A Look Through the Lens of Ira Latour
Under the Influence
Slamming the Word
Protecting a Piece of the Planet
It's part poetry recital, part lyrical boxing match. It's called Slam Poetry, and it's been heating up coffeehouses and pubs across the country since Chicago poet Marc Smith coined the term in 1986. The hit-and-run blend of poetry-meets-performance-art has found a home in Chico as poets, fans, and curious passersby crowd a downtown cafe each week to witness the battle of the words.
"Slam poetry has emerged as a voice of protest and new possibilities," says Chico State librarian-by-day, poet-by-night Jim Dwyer (in photo below, with hands on his head). "Poetry slams are the focus of a growing creative community."
Growing, indeedthe Chico Slam Poetry Team placed 12th out of 56 teams at the 2000 national competition, after placing dead last the previous year. Former Chico State student R. Eirik Ott (in the three photos above), who was instrumental in creating the slam movement in Chico, spent the summer of 2000 performing in more than 70 venues across the United States and selling more than 800 books of his poetry.
In a nutshell, the sport is competitive poetry. Poets, either as individuals or in teams, get three minutes to recite their original workwithout music, costumes, or propswith enough passion to gather high Olympic-style scores from randomly chosen judges. But as the official slam poets' battle cry proclaims"The points are not the point, the point is poetry"the competition plays a minor role in this form of literary expression.
"The scores don't mean anything," notes Chico State student and slam poet Kylee Hayden, "but the contest creates an atmosphere where people work hard to get their points across. You don't get that at an open-mike night."
Hayden, an English major, was Ott's understudy as he prepared to leave Chico last year to finish his work toward a journalism degree in Seattle. She is now at the helm of the local slam movement, booking out-of-town guest poets and entering the Chico team in competitions.
Hayden was introduced to slams when Ott visited her English composition class scouting for poets, but she couldn't attend the slams because they were held at Duffy's Tavern and she was underage. She coaxed Ott into moving the weekly slam competitions to Moxie's Café and Gallery, where crowds of about 100 gather chair-to-chair every Tuesday night to hear poems with titles such as "Wussy Boy Manifesto" and "Poetry Meets Godzilla."
"It's great as far as opening people's eyes to poetry," remarks Chico State English major Margot Chase, who has been sitting in the audience of Chico slams for the past three years. "There's a stigma that poetry is all flowers, so this is definitely an enlightening experience."
There are some poetry purists, however, who are opposed to the concept of competitive poetry. "It's vicious," says John Greene, a Chico poet/comedian who performed poetry in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district during its 1960s heyday. "It's like a shark attack. In slams you can't talk in-between poems to give your opinions, introductions, or dissertations. But for some people, it's a dream come true."
Slam poet Jim Dwyer, aka Rev. Junkyard Moondog, believes most poetry should be noncompetitive and that poets should not limit themselves to slamming. "Slam should encourage many forms of oral poetry including lyric and jazz poetry, but hip-hop and free verse rants have come to predominate," says Dwyer, who has competed in slams for the past four years. "There is a place for slam in the performance poetry world, but there are many other forms that should also be encouraged."
Points are awarded for content and performance, each counting for half, but Dwyer said far too much emphasis is placed on performance. "Spewing a mediocre rant will always score higher than a subtle reading of a far better poem," he notes.
The slam poetry movement in Chico began in 1996, when poets Nancy Talley and Chloe Cook teamed up to produce the town's first poetry slam at the Blue Room Theatre. Ott tore the tickets for the show and also snagged second place. He started doing monthly slams at Duffy's in the spring of 1998, and that same year the first Chico Poetry Slam Team traveled to the National Poetry Slam in Chicago.
"I love that slam tries to reach out and empower people to get up and share their poetry in front of an energetic crowd," says Ott, who has used the alias "Big Poppa E" since an audience member shouted it at him. "I love that the focus is on engaging and entertaining a crowd rather than boring them to tears."
Ott began performing in coffeehouses in his hometown of Bakersfield, California, in 1992. Without knowing it, he was already performing a slam of sorts. "It was just these little coffeehouse readings with 20 kids in the roomyou know, typical open-mike readingsbut I was doing them a little jazzier and a little spunkier than most," recalls Ott. "Of course, I didn't know that then because I had never been to a poetry reading before I started doing them in Bakersfield. I had no idea what I was doing, so I incorporated a lot of stand-up comedy, performance art, and rock 'n' roll into my readings to make them fun."
Then Ott began sneaking off to nearby Los Angeles to check out the city's poetry scene, but he was unimpressed. "I was thinking Los Angeles would have this huge scene, but it was really boring and had little or no focus on entertaining the audience," he says.
Ott moved to Chico in 1994 and started doing readings at the old Café Sienna, using the name "Word Core" to describe his readings because they were so different from other readings he had observed. In the summer of 1996, he finally saw his first slam in New Mexico at the Taos Poetry Circus. "It was an amazing revelation," he says. "All these kindred spirits who felt the same way about poetry as I didthat it could be fun and energetic and filled with rock 'n' roll energy and not at all boring."
Raw emotion, powerful performance, devoted fans. If that sounds more like a sporting event than a literary event, then we may see poetry slams on ESPN before we see them on Masterpiece Theatre.
Whether you find Slam Poetry an exciting new cultural event or an unfortunate literary accident, it's clear that slam is attracting a growing number of admirers who find this brand of poetry accessible, inviting, and invigorating.