cambridge was energetic and supportive to the Chicago aesthetic which, in rapid time, became greater Boston'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 been from people more preoccupied with the competition than with the poetry. Of the first four national slams, Patricia Smith 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 that the fight would be fiercely personal. This representation was unfair since Smith and Buscani were in fact good friends with a mutual stake in the success of slam poetry. Further, since both their cities' teams drew from many of the same styles, aesthetics, and politics, they have been frequently compared. Michael Brown and Patricia Smith successfully migrated the Chicago style to New England with only minor modifications and, as they perceived, some improvements.

Owing to the rapid growth of slamming in Boston, and to the somewhat more aggressive political climate there (in what was a very politically-oriented year, as demonstrated by the slam poetry performed), Boston was able to take the team championship from Chicago in 1992 when Boston hosted the National Slams. While the winner of the slam wasn't predicted, to some degree the shift of attention to Boston was premeditated in Chicago. Said Marc Smith in reference to the slam finals held in Chicago, "For the following year [1992], we made a conscious decision to send the slam to Boston, to free it and let it grow." That event squarely centered national attention in slamming outside Chicago for the first time.

The local colors of slam poetry among the various cities derived to some degree from each community's established writing prior to the advent of the slam. San Francisco and New York have their own literary traditions and those cities' slammers have been respectful of that. Noted one 1994 Underground Press Conference attendee from New York, "The Nuyorican is a competitive place. You have to be political there or have a cause, the stronger the better. There are a lot of feminists and minorities. If you can't write for [a politic such as that], then you probably won't like it there." He went on to note that the Café is always packed.

[photo: Sheila Donohue]San Francisco's spin was a bit more sublime. In 1991, Glazner hosted an on-air radio slam where the judges were the radio audience at large who telephoned their scores. Kimi Sugioka emerged the victor. In 1993, there was "The First Underwater Slam." Poets boarded the BART subway and rode the trans-Bay tube under San Francisco Bay to Berkeley. They slammed during the twenty-minute trip. Sheila Donohue (pictured) recalls, "When Gary announced that this would be a weekly event on the train, people panicked. They started leaving for other cars." Of course, it was a one-time joke.

Boston's own serious success spawned other venues around New England. By December 1993, there were five poetry slams in Massachusetts alone, one in Rhode Island, and at least three in Connecticut. Many states still had none at that time. Both New York and California then had only two, and Illinois only the original, the Green Mill. Yet the numbers don't really say where the slam style has spread, nor do they answer for other styles. Thus there is the suspicion, sometimes confirmed among slammers who've traveled, that poetry in all its forms is becoming a much larger part of life across North America.

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

Today, competitive poetry has at least two distinct cultures of expression. The Taos Poetry Circus has convened regularly since its first bout and has acquired a personality of its own. Jerome Salla remarked, "Al Simmons and Terry Jacobus knew Berrigan, and were doing stuff with Corso and Waldman. He [Simmons] was plugged into the pantheon of the Lower East 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. Bob Holman commented, "When I showed up in '91 at Marc Smith's doorstep, I could tell when I saw him that he had a lot of trepidation about meeting someone from New York. But we spent every night up late with [Ron] Gillette doing post-mortems on poetry readings.

"At Taos there is a certain aesthetic which is paid homage to, the St. Mark's post-beat, jazz influence, as emphasized by Ntozake Change and Quincy Troupe. All the people there have read at St. Mark's: Ann Waldman, André Codrescu, Victor Hernandez Cruz... all have stepped up to the bout." Holman contrasted the bout at Taos with the poetry slam experience. "The slam's about what goes on every week, about someone who realizes that their voice can be weighed, counted, and heard." Past experiences with the bout did not keep some people from seeing slam in action. Holman added that, "Terry Jacobus and Al Simmons were at the San Francisco slam in 1993."

While both cultures draw people from all parts of the USA, The Poetry Circus tended to remain attached to a single site and a specific time of the year. The participants were primarily writers with established national recognition. The Slam, on the other hand, became widespread, regularly convening people either weekly or monthly in better than twenty North American cities in only a few short years, with participants drawn from all parts of the writing/performing community. Both cultures ensconced their high competitions in their own annual gathering.

It may be worthwhile now to take stock of how poetry and the public have engaged each other this time around, and be mindful of the phenomenon's cause. An analogy for slamming might be made with the invention of calculus, which is credited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Newton is held as the primary inventor, the man who created and employed calculus first. But Newton didn't communicate his discoveries well; he refrained from publishing anything until Leibniz later became recognized for his own invention of calculus, by such time Newton feared he wouldn't get any credit at all. Today most mathematicians agree Newton's calculus was first. But Leibniz, who published and taught, created a calculus that was more complete and subtle and thus became more widely embraced. The mathematical notations of both men have permanent recognition in present-day science, and our rockets launch into orbit with no specific regard to whomever proved they could stay aloft at over 17,000 miles-per-hour. The calculus simply exists, and it works.

[ photo: Marc Smith ] We might substitute Al Simmons for Newton, Marc Smith for Leibniz, and see the story all over again. A premise exists regarding the direction of attention, i.e. who needs it and who gets it from whom; does the majority of the attention pass from audience to poet, or from poet to audience? In which way should we predicate a performed poetry? The stigmas that daunted poets trying to assemble a public reading encouraged Simmons to create a literal Poetry Circus. His was an effort to re-assert attention on poetry and to demystify the poet. But attention runs counter-flow to transmission. It's clear that the phenomenon which desired first to give voice to the audience gained the mass audience as legion. Marc Smith contemplated the function of poetry and, in paraphrasing Wendell Barry, said, "It's not to glorify the poet, it's to serve the community."

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

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