Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Happening to Slam Poetry?

The New York Times Wants to Know

Probably nothing would be my guess. But the Times story featuring the impassioned and contradictory opinions of Marc Kelly Smith, the organizer of the first documented poetry slam, is worth reading (you can find it here).

Smith's thinking aside, the premise behind the Times story doesn't work. Slam may be in "danger of going soft" as the headline puts it, but it seems unlikely to happen just because a couple of poets with slam backgrounds got invited to the White House or because HBO produced a documentary series about slam poetry.

Competitive poetry recitations for tiny prizes are frequently fun, engaging, interesting, and just the thing for a small, mostly youthful, primarily urban audience. They can also be absolutely liberating for young artists. And they have taught old poets (some 20th Century ones, anyway) that poetry is something that happens not just in head and heart, but in your bones and on your tongue and out loud.

Slam has changed the work of a huge number of poets, most of them poets who have never gone near a slam event. But Shakespeare changed poetry, too, and permanently, even if very few new sonnets are being published these days. And as Shakespeare has endured, so will slam, perhaps most especially in Chicago at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where Smith's foundational slam still jams.

Slam's audience will stay largely youthful, which means most aging slammers will move on to new experiments with the parts of their art they find most compelling or, perhaps, get pushed off stage by fresh, new slammers. And slam events will stay on the to-do lists of cultural surfers (frequently artists, themselves) who regularly sample the wide varieties of performance and culture offered up in Chicago and other cities around the country and the world. And older poets who need an infusion of new ideas or a little adrenaline or a poem with their beer will continue to show up, too.

And the NYT and staff will move on to covering next year's donkey flu outbreak or, maybe, the WMDs about to be produced any day now by one of Kim Il Sung's descendants (if not this generation, the next, for sure, or the one after, at the latest). Somali pirates are due for a revisit, too.

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