My brief, wondrous affair with Slam began just months after my engagement to Academia. Upon entrance into my graduate program for poetry at the University of Virginia, I was dutiful (at first)—being a healthy participant in my classes and making nice with my fellow poets. On weekends I attended the wine gatherings at their homes and on weeknights watched them fly and fumble through their poems at the graduate student readings, where clapping before the end of a poet’s set was taboo. My classmates, a deeply-read group of poets, were pedantic and stimulating.
Though everyone was kind enough, mostly I felt like an outsider—as much as the average person, and more. I was the dash of cinnamon in the cream of the crop, after all. Out of more than 500 poetry applicants, I was one of the 10 chosen. My professors were the rock stars in the world of academic poetry. Whenever the leaves inside my chest started their rustling, I would coach myself to remain grateful, keep engaging myself fully, and learn as much as I possibly could from everything and everyone.
It was harder done than said. In class, luxurious dialogues teeming with theory and jargon felt like a waste of watch hands. The polite nullifications of my ancestors—their contributions to the craft—sent me home fuming. Pretty poems chiseled from ice gave me the shivers. Revealing itself to me all too often was this troubling disconnect between poets and the society that cupped them with both hands. I was once advised by an older classmate not to use “McDonalds” in a poem. Never had I encountered poets so content with saying nothing so long as they uttered it beautifully. Inwardly I cringed as my fellow poets read their poems to morgue-like audiences as if the Rumplestiltskins in their basements in fact wrote the ardent verses.
Soon enough, my eye—and Nissan Sentra—began to wander.
Months into my engagement to Academia, I started seeing Slam. Because my grad program gave me so much room in which to twirl, I couldn’t resist twirling out of state lines, when necessary. Quickly I fell into this public—and competitive—underbelly of poetry, where neglecting to clap after a poem was criminal. Line breaks meant nothing and imagery was scanter than the attire of Playboy bunnies. Here on the slam stage, a message combined with strong vocal chords was, well, gold. With the help of microphones, poets were apt to send one home from the poetry venue with a temporary case of tinnitus. Communicating with their whole bodies, the wild gesticulations of these poets reminded one of step aerobics.
Many of these poets were forces in their communities—teaching writing workshops, organizing youth slams, and collaborating with nonprofit organizations and charities. Their fingers were on the pulse of goings-on about them. Their poems lacked the luxuries of time, obscurity, and hiding behind the pen. Their poems sparkled with fears and dreams. Joys and regrets. Pink elephants, and other witnessings. One got the sense they were seeking to answer that dreaded what’s-your-story question strangers ask in bars, attempting to write the type of poem one would scrawl during the countdown to the world’s end. One also got the sense that these do-or-die poems were being delivered by the poets most likely to be doing everything else but writing poems, were this unfortunate event to occur.
As for the audience, well, this too was a different beast. When slam is at its best, the audience should behave no differently from the variety of sports fans who travel to away games. What else should one expect, considering the cantankerous slammers and rabble-rousing slam hosts who govern these evenings?
I did have some wishbones to pick with fellow citizens of this scene. I found that—not all, but—a startling number of slam poets did not read poetry and could not name 10 poets outside their circle of friends. A Crock Pot of poets stewing in each other. Poets with no relationship with craft. Not only did they refuse to revise, they had a tendency of taking even the friendliest critique too personally—no matter if it came from the mouth of an elder.
While out of town on my bimonthly exploits, I often thought of my fellow poets of the, um, quieter variety—nose deep in tomes in some dungeon of a library—equally rigid in their comfort zones in equally infuriating ways. Yes, I had my issues with them, too. You can’t have it all, I suppose, but every once in a while, you will find this: poets of both worlds. Poets who meander from the slow artistic death of their comfort zones. Poets who inhabit both stage and page—hip opera, wrecking ball—churning out an expression so vital and sparkling that, so long as you remain still enough, you can hear tears drop. Never was it about what kind of poem suits the stage; it has always been about what happens to a poem when it exits the poet in such a way—when the tectonic plates of these two worlds finally stop clashing and simply sing!
What it is to witness—to be—the vessel of such a moment, when stage and page bond covalently. It is an ideal, and a tension I hope informs my art for years to come. After graduation, it took years and many schizophrenic scrawlings to understand this: though my affair with Slam may have been more passionate than my marriage to Academia, each were equally essential to my understanding of what poetry means for my life, my writing, and how to walk through this world as a poet—in my own way, wide-eyed and groping darkness.