Yaaay! The Death of Art!

Poetry Slam goes literary

Prologue The ancient Japanese claimed that a warrior is measured by his enemies. Maybe an artist is measured by his critics. Slam poets, particularly, have lots of those, including übercritic Harold Bloom.

"I can't bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other," says the well-bellied critic in the Spring 2000 issue of the more-credible-than-thou Paris Review. "The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there but might as well be. This isn't even silly; it is the death of art."

The death of art?

Again?

It's a big onus to place on anybody, but Bloom has always had a propensity for (reactionary) generalizations and burying his bigotries beneath "aesthetics," insisting—as he did in his prologue to the anthology Best of the Best of American Poetry—that the "art" of poetry is being debased by politics.

The irony, of course, is that denying politics a place in the poetry canon is itself a political position, one undeniably born of class and privilege, specifically a class and privilege with which Bloom is familiar.

Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance PoetryThe poetry slam produces a broader spectrum of views than, say, the upper-middle-class, grant-winning Academy of American Poets. Founder Marc Smith of Chicago is a former construction worker turned anarchist. Others are socialists, hippies, black and Latino radicals, punkers, gay and lesbian activists, rappers, and at least two Canadian transvestites—Canadians! Not exactly the Academy's recruiting demographic.

Poet Gary Mex Glazner (who produced the first National Slam in San Francisco) captures some of that energy in Poetry Slam.It's a collection of essays and "100 of the best slam-winning poems ever," including poems by locals Derrick Brown and (in the interest of full disclosure) me.

The essays are fascinating, especially Cass King's highly entertaining tour diary, "Things to Do in Dallas When You're Drunk." But it's the poetry that makes this book, poetry based on the politics of everyday living—not the electoral prospects of candidates, mind you, but shapeless rage, resentment, a little hope and a lot of humor.

These poets are naming names. For example, Gayle Danley's contribution would horrify the average contributor to The Orange County Register's Letters to the Editor page, as she digs up Richard Nixon and kicks him around a bit. "When I die I want a funeral like Nixon's," she writes. "I want my ass enshrined right after the 20-gun salute/ One (kapow!)/for each of my sins."

Elsewhere, poet Lisa King writes, "bring back Liberace/so he can shove a crystal candelabrum up George Bush's ass/until the bastard screams/'I'm racist and homophobic/and that's why I did nothing about AIDS.'" King then proceeds to bash Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, chastising both with the prophecy that if Jesus came back today, they'd "raise money for the nails."

Maverick critic Robert Peters once lamented that "most currently fashionable poetry evokes upper-middle-class cravings, achievements and preoccupations" and that proletarian-minded poets of note were rare. This anthology proves otherwise, acknowledging that the voices marginalized by critics such as Bloom are stronger and more savage than previously believed, and what's more, they're achieving success.

Burning Down the House One truism of poetry remains: success comes easier if you're good and in New York. The 1997 documentary SlamNation focused almost exclusively on the New York team, although at that point, New York had never actually won the competition and in fact didn't win that year. Providence, Rhode Island, did. Clips of the winners were spliced in after the initial screening elicited that fact.

Of course—proximity to publishing houses aside—the New Yorkers get attention because they are good. Burning Down the Houseanthologizes the first New York team to actually win the competition, and it shows why the city's poets are so highly regarded. For instance, current national champ Roger Bonair-Agard reveals his vision of black America as he grows from a boy in Trinidad to a man, eventually moving to New York: "In 1970 I learned my alphabet/for the very first time/A is for Africa/B is for Black/L is for land—we got to get it back/so we lost Jamaica to the IMF/Grenada to the Marines/and Panama to Nancy Reagan. . . . My mother sent me to America—she said, 'Go fix that.'"

There's no question that this is a book about discontent, but the darkness is illuminated by recurring instances of wonder at life. "I will be one of those free women," writes poet Lynne Procope, "dancing proud/wreathed in joy/ clothed in music/always screaming/ unafraid to be heard."

The 2000 Laguna Beach Slam TeamThe slam has always been about democratizing poetry, asserting the belief that poetry is for truckers, too—that a college degree isn't prerequisite to its enjoyment. This populist slant—along with the lure of competition—has served slam well, bringing in audiences of up to several thousand for a single contest. It has also fostered a greater diversity of voices than any literary movement before it, as evidenced by the fact that few of the slammers mentioned in the course of this article have been straight white males. What then to make of Orange County's sole contribution to this mix—a team of five Gen-X guys, four of whom are Anglo? The knee-jerk multiculturalist's reaction would be to dismiss these poets out of hand, which would be a terrible mistake. The point of slam is that all voices have an equal right to be heard, and frankly, the local boys do have a lot to say. The strongest work presented in the team's self-titled chapbook belongs to veteran slammers Derrick Brown and Paul Suntup; they turn in a dazzling array of new poems. But the Most Pleasant Surprise award goes to newcomer Steve Ramirez, who satirizes the anti-gay-marriage measure Proposition 22 in "Mighty Right of Us." In a world where left-handed people aren't allowed to be married, Ramirez warns those who voted for Prop. 22, "Look closer/look closer next time/Sooner or later we'll all be on the wrong side of the door."
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