David Hess

Slam Diary Extra


By the time I woke up the campers had already split to hook up with their Schmores buyers on the corner. My plan for the day was to finally check out the Slam Museum and then the Doody! Open Mic and then go downtown for the final bout at the Chicago Theatre. The Slam Museum was open, halleluiah, and oddly full of what the slam rules forbid, that is to say, props. T-shirts and trophies and memorabilia decorated the walls as well as some newspaper articles relaying the early history of the slam. I turned my attention to these while the “No Rules Open Mic” came to a close in an adjoining room. A LA Times article from the 1980s entitled “Performance Poets Liven an Old Art” linked the Chicago of the 80s to the San Francisco of the 50s, citing Chicago’s strong “everyman literary tradition,” and asserted that “performance poetry is in the tradition of the street performers and the street artists.” I also took notes from an essay by Kurt Heintz called “An Incomplete History of the Slam,” that can be read at the HELL’S KITCHENETTE www.e-poets.net/library/slam. While the practice of poetry as competition goes back all the way to the troubadours and the court poets of medieval Japan, the origin of the slam can be traced back to the late 70s when performance art and punk were in full effect. Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman supposedly “did a poetry bout dressed in boxing gear, around 1979.” Jerome Salla and Elaine Equi, both living in Chicago at the time, were holding readings in bars and other non-literary venues. Al Simmons, a friend of Berrigan’s from New York, arranged a “‘ten-round poetry fight to the death’” between Salla and a musician, Jimmy Desmond, in 1980. The stage was set up as a boxing ring with “‘[g]irls in bikinis, holding up cards for the number of the rounds’” and judges, too. At the match Equi “‘read a poem called called “GIVE PISS A CHANCE” shortly after the death of John Lennon, and the crowd booed..!’” The audience, which numbered about two hundred for the rematch, was drawn mostly from the punk scene. Equi observed that “‘[t]here really isn’t anything that close to the experience today except in rap music’.” Al Simmons soon took the concept of a poetry boxing match to Taos to create the Taos Poetry Circus, an annual competition similar to slams but, as Salla remarked, with “‘a certain aesthetic which is paid homage to, the St. Mark’s post-beat, jazz influence, as emphasized by Ntozake Shange and Quincy Troupe’.” Marc Smith, who in the early 1980s “was a young and informally trained writer and performer,” said he “‘wanted to maintain the idea of the responsibility the poet had to communicate effectively’” to the public. For him “‘[t]he real source of what made [the slam] more effective than what was going on in the academy was that the poet knew he had to keep [the public’s] attention or he was going to get booed out of there’.” In 1985 Smith began using Chicago’s The Get Me High Lounge on Monday nights as a testing ground for the proto-slam idea. While Monday night poetry readings struggled against Monday night football, Smith along with Sandi Smith began publishing a newsletter, Open Mike, to promote local literary events. In Smith’s words “‘[w]e started [the slam] with contributions of democratic origin, a focus on the community and the audience, THE POET AS THE SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE’.” Smith assembled the Chicago Poetry Ensemble to sow the slam style throughout the town and in 1986 moved his weekly reading series to Sundays at the Green Mill. The evenings were divided into three sets. Open mikes and featured poets occupied the first two but with the Ensemble performing the same material every week for the third set something else was needed. According to his colleague, Rob Van Tuyle, Smith “‘came up with ‘slamming’. It was poetry against the convention, in bars instead of salons’” though Van Tuyle doesn’t say why or how Smith chose “slam” as a name for the event. “At the Green Mill,” according to Heintz, “all the appropriate ingredients at last came together to make the venue a success: concept, contributing artists, host personality, audience, and aesthetic.” The slam spread like wildfire across Chicago until “the boom/bust of 1993” when the poetry circuit slim-slammed down to a core of about four venues as the artists’ enclave of Wicker Park underwent a rapid gentrification. Still, this “informal performance poetry aesthetic, borne of this feral dialectic among venues, arose in a way similar to how jazz initially impinged upon more scholastic musics at the beginning of the 1900s. The entirety of the phenomenon — comraderie, the neighborhood community, a closeness of hopes and politics — fused into the whole experience of slam.”

The slam quickly infected other regions of the nation. The infamous Bob Holman was inspired by Smith’s Green Mill slamathons and in 1989 imported the slam to the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in New York. The slam, with its entertainment value, helped the cafe and Holman RESURFACE FROM BROKELAND. In San Francisco, Gary Glazner had been active in performance art — which combined poetry with dance, music and costumes — since the 70s. At his events Glazner allowed the poets to use instruments and other props, had people selling hot dogs at the venue, and had a barker out front — all “‘to create a carnival atmosphere’.” In Glazner’s opinion “‘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’.” Heintz explains that “[i]n 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 uncovered the 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.” At this first ever National Slam, Bob Holman and Paul Beatty represented New York, while Marc Smith along with Patricia Smith, Cindy Salach and Dean Hacker represented Chicago. As Heintz describes it, “[t]he character of Chicago’s slam writing has since been to play toward the audience, to be direct and use plain, colloquial speech, to take social issues head-on, to avoid rhyme and established meter, to employ first person subject as in narrative, and (curiously) to avoid publishing.” Chicago won the group competition at San Francisco and in the individual competition Patricia Smith prevailed over Victor Hernandez Cruz. Smith soon moved to Boston with her husband, Michael Brown, thereby planting the seeds of slam in New England. In 1991 the National Slam was hosted by Chicago whose team won again, beating New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Boston hosted it in 1992 and took the title. Back in San Francisco in 1991 “Glazner hosted an on-air radio slam where the judges were the radio audience at large who telephoned their scores.” In 1993, “THE FIRST UNDERWATER SLAM” took place. “Poets boarded the BART subway and rode the trans-Bay tube under San Francisco Bay to Berkeley. They slammed during the twenty-minute trip.” Because of the collective beginnings of the slam, Heintz argues that “[A]N ANALOGY FOR SLAMMING MIGHT BE MADE WITH THE INVENTION OF CALCULUS, which is credited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. 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 Leibnitz later became recognized for his own invention of calculus, by such time Newton feared he wouldn’t get any credit at all.” ... “We might substitute Al Simmons for Newton, Marc Smith for Leibnitz, and see the story all over again.” ... “The socio-cultural stigmas which 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 Berry, said, ‘It’s not to glorify the poet, it’s to serve the community’.”

One could find much evidence to the contrary. While the slam does demystify the poet by thrusting him or her into the public light, it also glorifies whoever becomes the winner, the star who may or may not be the better poet. I don’t see anything wrong with this except that Smith’s talk about community seems to be another way of demanding aesthetic complicity from the performer. And the rusty rustic Wendell Berry ain’t no street-smart Walt Whitman, assuming here that Smith’s goal is a non-elitist, democratic, contemporary ethos. In my opinion the slam is at its best when the poets are vocally criticizing aspects of the slam community — its clichés, its artistic and/or political complacency, its inflated sense of self-importance. While I heard more than a few poems this week that made (often egotistical) references to ancestors and ethnic pasts, I also heard some poems from black performers and other minorities as well as whites that grappled more thoughtfully with this extremely American dilemma of how to approach, celebrate, or reject aspects of one’s heritage. Despite the formal characteristics, like the peculiar hyper-inflected accent that are de rigueur for slamsters, the slam does provide ample room to oscillate from slapstick comedy to outright anger to spiritual searching to erotic panging to trumpets of joy to requests for forgiveness and change all in the space of one performance, assuming you keep it under three minutes. Before I left the museum, I heard one of the original Chicago team members read. Cindy Salach read a love poem directed towards herself. “You are the ultimate blues bar,” she said, “I am my own lover, no one can love you more than you do.” Then she switched gears and did a comedy routine based on some Cosmo article that included A TEST TO DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT ONE WAS CAREFREE. I started tuning out as she mentioned something about “french-kissing Martha Stewart.” The Green Mill’s Reggie Gibson stepped on stage and I didn’t know what to make of his “Oppressed Poets” T-shirt which was a new addition to his standard dress of dashiki and that special hat that Nate Mackey wears. How more righteous could this guy get? Gibson narrated a story about a violinist, from Italy I think, whom he found playing for money everyday on Michigan Ave. Gibson told the story from the eyes of this man who didn’t understand why the people who walked by him each day were so unhappy. It was a touching tale but Gibson had to ruin it by doing his impersonation of the man playing his violin which was not unlike listening to fingernails massaging a chalkboard. Some guy named Michael Salinger, I believe, performed a few carefree poems. The best line: “MY PAIN IS BETTER THAN YOUR PAIN!” I left before The Sex Show began and thought I might still be able crash the Doody party at the Mad Bar. Unfortunately or fortunately, when I arrived the last scatoslamster was already BREAKING HEARTS WITH HIS TOILET TRAINING EPIC. I really should have written some poems for this one. I had some great titles: “The Unapooper,” “Intestinal Verses,” “Plops,” “Shits Ahoy,” “Turds Away,” “Calling Back the Plumber,” “The Future of Manure,” “Skid Marks-To-Go,” “A Cheap Roll,” “Staring Down the Barrel of a Crapper,” “Farewell to Clean White Sheets,” “Grunts n’ Lumps,” “Uncle Constipation,” “The Sprint,” “The Last Man,” “Farts at the Opera,” “The Unreachable Odor,” “No Lock,” “Cold Seats,” “Don’t Look Down,” “Floaters,” “Tube News,” “Bad Flush,” “The One that Got Away,” “Splashback,” “Will I Be Inducted (into The Hemorrhoid Hall of Fame?),” “Divine Enema,” “In Search of the Perfect Dump,” “Snip It,” “The River of Gas,” “The Death of a Proctologist,” “Unflushable,” “Woe with the Flow,” and “Eureka.”

I could hardly believe that my Slammoliday was coming to a close. I ditched the Jedimasters Slam and jumped into the saddle of the Slammobile and roared down Washington Blvd. towards the Slammetropolis. After taking about half an hour to locate a parking space on the edge of downtown that was free and not, as far as I could tell, illegal, I began my walk along the tranquil Chicago River. I had about an hour before the doors opened at the Chicago Theatre. Stopping to sit down on a bench overlooking the river between the streets of LaSalle and Clark, I read from a small plaque about the 1915 Eastland Disaster in which over eight hundred people perished. The Eastland tour boat tipped over as the passengers, mostly employees from the Western Electric Co., were still boarding. More passengers died in this tragedy than in the Titanic (half of whose victims were made up of crew members). More than three times as many people died than in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A tour boat called the “Star of Chicago” passed by with its mixed drone of engine and tour guide and I wondered if its passengers were being told about the disaster and, if so, by which voice. On the top deck AN UNSINKABLE AMERICAN FLAG WAVED IN THE TRANSNATIONAL WIND, its red stripes the clock hands that will never turn. Beside my feet the sleeping weather vane of an empty bottle of Mad Dog pointed to a black plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree down by the water. I mistook this translucent feather for a bird’s nest; though I could not mistake the light which brought me this image for anything else but light. This alien thought kept me still until it was time to shove off to State St. and the opulent Chicago Theatre. When I entered this marble and gold-riddled palace I thought I had walked in on the Oscars. I handed my ticket to the usher and ascended the stairs of Slammadise up to the balcony because I wanted to make sure I would not be chosen for THE JOB OF JUDGESTER. A band on the massive stage below was playing nothing but music. All I heard were sounds. A group of three dapper clowns known as Soiree Dada ran around the floor, hopping and gesticulating and trying to entertain the crowd with nonsensical sentences screamed in rough Teutonic accents. This was not a wise thing to do in a big Kraut-American town like Chicago for the crowd, after the first round, began to hiss and boo at these shenanigans which were solely derived from the stereotype of Germans as silly, fanatical, dapper nutcases. As a Kraut-American myself I was very offended and expressed my disapproval, like all good Germans, by taking notes and KEEPING MY MOUTH SHUT... WHOOPS, another stereotype. I should say that I had an even harder time taking notes at these Finals because during the performances everything but the stage was in complete darkness. The opening ceremony began when Marc Smith introduced the 1989 (I thought it was 1990, oh well) Slam Champions and the members of the first Chicago slam team: himself, Dean Hacker, Patricia Smith, and Cindy Salach. They did a little group piece called “Poetic Tendencies” which was totally forgettable except for some line about an “ELMER FUDD SURVIVAL KIT” — a kind of pep rally, ‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” type of thing. I think Patricia Smith delivered the requisite ode to both jazz and the freedom of expression. Then Smith thanked a lot of people: the volunteers, the sponsors, Lois Weisberg (Commissioner of Chicago Cultural Affairs), and Dave Jemiol (owner of the Green Mill). The emcees, Sheila Donohue and some guy, introduced themselves and explained that the kind of poetry that is showcased at a slam “is not what you’ll find in a Hallmark card, is not what you’re taught in English class, is not Emily Dickinson,” she being the poster girl for both asocial and genteel poetry (kind of a paradox, huh?). Then the poor judges were introduced and some were already getting booed at. The emcees gave their rule serenade and unrealistically declared that “poets must check their egos at the door,” which was followed by a “let’s get ready to rumble!” On the scoreboard four teams remained: Oakland, NYC/Union Square, San Francisco, and San Jose. The team bout would begin and end the evening, separated by the individual competition and an intermission. The sacrificial poem for the judges was performed by Gary Glazner and the Albuquerque team members whose ode to Garcia Lorca was a fiery tribute to the man and a universal defense of poetry as a force against tyranny.

New York’s Noel Jones got the Finals off the ground with a poem about single motherhood, a predicament that she compared to plantation-era slavery. The line “no man has entered this world without the permission of a woman” gave, um, birth to a tidal wave of “yeahs” and “uh-huhs” from the audience. Melinda Corazon Foley of San Jose screamed “NOW LISTEN UP GHOSTS!” and told us of being abused by a pedophile when she was in the fourth grade. Oakland’s Roxanne Hanna-Ware preached about black love: “you got that black love? You should embrace your black lovers cause it won’t ever be enough.” Big Poppa E did well for San Francisco with a poem about being a “wussie boy” and proud of it. He cited other wussie boy actors as heroes, including Matthew Broderick and Ducky from the film Pretty in Pink. He fantasized of pulling up alongside a car of steel-toe booted skinheads and cranking up his twelve watt stereo to sing along with Morrissey’s immortal lyric: “I am human and I need to be loved / just like everybody else does.” Castadera Antoine McGee embarrassed San Jose with an angry tale of going to Catholic school and being punished for having a nose bleed which was caused by a punch in the face. Then he yelled about being lied to about God because when he prayed to God for an ice cream cone he never got one. “TELL GOD I HAVEN’T RECEIVED MY FUCKING ICE CREAM CONE!” he commanded us, and he was totally serious. Sonia Whittle from Oakland narrated a story about a woman on the margins of society who persevered with the affirmation “I will move mountains, get out of my way.” San Fran’s Ariana Waynes was justly rewarded with much applause for her slammomatic masterpiece: “I am not ancestors! / I am not Census Bureau statistics! / I am the product of everything!” Old Walt would be proud of this all-inclusive vision along with her defense of the U.S. as a land of still viable freedoms. Critical of both the faddish ancestor-crazy poem and the America-is-evil poem, she then compared her situation as a black woman in America to the possibility of being a wife in an African society where being female is often equivalent to being an indentured servant. “I yell because I care,” she explained but we already knew, Sonia. My Trinidadian brother, Roger Bonair-Agard, mined more family history material with a poem about his kick-ass grandma who asked him “what kind of man do you intend to become?” which motivated him to become the best man he could imagine, i.e., a slamster.

Before he could pause to take a breath, Roger was back at the mike to compete in the individual competition which was going to determine the “Grand Hoopla” of the slam. Roger laid down the law with a repeat performance of his “A is for Africa, B is for Black, C is for Culture” jive, only to leave out the F word when he came to say “and that’s where I’m at.” Ray McNiece from Cleveland told us about his grandpa who worked in a ball-bearing factory all his life, and would not use the good sofa to sit on, and kept a canary in a cage in the basement. When his grandfather died Ray freed the canary and so ended the poem with the iconic hand-opening motion, saying “Fly ... fly ...fly” in a voice that I want so badly to imitate for you, the voice that is the essence of slammography. Gayle Daneley, I think from DC, recited a poem about her revolutionary sister but I don’t remember much more than that. I don’t think she was a janitor though. Sean Shea, aka “Shane,” did his “Mr. Politician” poem and Jason Carney worked the crowd with his Southern heritage/Thai-hick greeting bit. Reggie Gibson performed yet another ode to a musician, this time an ode to Jimi Hendrix accompanied by air guitar. Gibson has tons of talent and great stage presence and his poems were some of the fastest slam deliveries that I’ve ever heard. You think he’s going to stumble but he doesn’t. Also, he’s obviously very committed to what he does, but he’s just too predictable. His Hendrix performance, however, was more effective than his other ones because everyone in the audience, regardless of race or age or even gender, could connect to it. He got a huge response from the entire theater as he neared the end: “to die young, to die high, to die free ... to stand next to your fire Jimi.” Now I can better appreciate Gibson’s poem after having recently listened to Hendrix’s set at Woodstock, which makes me want to weep because his music was so violent in its affirmation of life. I listen to those songs, especially “Beginnings” whose ending makes me feel LIKE I’M TAKING A PIGGYBACK RIDE ON A METEOR, and hear him doing everything right and I dream of a poetry that will do the same — unify, harmonize and demolish every oppressive boundary that divides us. A poetry that is so plainly great that we would have a hard time imagining it not being in existence. GODDAMN I WISH I KNEW HOW JIMI GOT THEM SOUNDS! An intermission was had and then the second half of the evening started with another sacrificial slamb who read a poem about her 60-year old, lesbian landlord. The order for the individual slamjacks was reversed so Gibson went first. Do I even need to tell you that his performance was about a bluesman and was presented with more egregious body movements. Part of me wants to say to him what Spicer told Allen Ginsberg albeit with a minor alternation: “Reggie, fuck the gestural shit.” Jason Carney performed another poem about the South that contained this memorable line: “separate but equal were never the same.” Shane did an angry-at-God poem (another species of slammilian) and built up to a roar whereupon he suddenly transcended his rage with a greater emotion: “I’m just saying I love you / I’m saying I’ll never stop.” Gayle read a poem dedicated to the ex-basketball coach for Northwestern University who was shot and killed in a racial hate crime this year and who was also a relative of hers. Ray dished out some vague speech celebrating poetry and stuff. I wrote down the line “beauty and truth set free” but I’m afraid they weren’t. Roger let himself cuss in the final poem as he revealed that “poet muthafuckas live beautiful lives.” The last line was “I want to be a word in your poem.” Even though Reggie was in first place after the semi-finals, his final score of 58.3 was edged out by Roger’s 58.4. The other scores were Gayle, 57.1; Jason, 56.9; Ray, 56.6; Shane, 55.8.

The last round started with Jamie Kennedy from Oakland screaming once again about his torture at the hand of “brain candy from strangers,” a replay of his Paxil-hatin’ poem. Two guys from Boston’s team who were sitting in front of me heckled him by shouting the word “heckler.” Apparently, he wasn’t so nice to the other slamsters when they were performing. San Francisco’s Eitan Kadosh did a take on the ‘who assassinated JFK?’ controversy: “it’s gotta be the cheese / the neutron bomb / the panty hose / who shot JFK.” Ken Green’s T-shirt was better than this I thought. Then Staceyann Chin stepped up and churned out her “I don’t want to write a slam poem” poem. I wrote as fast as I could but the result in my notebook is an unreadable mess. Here’s a few lines I can salvage: “I don’t want to create lyrics that rock / or sit in smoke-filled cafes / imagining how to fuck the judges to get 10 points / I WON’T BE SIPPING ICED TEA OVER SUPERLATIVES / or pretending to like me / I want to reunite stolen histories / kick a poem with heart / change the world one poem at a time / today I want to write in a place where I change / tonight I want to write honest poems / about babies and their grandmothers / I don’t want to sit in the square / and write ‘I want her back’ poems / I want to write poems that are so honest / they slam.” Chin received a high score but was deducted a full point for going over the three-minute limit. This would cost NY/Union Station the bout. San Jose’s Marc David Pinate complemented Chin’s poem with a player-hatin’ tirade that went: “you left the barrio in your Lexuses / when the revolution comes there ain’t gonna be no cappachinos with it!” This was a nice critique of the Nuyorican’s janitor-hatin’ poem and he pulled it off with just one line: “LOOK AT ALL MY ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND THE WORLD IS JUST THE SAME.” Marc Smith who was helping out with the emcee job, grabbed the mike and delivered a little slammito: “when you reach the top of the mountain / pull the next one up.” But I thought he said “blow the next one up,” which seemed to mesh better with his Marine Lieutenant/ringmaster shtick. Some guy named “Seeking” from the San Fran team performed a poem about artistic prostitution. I can’t recall any details except his use of an air channel clicker to turn himself off. New York’s Guy LeCharles Gonzalez criticized the small Native American literature selection at Barnes & Noble and said that “history is the autobiography of the victor.” “I bow to the future,” he explained, “so my children will not die in the past.” Robert Karimi of San Jose whipped out his Iranian-Guatemalan heritage slammantra and ordered us to get past our obsession with ethnicity and to still get down with our Muslim-Catholic selves whether or not we have one. Oakland’s Shawn Taylor wrapped it all up with one of his “articulate tantrums” (as he would call it, that being the name of his book), the one we heard before about having only 26 letters to stave off the darkness and he made sure we knew that he was going to use every last one, though I don’t remember any word in the poem that had a ‘q’ in it. The scores were added and Oakland wound up with 110.4 points and New York, with its deduction of a full point, ended up with 112.4. Amazingly, San Francisco and San Jose were tied for first with 112.7 points each. Not in the history of the National Slam Championships had there ever been a tie at the conclusion of the last match. Smith proposed the possibility of a sudden death bout but with a moment’s deliberation the two Bay Area teams elected to split the prize money and the boxing glove trophy, which was rabidly torn in half by members of both squads, as everyone hugged for they had each embraced poetry with such criminal zeal that I envisioned that in ten years these women and men of my generation, the youth for whom no intellectual will speak, were going to make Ezra Pound’s aborted dream come true and make the Quattrocento look like a postcard, or that at least we might have a shot down the line, and I, relieved that I could finally rest my ears after four days of constant slamplifications, slammed off into the night with my weary notebook in hand full of all the tiny everythings I just shared with you.

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