Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Laura Winton (aka Fluffy Singler) is writing her dissertation on the absence of formally progressive poetics in spoken word poetry. In a recent message in Facebook, she noted my own comment on how, with performance and sound poetry so visible (audible) at the Text Festival in Bury, there was no sign of slam there, and wondered why.

That’s a good question. I don’t pretend to fully – or even remotely – grasp all of the local politics of poetry in the UK, but the contrast between the almost entirely white participants of the Text Festival and an afternoon just two days later in the giant plaza at Trafalgar Square in London, one of the most multicultural, multiracial, multilingual, multinational places on the planet, proved startling. Indeed, the difference between the Text Festival and the crowd at Katsouris’ deli in the famed (and very multi-multi) Bury Market just two blocks away was noticeable enough for Krishna & I to talk about it over lunch.

One aspect of this is simply sociological – what counts as literature to one community couldn’t be further from it to another. Looking at the White House poetry reading this past week, I feel much more sympathetic to the work, say, of Jill Scott than I do to the thinly veiled appeals to sentimentality that Billy Collins slips in just below the surface of his humor – she & I both have Philadelphia as a point of reference, plus we’ve both had to deal with Sudden Deafness Syndrome in our lives. Her poetry asks harder questions than Collins’ ever will. Yet it is inescapable listening to that reading that Scott’s work also looks to sentiment, just with more earnestness than Collins. Collins’ irony is much closer in practice to the work of Kenny Goldsmith, something that might appall them both. Where Kenny & Billy differ is that Goldsmith’s shtick has much more historical consciousness & contextualization, and to some degree depends on it.

Slam poetry is not unlike Beat poetics in that it has a close affinity with certain genres of music, hip-hop in the case of the former, rock (and to a far lesser degree jazz) with the latter. Both Common & Scott are poets who have made the leap to full-time recording careers from their roots in spoken word. And they’re hardly alone. There is serious money to be made in rap & its variants. But the context of the White House reading could just have easily been Patti Smith & Yoko Ono.

Slam poetry also has the context of poetry-as-competition, which is in some ways more honest than a lot of other kinds of aesthetic contexts – Collins is not entirely wrong when he jokes that “the whole point of writing” is closely tied to all manner of anthropological display behavior, whether you are Jane Austen, Kathy Acker or Michael Harper – the White House stage is a perfect platform from which to piss on all us other lesser apes who did not get invited.

It is, I think, the culture of those slam competitions that Winton is referring to when she writes

For myself, I have seen poetry slam as a weed or virus that is invasive to a community and chokes out all other forms. I base this on my own experience in the Minneapolis spoken word scene and also from talking to others in Chicago specifically. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind poetry slam and its "style" (despite all protestations that there is no such thing), but I would like to see it as only one part of a vibrant spoken word community, and that is rarely the case.

The whole notion of a “vibrant spoken word community” absent the context of competition is new to me, but it makes sense that 27 years after the slam scene itself got started, it should be evolving – check out poetry slam in Wikipedia to catch just some of the variants that have begun to arise. Is there a space between the neo-hip-hop poetics of wannabe rap & the sound poetries that emerged out of Dada & Fluxus? It certainly makes sense that there should be, even if the idea raises many of the same issues of hybridism that has bedeviled poets who find themselves between the Quietism of a Billy Collins & the avant performance of an Alison Knowles taking her shoes off on the White House stage & reading a computer poem that’s emerged from a dot matrix printer.

The competition aspect of slam plays into the culture in a wide range of ways. You could certainly credit the scene at the Green Mill Jazz Club with reinvigorating a social form we can see everywhere on TV today, from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars, even I dare say to Project Runway. Compare this with the spelling-bee aesthetics that emerge from Poetry Out Loud champion Youssef Biaz’ recitation of a Sharon Olds poem at the White House – having Biaz’ recite a poem by a living writer, rather than asking her to be there to read her own verse, bespeaks of an approach to poetry that reeks of 19th century women’s clubs’ appreciation societies. Even tho Poetry Out Loud has broadened its own horizons since it began – one of my sons competed a year ago with a work by Mina Loy – the form seems unable to get beyond its divorce between the creative act of writing & a sentimentalized public presentation. Slam competitions may be ahistorical, even anti-historical, may be cut-throat in their will-to-power, but they are nothing if not deeply wedded to the creative act itself.

The pros and cons of this are everywhere visible in the new youth slam documentary, Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) which opens today in New York City, on Friday in Chicago, and in June in Boston, DC, Portland (OR), Palm Springs & Northampton, MA, with other engagements soon to follow. That’s the trailer at the top of this note, and it gives a fair – if inevitably incomplete – impression of the entire film, which tracks the stories of four high school slam poets as they & their teams compete for the Chicago city championship, an event with the same name as this film (and taken, as the doc neglects to note, from a song by Public Enemy from 1988 on the first of its pair of unquestionably great albums, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back). The failure to acknowledge the source of its title points to what both makes LTAB work as a film as well as what keeps it from working better as one. The film resolutely stays way too close to the surface.

It’s a cliché of the American documentary to weave three or four narratives together culminating in a single climactic event, and much of the pleasure of LTAB comes from watching the seemingly effortless work by filmmakers Jon Siskel & Gene Jacobs, with editing by Jon Farbrother & cinemaphotography by Stephan Mazurek. The year prior to the one captured in the film, Steinmetz Academic Center, sort of an anti-magnet school without a great academic track record, had surprised everyone, themselves included, by winning the entire championship. Starting with the recognition that their writing is deeper & more layered with meaning than the year before, they arrive in the film with an expectation of success. Other kids, such as Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep, a smaller guy very conscious of his Jewish identity (not to mention privileged school identity), are sparks of great intensity, none more so than Nova Venable of Oak Park/River Forest, a young woman with a special needs brother that she has very nearly raised herself, torn at the thought that it is time for her to go on into the adult world where she can no longer protect him. The kids in this film are uniformly terrific, wiser than some of the notables on stage at the White House, and just watching them is worth the price of admission two times over. The teachers are the best advertisement for the dedication of public school employees you could imagine.

Not unlike the trailer, the film makes active use of music to bridge edits & give the film an easy, uptempo flow. But it is also used, as is the case in every bad film about writing (viz. Finding Forrester, the pit of Gus Van Zandt’s otherwise illustrious career & a film whose one redeeming feature is the portrayal of Dr. Simon, the high school principal, by Charles Bernstein), to cover over weaknesses in the writing itself. The film bounces back & forth from character to character so much & so quickly that I would dare any non-Chicago native to completely identify the four schools being tracked through the competition. I could only manage three on the first viewing & even at the film’s end, one doesn’t have a clear sense of how the competition itself concluded, unless one is close-reading the closing credits.

This is not an accident. “The point is not the point,” Lamar Jorden of Steinmetz says, “the point is the poetry.” As Jorden himself says, among the very first words of the film,

When I was coming up, I was a bit of a trouble maker and did some things I regret. I like damaged a lot of things in the house, but my father never cried about that. When I got arrested, my father didn’t cry about that. The first time I made my father cry was the first time he heard me perform poetry.

After the opening title sequence, when we’re first being exposed to the poetry club at Steinmetz, the editor has flipped in scores going up on slate boards – 9.8, 9.0, 8.1, etc. – while a disembodied MC’s voices shouts, “Forget about the scores, what did you think about the poem?”

Which is very much the message of this film. [Warning: spoiler ahead.] One of the teams we follow – from the more than 60 in competition throughout the Chicagoland area – misses out on its goal by just one tenth of one point. Given the complexity of the competition – scoring is by team, some of the works are collaborative, five scores per performance, with the high & low scores tossed & the remaining three added together, one-tenth of a point is the equivalent of a baseball replay in which nobody can tell really if the ball reached the fielder’s glove before the foot touched the bag. We see the impact of the competition & of competitiveness itself slam this team hard, and we see teachers who’ve used this vehicle to reach “difficult-to-reach” kids, to get them to think critically & work collaboratively, question just exactly what they’re doing approaching poetry this way. Laura Winton’s words were echoing in my head at this late moment in the movie. But then, far too quickly, the film is over.

If Siskel & Jacobs had had the funding to follow all sixty-plus teams, we might have had an epic literary quest, and certainly the material is there to warrant a much deeper look. What we get isn’t a close reading but a skim. How has Nova’s brother coped with her going off to college? What will be Adam’s ultimate relationship to writing? Will Nate & Lamar succeed in college & beyond? Because the film focuses on four kids out of several hundred, and because it fills the screen with clips & bits by & about their peers & competitors at a hip hop pace, you never get to sit back and ponder the writing itself, the stories they’re telling, or the larger implications.

But the film is infectious, and it’s no surprise at all that this film won the Audience Choice Award and a Special Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. Of course, when anybody of my generation free associates on the surname Siskel, the two words that come immediately to mind are movies & Chicago (with Ebert a very close third), and co-producer / co-director Jon is the late film critic’s well-established documentarian nephew. In fact, the film will be showing, starting Friday at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago, so it’s going to be a home town hit. It deserves to be, but it deserves to be one as well in DC and Portland & even Palm Springs. I just hope that everyone who watches gets Lamar’s line, that “The point is not the point,” rather than, say, Billy Collins’ comment that “the whole reason for writing” is precisely the opposite.¹ They present radically different visions about the value of verse.


¹ Don’t bother writing me to tell me that Collins was being ironic. I know that. But it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t mean it.

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