Monday, November 2, 2009

Freedom of Speech in Action: The Poetry Slam

It's been over 2 weeks since my last cigarette, and the craving is pretty rough. But, if anything, i've got an extra reason to hold off on the smoking coming up tomorrow night. That's right, after a long hiatus, Grendel is going to hit the Slam scene again, this time in the town that gave him his first set of Slam wings.

To newcomers to the concept of Poetry Slam, a bit of explanation is probably in order. First and foremost, someone interested in the concept should check out, and . The first is the website of Marc Smith (SO WHAT?) (you have to be an insider to the Slam to get the "SO WHAT?" reference, but trust me, it's cool). Marc Smith is the "Slam Pappy," a man who has started the whole movement. Very few people can claim that they've inspired a movement, but Marc has. He's a Chicago poet who, in the mid-1980's, began bringing poetry back to the people. For years, poetry had been "caged" by the academia, the purview of readings where the only people in attendance were academics, other poets, and students. The decorous silence and golf-clap applause, where people were expected to HANG ON EVERY WORD, even if the speaker droned on for an intolerably long time. The Beat poets were a breath of fresh air in their time, Allen Ginsberg's live performance of "Howl" probably breaking the conceptual sound-barrier, actually being a "banned book" (a laughable concept which probably means that even people who would not normally read it would fight to get their hands on it). But as the Beats aged, finally gaining a grudging acceptance by the academia (and Allen Ginsberg turned into a really creepy guy who would take his clothes off in public and make everyone watch), poetry seemed to "slump" back into its former state. Along came Marc Smith . . . and everything changed again. At the famous Green Mill in Chicago . . . a BAR, of all things . . . the concept of having poets "compete" for prizes, with randomly chosen individuals in the crowd holding up scores in imitation of an Olympic event, became the epicenter of a movement that would sweep the nation, and even reach other nations . . . Great Britain, Germany, France, and even Israel, and by now probably many other countries around the world. Suddenly, people who normally would not even THINK about poetry, much less read it or listen to it, were attending these events, participating, and finding themselves enjoying it. Once you come into a Slam, whether you're a performer or a member of the audience, you're part of it, an integral part of something that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It's often intense, in-your-face, aggressive, perhaps a little intimidating, always entertaining . . . freedom of speech in action! I've seen poets perform all types and styles even in our hometown Slam . . . everything from hip-hop to villanelles, ages ranging from 7 to 70, subject matter that spanned the entire consciousness of this time and the times that preceded it.

Marc Smith, for somebody who started a movement, is a down-to-earth, likeable, friendly guy. He makes it a point to introduce people to one another, to "bring them in." It's an attitude that makes coming to a Slam that holds true to its roots a lot like "coming home." I've attended a number of Slams, including 2 Southeastern Regional and National competitions, and i've got to say that, like Kenny Mostern said, in his "Cheap Art Manifesto," i've been to one-horse-town Slams where i met 12 of my best friends that i've never known before. My own personal Slam experience began here in Roanoke, taken under the wing of a banty little Jew named Ian Cohen, a manic street-poet who encouraged me, and--along with poets like Mark Skelley, Patricia Johnson, Ian Mack, John Beard, and a number of others--gave me my early chops, showed me what it was all about, and ultimately convinced me that yes, i could do this. I'm not going to say that all my experiences with the Slam have been clear "wins"--it came to me at a time in my life when i was struggling with a lot of things, and there were situations where (especially once i accepted the responsibility of maintaining or running a slam) i mishandled it--it has also been the vehicle for many good things, probably most of the positive things in my life. I felt like i found something that the odd equipment God had given me could be put to use. It was at a Slam that i met Pastor John Ault and his wife Jane, two people who eventually became mentors and leaders as i re-encountered Christ on a new level. It was the Slam that put a hunger for travel and an edge to my senses, made me brave enough to tackle Jersey, and eventually NYC, for years . . . and not without some success. Some people who have become the best friends i've ever had, or ever will have, i met through the Slam. One individual i met through the Slam, Taalam Acey, has become--especially after seeing him twice in New Jersey, and purchasing his 2-CD set "The Market 4 Change"--almost like a prophet, and certainly somebody who made me more aware of what an awesome, dangerous responsibility it is to take on the title of "poet," to apply it to oneself. I can only hope that i could become one tenth of the poet that he is.

It's really no surprise to me that "Stevedogg," one of my friends from the old Wits' End days, is at the helm of the current incarnation of the Roanoke Poetry Slam. His energy and creative ability will no doubt sustain the new Slam, and i'm looking forward to seeing him, and many of my other old friends, at Studio Roanoke tomorrow night. It will be worth coming back to Roanoke just to see this new incarnation, and to be part of the wind in its sails.

Poetry Slams in general might "shock" or "offend" (oh, how i hate that word!) some people whose concept of poetry begins with Hallmark Cards and ends with Reader's Digest, and it might seem silly or wonky or perverse to people who've been freeze-dried in the academia . . . but, as Marc Smith would say, "So what?" I strongly believe that spoken word venues like this are the last bastion of true "freedom of speech," where people of different social, political, religious, racial, and national backgrounds can come together and find out just how much they have in common . . . and how much they have to learn from one another. A Slam isn't about scores, or about one or two divas who show up just to suck up the attention, or the applause or heckling or even "boos" of a bar-crowd . . . it is a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts, art happening before your eyes. Yes, you'll hear things that you may disagree with. Yes, you'll likely feel the prickly contact with more than a few artistic temperaments. Yes, you'll probably experience everything from rage to tears to hilarity. And, yes, you will probably learn something in spite of yourself. Is it for everyone? No . . . but it darn well should be. I've always maintained that freedoms, liberties, are like muscles . . . if you don't exercise them, they'll grow weak and atrophied, and when you most need to depend on them, they won't be strong enough to hold up. And, from a Christian perspective, if your Faith isn't strong enough to handle being in a place like this, a place where you might encounter in-your-face opposition, a place where people are WHO they are at the top of your lungs . . . then how can your Faith walk in the world there these things are real, but might otherwise escape your attention?

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