David Hess

Slam Diary Extra


The solar eclipse came for me in the form of blaring trucks in the early morning, shifting their gears right by my ears. It almost made me long for the pseudo-soothing yet definitely less slammulated sounds of the one and only Sarah "Building a Mystery" Mclachlan. The first slam competition wasn’t scheduled until 7 p.m., though a magazine article that Laura left on the kitchen table about the growth of the slammaesthetic listed a few events taking place before then: "From Wednesday through Aug.14, Sheila Donohue will have ‘The Slam Museum and Industrial Garden’ on view at the storefront at 2850 W. Fullerton Ave. Donohue, a scene veteran and a current member of one of Chicago’s two teams, has a plethora of documents and memorabilia that detail the Slam’s history." Also, "[t]here are a few semi-serious events: The city’s actually officially kicking off the slam with a reception at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Cultural Center. There’s a rumor [Marc] Smith [— the original slammologist who started the whole competition thing at Chicago’s Green Mill bar back in the mid-80s —] might wear a suit for the event — a real suit, not just the tie and vest thing he’s been doing lately. There’s also a panel about performance poetry sponsored by the Oyez Review slated for noon Aug. 13 at Roosevelt University." The article was accompanied by a photo of a suitless Smith in the personage of His Slamness, looking possessed in a crazy-eyed trance state, spouting a slam poem to an audience at last year’s Championship held in Austin, TX. "What was once chaotic and tough has now become a marvel of organization, rules, and specialties," lamented the article entitled "Poetry slam more an epic now than a haiku," while comparing the now global slammonopoly to its almost quaint Chicagoan roots and capturing THE NEAR TOTAL VALUE PLACED ON SALESMANSHIP (BELIEVABILITY AT ALL COSTS, i.e., when in doubt, exaggerate via the gestural, just as I am doing here with these caps — I’m not against entertainment in poetry, I just think the words and their poetic arrangement, not the pitchshifter tone-modulator throat pedal, should do most of the work). Marc Smith’s one book is in fact called Crowdpleaser. With its roots tapping the historically deep yet commonly shallow reservoirs of spectacle this genre could rise as fast as a slammerranean can hit their high note: "only one thing really mattered: how you stood up there and delivered the goods, how you preened and played, how you strutted and whispered, held your breath for effect and then roared."

Another article from a Chicago newspaper, NewCity, mentioned a boycott of the slam finals by local poets already associated with the spoken word movement/scene. "Michael Hawkins, founder of The PoeTree, a new group that promotes connection and value among poets," argues for example, in a Poundian manner, that non-poets should not be allowed to judge poets. (The judges are, of course, KIDNAPPED AT RANDOM AND FORCED AT SLAM-POINT TO RENOUNCE THEIR NON-PARTICIPATORY ROLES right before the bout and one or two poets in the audience usually end up judging anyway). Orron Kenyetta, a "frequent host at the Some Like it Black open mic," complains that the slam "‘is a literary sport. Sport is derived from the Greek word "disport," meaning "distraction." Poetry is the position that we take when we are gathered together as fellow artists and converse. These are the solutions that we come to. When we are presented with competition and mass audiences we forget the positions on which we stood’." Others believe that the original openness of the slam, which was intended as a break from the "tamer, academic poetry readings," may have been corrupted by its own rule-infested structure. Jean Howard, former slammer and current director of the National Poetry Video Festival, says "[w]e wanted to connect to everyday people, to see sparks fly," and Dean Hacker, one of the poets on the first Chicago slam team, has some swell slammemories: "‘It was a real community. To be a poet is to take a piece of yourself and hold it out there for everyone to see. To put that in a competition seems like a contradiction, but I like that contradiction. The slam is part therapy, part circus." Hawkins, however, remains "frustrated with the narcissism that often surrounds readings. ‘Nobody is listening to anybody else. The mic turns into something like Ecstasy with a room full of folks waiting for the next dose’." Spicer would appreciate this comment. And like the dissent-musing Spicer for whom poetry had much more to do with contradiction than harmony, the slammers understand that community — that cozy word — is formed through exclusions and hierarchies whether we like it or not (even the non-hierarchical becomes a principle of hierarchy in the end). Slams, one could argue, just bring to the forefront what so often remains at the level of post-reading reception-conference party-department office gossip in the rest of the academic literary world. In this way they allow for, as we’ll see, an ongoing vocal criticism of community even as community-as-competition is taking place. Isn’t this just WHAT EVERY MODERNIST AVANT-GARDE MOVEMENT DID as well? Mayakovsky was a slamster I tell you and the influence can be felt, for instance, in Jennifer Moxley’s poems. Read "Neither Fish nor Foul" from Imagination Verses and try to convince me yourself that that ain’t slammaterial.

I planned to make the opening of the museum and then the downtown reception at 2 o’clock. I put some money in the meter outside (no ticket yet), poured over some street maps to identify my destinations and possible routes to them, showered, ate, and then refreshed myself on the schedule events and the rules for the competitions (all available at the website listed earlier) before taking a late morning nap. Three bouts (at 7, 8:30, and 10 p.m.) were to take place each of the first three nights, with THE FINAL SLAMMAGEDDON for the $5,000 prize to be on Saturday evening at the slamlessly luxurious Chicago Theatre. There were several venues, all scattered around a triangle of streets (Division St., Milwaukee Ave., and North Ave.,) in a section of town known as Wicker Park. I glanced at the schedule of events covering all four days and counted at least 30, not including the actual competitions. Here’s a list (another list!) of some of them: Limerick Slam, HISS! The All-Female Open Mic, Latino-American Showcase, Hip-Hop Open Mic, Karaoke Kavalkade, African-American Showcase, GRUNT! The All-Male Open Mic, Sports Poetry Reading, Prop Slam (props are against the rules in the regular slam), Gay and Lesbian Showcase, Cover Slam, Asian-American Showcase, No Rules Open Mic, Slap Me with a Tampon (another all-woman open mic), Head-to-Head Haiku, DOODY! The All-Scatology Open Mic (too bad no props allowed here), and the Jedimasters Slam. One event called "The Box O’ Doom" (is this turning out to be a summer camp talent show or what?) is described as follows: "All participants throw a poem into the Box at the beginning of the show, then pick another person’s poem out of the Box at random to perform. But look out for the pieces the NPS staff have slipped into the Box in advance, including lyrics to really bad 80s songs and horrible love poems from our high school years." Saturday promised something called "Slam Games I, a bizarre menagerie of games of all kinds, fit for both the poetry athlete and the marginally coordinated." The games were comprised of pickup basketball, poker, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, chess, Balderdash, Pictionary, Monopoly, ping pong, and Twister. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the actual definition of this particular Slam Olympiad until just now, but if I knew about it in August I surely would have gone, at least to see how they slammified Twister, or any of those other games, what the hell is that about? "Okay, checkmate and IF YOU NEED A PAWN, EVEN IF YOU DO HAVE A CRUSH ON THE KING, LET ME KNOW CUTE CASTLE, I’LL SHOW YOU AROUND this board, er, town." I guess it’s best I didn’t go, I wouldn’t have scored high, so to speak, despite my taking second place at a slam, the one and only slam I will ever compete in, this year in St. Louis (the winner brought with him an entourage of friends and relatives and the judging was majority vote — I protested by CLAPPING WITH MY FISTS).

I then read the list of rules which the slam community has abided by for the last three years: no props (defined as "an object or article of clothing introduced into a performance with the effect of enhancing, illustrating, underscoring, or otherwise augmenting the words of the poem"), no costumes, no musical instruments or prerecorded music. Sampling or "‘signifying on’" another’s words or from another work is allowed but no "ripping off." The No Repeat Rule states that a poem may be used once in the preliminary and semifinal rounds and once again on the night of the finals. The big one is the Three-Minute Rule: "After three minutes, there is a 10-second grace period (up to and including 3:10.00). Starting at 3:10.01, a penalty is automatically deducted from each poet’s overall score," and the greater the time difference the larger the deduction. This rule would have devastating consequences in a few very close slammages. There was no minimum time rule even though I would hear not one poem that clocked in under one minute. More rules specified how members are chosen to be on a slam team (you guessed it! through a slam, though exceptions are permitted where a slammectomy cannot be performed for lack of enough slammigration to that area). The rules regarding group pieces resembled a kind of Twister. Group pieces are allowed as long as their primary authors perform them and "a group piece with more than one primary author does not have to be used in the same primary author’s slot each time it is performed in the course of the competition. But a group piece with only one primary author must only & always be performed during that writer/performer’s slot." There were more corollaries to these group piece rules which I cannot donate my still valuable and ever-shrinking time to list. Furthermore, five judges are to be selected before each round and given a briefing in the Prime Slam Directives so the judging will be fair. Judges will give each poem a score from 0 to 10 and will be encouraged to use decimal places "in order to preclude the likelihood of a tie." Out of the five scores the high and the low numbers "will be dropped and the remaining three scores will be added together." No judge will be able to change his or her score once it has been shown to the emcee. Also, "teams should be given a chance to look over the judges before the bout begins, not with the power to veto any particular judge, but just to make sure that none of them is sleeping with competition" OR JUST PLAIN SLEEPING. A long list of tie-breaker rules was included, and again I don’t want to waste these precious last moments of my youth on RULES THAT DON’T APPLY TO MY UNSLAMMABLE ASS. Some guidelines were also provided in the event of being chosen to judge a slam. I shuddered at the possibility that I may be hailed to function as a slammoscope: "The audience may boo you, that’s their prerogative, as long as the better poem gets the better score, you’re doing your job well." Nothing on the page said anything about a slam judge protection program and the whole process sounded Ouija board-like as if a slammiferous power would influence the scoring: "Your scores may rise as the night progresses. That’s called ‘Score Creep’. As long as you stay consistent, you’re doing your job well." I can’t even stay haphazard, how was I going to survive this gig? I could already feel myself being buried alive inside the Slammetery by orifice-to-ear slammissiles.

Around 1:30 I took off in the slamfire down curvy yet rough and man-like Sheridan Rd. towards Lake Shore Dr. heading south. I made a turn onto the exit ramp for W. Fullerton Ave., the street on which the Slam Museum supposedly would be, only to discover THE FROZEN SAFARI that is Chicago traffic. The previous summer I had been driving around New York and didn’t have to deal with anything like this, except on one of those bridges — those humbling sculptures of time built with the lives of men WHOSE SWEAT FELL AND FILLED UP THE SEA BELOW, so that we sedentary ants could travel over it — whereupon I saw an aging beatnik wailing a song of road rage. In one of my more motionless moments along Fullerton I happened to look over to the right and saw me a hyperposh cafe with the name of Bourgeois Pig. This holier-than-holier-than-thou "This is not Starbucks" Starbucks — whose franchises may have already moved invisibly into hospitals and maybe prisons if not into the business of making cars with espresso-distilling dashboards — epitomized this most yuppified of yuppie landscapes. Around this monument to the yuppie attempt at humorous, neutralizing self-parody, the city’s rich inhabitants and their neighbors from the adjacent black and Hispanic sections to the west could all be seen trying to mimic one another, while working on new ways to reinforce the class divide within the religion of hip urbanity. The poor, the young poor with their aspirations to playerhood, flaunt whatever wealth they have (or don’t have), while the rich, swathed in their ‘proletarian chic’ as it’s been called, often wear or carry it merely as a form of I.D., a cultural passport to the American Dream. Soon I was having some road rage moments myself which made me want to go slam somebody up or get slammed up myself. I swung my neck around looking for some indication that I was close to the block of 2850 and didn’t find any, parked the slam shuttle and walked around until I passed a Christian Science bookstore next to which was a door with a small sign that displayed the message, "Slam Museum Here - Use Other Door." I was expecting to see some slamsters but there was not one in sight. All the curtains around the 2850 loft were closed. I knocked on the other door (there was no doorbell) and peeked inside a fence where I saw a small garden. Still no people and no answer. I tried the first door and knocked very hard and hit a quarter on the glass. Nothing. No signs of life or slammabilia. I had a feeling something like this would happen with THE SOLAR ECLIPSE IN EVERYONE’S VEINS.

I then decided to head downtown for the pre-slammoration event at the Chicago Cultural Center. I drove down Sacramento Ave. which turned into Humboldt and passed through an undeclared ghetto war-zone, took a left on Jackson where the slums almost immediately terminated at Malcolm X College (whose bold white lettering on black architecture created a striking deictic effect), giving way to the affluent business and "cultural" districts of downtown. I had only a vague idea of where the Cultural Center was and thought I would try to find a parking garage somewhere close by. Before I knew it I was sinking in some more serious frozen safari in the middle of downtown where THE ONE-WAY VINES OF POISON CONCRETE bloom. I did my best but nearly caused an accident making a left-hand turn, as the signal was taking its final breath of yellow, into stalled traffic from the right hand lane of, what else, but Wacker Ave! Or was it into Wacker I went, I can’t recall. I had to SCREW THE CULTURAL CENTER, who needed it? I would save my ears for tonight’s slamkrieg. Then I remembered something I saw in the events calendar about a slamshop happening at a place called "Gallery 37" which I could sense was somewhere, somewhere. Again I looked, even as my view was blocked by all those darn UNMILKABLE COWS, the decorated metal ones the city has nailed onto sidewalks in a parody of ... India? The Midwest is so twisted and I am just more proof of it. I came alongside some white tents by a sign advertising "Gallery 37" but couldn’t tell if any slamming was to be had. Inside I imagined were fotomats of the word where amateur slamboys and slamgirls were getting their poems whipped into slamshape ("Fit for Publication in One Hour") by the masters of the premiere Slamerican art form — the slam being to poetry what the polaroid is to the camera, or what that painter dude who paints rock stars on big black canvases, you know who I’m talking about, as people look on is to unmilkable cows. We dream that the Declaration of Independence deems that all shall write their own, even if those who can write one happen to be few. (There’s a local St. Louis poet, Louis Brodsky, who writes his poems in a restaurant every morning and then goes to an editing office in the afternoon so the editors there can spruce it up to publication form and then he self-publishes them in his own books. I joke you not.) As it was not even three o’clock I searched for the sea-gilded skyline that would point me in the direction of Lake Shore Dr. I made a couple more attempts to find parking, of the free public kind, but wound up in a cavernous hall of unreflecting mirrors lined with sores of limousines. The future was coagulating, so I bled.

With a few hours to kill in Evanston I set to reading one of the two books I brought with me, Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (Red Crane Books,1992), by Jimmy Santiago Baca. The other one, of course, was the new Charles Bernstein anthology, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford University Press,1998), which reads like such a blatant effort to cash in on the new aura of spoken word/performance poetry and slams, i.e., "orality, or rather a/orality — to use Bernstein’s nifty splicing of orality and aurality — is back! and that’s really what we language poets were about all along," ... oh right, uh huh (against The Image but for Typography; for Noise but against The Voice or Speech or lyric or song or hollering). The endangered and devalued safe-deposit box of philosophy and writing whose intellectual treasures THEY, THE PROFESSIONAL WORSHIPPERS OF THE LIFELESS AND UNDERWORLDLESS (the technocratic ventriloquists of the Derridean school of ironical rejections of irony, loquacious backtracking, faux-self-reflexivity, and pretend dialectics), claim to be protecting while cracking its code, oddly always winds up with the truth missing from its contents and it’s always an inside job ... or something like that: "For I am a ventriloquist, happy as a raven to preach with blinding fervor of the corruptions of public life in a voice of pained honesty that is as much a conceit as the most formal legal brief for which my early education would seem to have prepared me” (Bernstein, A Poetics, 223). There’s nothing worse than a poet who knows how to be a critic but not how to want. Where is the blinding fervor, the pained honesty, in this spectacle of cultural capital and mastery of speech? Academic hype must be the continuation of lies by the same old means; THANK GOD LIES MAKE YOU THINK. Baca’s book, in direct contrast to the aforementioned "cerebral lice” (Working, 156), is a straightforward miracle of survival. A Chicano from New Mexico, Baca spent much of his adolescence and early adulthood in prison and taught himself to read when he was eighteen by stealing books from the prison’s warden. In his isolation he began to write poems, imagine and hallucinate and build his freedom out of words: "[a]nd I could do this all alone; I could do it anywhere” (7). Still, he "had stepped over that line where a human being has lost more than he can bear, where the pain is too intense, and he knows he is changed forever” (10). Even worse, he admits that "I had become the coauthor, with society, of my own oppression. The system that wanted to destroy me had taught me self-destruction” (35). For Baca, poetry, which he considers to be the disease as much as the cure, "sits in God’s chair when God is absent” (41). He takes his inspiration from the landscape: "New Mexico’s mountains, deserts, plains and barrios, rivers and ditches, fields and yards, initiated me in my craft” (61). And "[w]henever the tide rushes in, it speaks a hundred versions of my life,” (56) for "[t]he privilege of poets is that they can become all things in the act of creation, everything — and nothing” (68). Rarely have I read a book in which the situation of both poet and poem is so simply and powerfully stated: "each true poem is a pearl-handled pistol you point at your own heart” (72). Baca’s poems (a few of which can be read at another friggin’ website: www.swcp.com/~baca/) may not be formally adventurous — in the tradition of ‘Hey, look MOMA I’m in the know, resisting narrative’-verse — but they’re fight songs that spring from the gut and succeed by not poeticizing any more than they need to, and so are not in the tradition of ‘Wipe your feet at the door, welcome to my emotion’-verse, either ("It’s straight talk," as Pound would say). The arguments I can see being launched against his use of ‘the master’s tools’, his unwillingness to subvert the syntax, entirely miss the point. It wasn’t the ‘official’ syntax or the ‘public’ language that oppressed him — as Bernstein’s secretly (or obviously) pretentious and syntactically correct whine goes — but the lack of it. He was denied access to the ability to read and to write and thus to know himself and his history. As for the question of identity politics, Baca’s view of U.S. society THROUGH THE ENDLESSLY SHATTERING MAGNIFYING GLASS of the penitentiary system is as accurate as any solidly Marxist one, not some liberal victimfest positing an imaginary wholeness to be retrieved on the other side of the assimilated rainbow.

Around 6:45 I was coasting down Damen Ave. towards Wicker Park unsure which venue, out of the four that were hosting bouts this evening, I should make a visit to first. I drove by the Subterranean, which sat on the corner of Damen and North, and parked a couple of blocks away from it. I got out of the slamcruiser and felt I could feel some vocal chords warming up within the locker rooms of throats that were now gathering inside the nearby churches of rowdy sacrament. At the door of the above-ground Subterranean I showed my driver’s license and Slam Pass to the I.D. man and was enticed upstairs in anticipation of exploding pulpits. A "60-Minutes" crew was at hand ready to suck up the shards with THEIR SILENTLY RAVENOUS VACUUM CLEANERS OF NEWS. As both the floor in front of the stage and the bar area in the back were crammed with people, I climbed up to a balcony section and found a space by the railing so I could peer over the edge down onto the stage. The scoreboard was being assembled with the names of the three teams: NYC-Urbana, Providence, and Oakland — a fierce bi-costal match-up. Providence had won the title in previous years as I’m pretty sure had teams from New York and the Bay Area as well. A suitcaseless Marc Smith jumped onto the stage and tried to loosen up the crowd, saying in a disgusted voice, "everyone looks so goddamn serious." I don’t think it worked. The hosts introduced themselves, gave their rule-spiel to the judges, and brought up a ‘sacrificial lamb’ reader as a sort of rehearsal for the judges. The only words I remember from the aging lambster were "wouldn’t it be great if life were just like a beer commercial," a line cheered on by ALL MY DEAR WASTED PILGRIMS in attendance. A member from the Oakland team then took the stage. (THE DISLAMCLAIMER: to repeat what I said in my introduction, taking notes at these bouts was far from easy. What you are about to read is my attempt to make do with what I was able to get down — scribbled quotes, half-quotes and paraphrases. The lines that I am positive were the poets’ I will put in quotes, but allow me to inject my own imitations of the poems at certain points for a richer re-enactment of this slammapocalypse.) Shawn Taylor, the Oakland slammician, lashed out at consumerism ("we are a nation of sheep because we Baa anything" the model for the sacred commodity being a "Jesus Christ action figure"), asked "who’s gonna save us from the pop culture virus?" and rejected the Internet as an escapist tool which makes us into "electronic ostriches." He ended by proclaiming that "life is the only thing that is truly interactive." The scores were tallied and Taylor received a 22.6 (the highest possible score being a thirty). Taylor Mali of NYC-Urbana (a veteran of four previous National Slam Teams) read or rather recited — only a few slammers read their work from the page, which is not against the rules but does seem to be regarded as very unslam-like — a poem that stands out in my mind as one of the best of the week’s competition. A hilarious reproduction and critique of his/our generation’s inability to articulate ourselves, Mali spoke of the "bandwagon of my own uncertainty" and how "it’s uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about." He made several statements such as these and ended them all with the equivalent of a ‘YOU KNOW, LIKE, IT’S THIS STUFF THAT’S KEEPING US DOWN, MAN, FROM LIKE A REAL LONG TIME AGO’. I, along with the rest of the audience, was laughing too damn hard to write much down but hearing him almost achieve eloquence only to collapse into a sighing ‘like, you know, it’s so hard to, uh, say, like, what it makes me feel like sometimes’ remains for me a highlight of the Slampionships. He ended by urging us to speak with conviction and authority, and got a measly 24.8. Becky Henderson, of Providence, gave an emotionally charged performance about a deaf boy named Joshua and I think another boy named Steven who throws chairs and says "Friday Fish Mother" — an unsettling follow-up to Mali’s poem. She made use of a lot of sign language and yelling and was hugged by a lot of people when she finished (hugs after cathartic outpourings were very common, but I didn’t get in on the action myself because I was writing this for you). Henderson was rewarded with a 23.5 (I’m going to stop including all these individual scores, all right).

Round Two began with Amanda Nazario of NYC whom I very much wanted to hug and you’ll see why. She read a love poem that began with a blast at members of her own gender: "I hate their sandals, the way they eat chocolate, their puffy round handwriting and that stupid Robert Doisneau ‘Kiss at the Hotel’ they love to hang in their rooms." My sweetheart went on and on, informing us that she wanted "to dissociate [her]self from these" embarrassing feminine practices, and dreamt of being in some "girlless alleyway" with a real man, both of them "smelling of Right Guard and domestic beer." IT WAS LOVE AT FIRST SLAM. Providence did a group poem, with John Powers and Sage Francis, one poet standing behind the other acting as a kind of homophobic alter ego (a strange position to be in for a gay-basher I must say). At least that’s how I remember it, my notes aren’t too clear on this. I can read "where are you going faggot?" and the last line "when was the last time you were judged?" which seemed like a plea for a kind score. I recall that the back and forth argument rapped by the two poets was well done. Oakland’s Sonia Whittle started off by singing "could have never known ... hush little baby," and sang of her struggle in the ghetto, "trying to decipher through the bullshit," and "trying to graduate from students to gods," an astonishing line as was her ending to the poem: "life is my weapon," a slogan I want to have embroidered on my pillowcase. Scores at the end of Round Two: 49.4 for Oakland, 48.6 for NYC, 47.5 for Providence. Ed Fuqua of Providence commenced Round Three with a tale about Adam and Eve moving into the city, going to a bar and getting into a fight with Cain and Abel. "I wish you had choked on that fruit," admitted A BITTER ADAM TO A FRUITY EVE. Oakland’s Roxanne Hanna-Ware moaned and groaned, confessing to us that "you make me say ooh" and a whole bunch of other unprintable things. I assumed that the object of desire was not me or the audience but some male (or female) lover of hers. It was neither. "I feel a love poem coming on," shouted Roxanne as this POEM-IN-HEAT was about her "love affair with my ink and pen." NYC’s Patrick Anderson finished the round with a poem that elicited a wave of hisses from the crowd. I’m pretty sure I read with this guy at the Zinc Bar in Manhattan. Like the last time, he never swerved from his male sexual angst theme: something about "sex is like a firetruck," a "lady with two legs that I can rub together blatantly asking for some action," and "conjugating the verb to mack" and other predictably "impure thoughts." Scores after Round Three: Oakland, 71.8; NYC, 72; Providence, 67. A poet competing for the title of Individual Slam King, James McAuliffe, came up to read a poem about drinking which wasn’t very memorable, at least not as memorable as a verse by AC/DC, whose genius is their uncompromising comprehension THAT DRINKING SONGS WILL FAIL IF THEY ARE INTELLIGENT. Jamie Kennedy of Oakland started off the final round with a poem about manic-depression and backed it up with a manic performance. He began with a chant that I think went "sanity gave me a cavity" but I’m not sure and sang of being a teenager and going to a therapist who told him "you need some hard core drugs" like Paxil D. Jamie quoted Yoda in a very Yoda-like voice: "there is no try, only do" and described to us the sexual side effects, in this case the inability to ejaculate (which I think has its advantages — heaven knows I could use such a fun prolonger), that he experienced from taking Paxil D. Calling his penis his "one ally," he ended the poem by shouting that "flirting with sanity was the worst fuck I ever had!" He got a lot of hugs for this and he looked like he had just won the Superbowl, or ejaculated. NYC’s Yolanda Wilkinson and Amanda narrated a story about two tomboys who, with secret handshakes, "alter[ed] weather patterns," and "called up hurricanes." Sage Francis of Providence boomboxed and told us of his falling "head over heels in love with the rhythmic acupuncture" of hip-hop, his "new-found religion." He said he "never could get with the guitar." He lamented the corruption of pure hip-hop by "white controllers" who use its styles to manufacture pop hits. Oakland won the bout with a total score of 99.5 to Providence’s 98.3 and NYC’s 93.5.

I left the Subterranean feeling TOTALLY SLAMMERED yet ready for more. I walked down Damen until I hit Division St. and made a left. A bar called Phyllis’ loomed ahead with many slammees hanging out near the entrance. I walked by the slamminister himself, Marc Smith, and bowed to him inside my head without stopping for fear he would see my notebook and tell me, in his Tony Robbins motivational speaker/ex-drill sergeant voice, that I was too serious and not slamworthy enough to be there. The bout was already underway and the place was filled to capacity. I grabbed a free program and some flyers at a table by the bar selling slamwares, chapbooks and cassettes. The program’s calendar explained to me why I was not able to get into the Slam Museum this afternoon: it was closed. Was I not informed that today it would be open by the newspaper article I had read a few hours earlier? This same article also had said that the panel on performance poetry at Roosevelt U. would be held on Friday, while the program schedule listed it as occurring on Thursday. I was sure Foucault or Derrida was the author hiding behind both of these texts: "I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face (The Archaeology, 17). Yeah, and I SPEAK IN ORDER TO HAVE NO MOUTH, TOUCH TO HAVE NO SENSATION, SLEEP TO HAVE NO DREAMS, AND EAT IN ORDER TO HAVE NO STOMACH AND INTESTINES. Is Foocult, like, from the Midwest or what? I squeezed through the crowd into a corner far from the stage though partitioned off by a desk-like object I could use to write on, or not. Laura Albina from Vancouver was in the middle of her performance. I can’t relay much except the one line I was able to catch: "this disaster that is so much larger than the both of us watching TV." A member from Woodstock’s team, yes you heard me right, Woodstock was up next. The guy (Jose Gouveia) fit the stereotype of the aging hippie too perfectly. His euphoric stoned-out voice made it sound like each syllable was a puff on the communal slam pipe needing to be held in and savored. He repeated the refrain "these things that are bad for me" again and again in a limp protest against certain societal prohibitions (sex and drugs in particular), and I was surprised he didn’t pass out on the floor mumbling the word "freedom" into someone’s shoelace. The caliber of poetry here seemed not as, um, high as it had been back at the Subterranean. Michael Melancon from Baton Rouge read a poem that included the lines "a dry brain in a dry season" and "half naked teens in the ever-evaporating sea of my imagination." He soon evaporated from THE BURNING TORTOISE OF MY SLAMMAGINATION as Shayna Plaut took the stage and in a very deep voice spoke of being eight years old and not getting along with her mom. Jeremy Garland of Baton Rouge (the order was a bit screwed up here, the emcee seemed to have lost track while constantly asking the audience the incredibly irritating question "Do you guys like the poetry?" after every reader) ended what turned out to be the third round with a poem that actually had a title: "How the Prophecy Comes To." Something about Noah, "I am the moon and the spark," and more stuff from like a real long time ago. I was beginning to lose interest real fast with all this slamminess. The individual third-round stretch poet, Sean Shea, or "Shane," took off his glasses and began to groove a poem aimed at an archetypal "Mr. Politician." He said he was gonna "use my tongue to stab your ears," "just gonna open my mouth and fire away" and he did. He offered to make Mr. Politician a noose and proclaimed he would "go through the goddamn sewer" to do it. Said he was "kind of in a rush" to wait for Mr. Politician to "cough up a payback check" so he’d rather just "close the lid and flush." Another performer named Sean, not associated with the competition, was permitted to read a poem about a dead friend: "ain’t no headstone for this king of the rave." In the fourth round Baton Rouge’s Clara Connell recited a nice poem about "riding with Skeeter," some guy who drove a Trans Am, whose "eloquence was of the non-verbal kind," and who had "a rebel flag for a soul." She closed with the line, "who needs Plato’s Cave, we just need to change the oil in the Trans Am of truth," and received the first ten of the night. Vancouver’s Cass King said "it gets harder and harder not to kiss you" and I worried that she was referring to her own poem. She also made some comment about "engorged frontal lobes" that made me kind of sick to my hippocampus. The bout ended with a plop as the coach of Woodstock’s team, Brett Axel, ranted about "the moral problem of defecation" and being "locked in that little room" where one was still not alone since "when you crap you crap before God!" The phrase "YOU FILTHY SHITTERS!" will stay with me for the rest of my life. I think Vancouver won this one.

My last stop for the night was The Note on Milwaukee Ave. Again another night club, colonized by more space-mooching news crews, was standing room only. The only space I found to stand was right near the bar and several times I was literally pushed aside by short angry slam groupies who couldn’t see because I was in their way or by the waitresses WORKING FEVERISHLY TO REPRODUCE THE RELATIONS OF THE PRODUCTION OF INTOXICATION. These brutal conditions, along with the joint’s high decibel level and the always present yet unspoken peer pressure against slam log activity, made it extra difficult to dutifully record my sobering commentary on the contemporary uses of name-calling. Besides, the legendary Nuyorican Cafe poets from NYC had just battled it out in the previous bout and now Chicago’s fabled Green Mill was going up against a rival Boston team as well as a very strong squad from Santa Cruz, CA. The atmosphere felt like a bomb was about to be dropped on a smile, or a simile. I thought it would be better to just watch this strange mixture of spectacle and orality rather than try to chase verbal bullet trains with THE RICKSHAW OF MY PENCIL. As the scoreboard was getting set up and the cigarette-waving wise guy emcee was inducting the judges into numeral doom, I glanced at the flyers I had picked up at Phyllis’. An orange one advertised a magazine, "Staplegun Press" from Birmingham, AL which was looking for various sorts of writing, including "mental assnuggets." I wondered if the editors would accept RECTAL SKULLBUBBLES, ‘cause that’s what I write. A gray one advertised some slam audio/video merchandise available at another friggin’ webpage: www.fromthegroundup.com. A large yellow one divulged info on the feature film, SlamNation, which was shown in theaters in 1998. SlamNation, the flyer told me, was "an exciting inside look at the phenomenal growth of the spoken word movement and its latest manifestation as literary blood sport." The filmmakers followed a New York team to the Championship which was held in Portland, Oregon in 1996. The video is available at this ballbuster: http://www.cinemaguild.com/. Another flyer announced that Blockbuster Video was not carrying SlamNation and suggested that everyone write to the company and ask them to stock the film in their stores. I think a fictional movie called Slam was also made a few years ago. To find out about this and more, like the fact that there actually is someone who calls himself President of the International Poetry Slam, Inc., (Michael R. Brown, who is also the coach of Boston’s team), check out the digital sonofabitch, www.slamnews.com.

Of this bout I particularly remember the intense performance of Boston’s Sam Libby of a poem about his or someone else’s schizophrenic mother in which the line "when I’m God I’ll do things right" was uttered, though I may have confused this with another poem. Another Bostonian, Bryonn Bain, "a Marxist Hip Hop poet" as mentioned in the program’s Team Bios, just about brought the house down with his rapping typhoon. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t backed by musicians or a DJ because that’s exactly what he sounded like: a one-man sound system, gradually building up a rhythmic flood that burst its dam at the end and seemed to eject a couple people from their seats. I realized I WAS STOMPING IN PLACE (there was no room to move). I wish I could remember some of his lyrics but the only thing that I can recall is his clever play on the words ‘seam’ and ‘seem’ which he used to criticize the rap dogma of ‘keeping it real’. Santa Cruz’s Luis (Xago) Juarez and Marcos (Lost Boy) Cabrerra (whose first chapbook bears the awesome title of I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT MY RADIO) gave an equally stirring group performance that invoked such topics as the NAFTA trade agreement, the Zapatista struggle in Mexico, the seductive drug of selling drugs and much more. The Green Mill’s Sheila Donohue read a funny poem about having the middle name of "Mary Mary" and growing up Catholic. About Mary Magdalene she said: "Jesus fucked you and if he didn’t he was insane and I would never follow him because he’s not my type." I decided to absolve her of her sins, even the one she committed by closing the Slam Museum today. Boston’s Brian Comisky began his poem with the statement "death doesn’t scare me any more, dying does." I remember him saying something about leaving the faucet on to get back at his dad and seeing headlights in his truck’s rearview mirror as he was spinning on an ice-slick highway, which uncannily referred back to an earlier image of a mouse’s eyes shining in the dark. Another inspiring poem was recited by Santa Cruz’s Meliza Banares (but again I could be wrong here regarding the author) who, by repeating the phrase "this poem is not about ..." strung together a vast list of subjects in order to suggest that merely mentioning one’s poetical/political beliefs and affiliations was not enough. "This poem is not about Malcolm, Michael" or other cultural figures who are so often looted into abstraction for their ideological value: "this poem is about how long I can keep this up, about talking on the phone with nothing to say, this poem is about finished now." Boston, I believe, was the victor of this match. Skipping out on the midnight event, the"Six Deadly Sins Reading" at the Subterranean because I was overslammed, I began my zombie’s exodus back to the metal magic slamcarpet and BACK TO THE SLEEPY vegetarian restaurant and mocha saloon-lined streets of Evanston.


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