Poetry for the People
The National Poetry Slam comes to Albuquerque
By Steven Robert Allen
By next Wednesday, the Hotel Blue will be packed full of rowdy performance poets from all over the continent. By the time they check in, they'll be pumped up and ready to stage dive into a four-day, knock-down, drag-out contest of live versifying the likes of which our city has never seen. The 135-room hotel located at Central and Eighth Street is serving as the official headquarters for the 2005 National Poetry Slam. Part conference, part festival, part bloody, fight-to-the-death contest of verbal skill and will, the event is about to invade Albuquerque with a vengeance.
Veteran Albuquerque poet Danny Solis recently retired from slamming, but he's one of the 2005 National Poetry Slam's main organizers. During his distinguished slam career, he's performed on eight national teams, made four final four appearances and nabbed two national team titles. In other words, Solis knows a thing or two about how the grand pooh-bah of all slam events should go down.
"I feel like this is the biggest, most important thing I've ever done in my life," he says. "I take a slightly different approach from a lot of organizers in that I want to not just put on a good show and make sure the audience is comfortable. I want to honor the poets because I understand how hard these artists work to do what they do. I also understand that for some of these poets, this will be their only chance to get to the nationals and represent. I want to make sure they have the most incredible artistic experience of their lives. If we set the table for the poets to do that, obviously the audience is going to have a great time, too."
Whether or not you're a poetry fan, this event, which runs from Wednesday, August 10, through Saturday, August 13, will provide quite a spectacle.
"The entire poetry slam community, internationally, has been waiting patiently to come to Albuquerque," says New York City poet Taylor Mali, himself a member of four national champion slam teams. "The expectation is that this is going to be the best National Poetry Slam championship yet. Last year, the National Poetry Slam was in St. Louis, and it was a bit wonky. But Danny Solis has been in this game from the beginning, and everyone knows that he puts on a good show."
So slip on your poetry shoes, doll yourself up and get ready to hit the town. A three-ring circus of spoken word is about to roll into Albuquerque, and you won't want to miss it.
The Story of Slam
The history of the poetry slam is a somewhat complicated one, but most people trace its roots back to a weekly event at a Chicago club called the Green Mill, an uptown jazz bar once frequented by Al Capone. Back in 1986, a poet and construction worker named Marc Smith began organizing competitive poetry events every Sunday evening to pump some juice into traditional readings.
Smith developed the basic rules for the poetry slam that are still in use today, and his Uptown Poetry Slam soon became one of the most famous poetry events in the world. To this day, it continues to run every Sunday evening at the Green Mill, drawing packed crowds of both locals and out-of-town poetry fanatics from around the globe.
It's the National Poetry Slam, though, that's become the big mama of slam championship tournaments. Started in 1991, it's held in a different city each year, bringing in three- to five-person teams from all over North America and even Europe to compete in an event that has become to the poetry slam what the World Series is to baseball. It's the largest performance poetry festival in the world, and this year will be the biggest yet with 75 teams descending on Burque to compete for the title.
Yet the National Poetry Slam is quite a bit more than just a contest. Throughout the course of the four-day event, poets will also perform at noncompetitive open mics and conduct themed readings. This year, the daytime events will occur at the National Hispanic Cultural Center's performing arts complex.
Survival of the Fittest
Don McIver is one of the most active and visible members of Albuquerque's poetry community. He hosts a monthly reading at the Blue Dragon Coffeehouse as well as "Spoken Word Hour," a poetry program that airs every Sunday evening at 11:30 p.m. on KUNM 89.9 FM. McIver is the publicity director for this year's National Poetry Slam.
"We'll have lots of themed readings," he says, "that won't have anything to do with the competition—an African-American showcase, an Asian showcase, a Jewish showcase, a Latino showcase, a women's showcase, etc. There'll be a war and peace reading, a group peace reading, a nerd reading, a hip-hop reading. We'll also be screening several documentaries about poetry and slamming."
The main events, though, are the slam bouts themselves. When night falls on the city, competitions will begin at various venues all over downtown Albuquerque with the final competition occurring Saturday evening at the Kiva Auditorium.
"On the first two nights, bouts are held in eight venues, all Downtown, half of them over 21, half all-ages," says McIver. "All the registered teams get to read both nights. On the third night, though, it's whittled down to 20 teams. On the fourth and final night, the four remaining teams compete for the title."
From the earliest days of Marc Smith's weekly slam at the Green Mill, the competitive element was designed to make attending a reading as entertaining as possible and to bring new people into the world of poetry.
"The whole genius behind the poetry slam," says Mali, "is that it's judged by randomly selected members of the audience who may or may not know anything about poetry. But they know what they like, and they know what they think sucks. That means every judge is entitled to their own crazy opinions about what poetry should be. You can get bigoted, homophobic, left-wing, vegetarian, conspiracy theorists as judges, and their scores cannot be challenged, only lamented. This thing called slam, it's not for the thin-skinned."
Many poetry slam veterans, however, insist that the focus isn't really on victory and competition. "The whole point of slam is to make poetry more popular," says Solis, "which it's done. I mean, if we think we can fill 2,000 seats in the Kiva, obviously poetry is more popular than it was."
The National Poetry Slam's unofficial slogan is actually, "The points are not the point; the point is poetry." Of course, that slogan is mainly put out there to comfort the dozens of losers who are forced to waddle home with their tails between their legs because they got walloped on stage.
"I think poetry slams are just an extension of the competition that already exists in poetry," says Solis. "Open Poets & Writers, and see how many contests there are in there. There are hundreds of them listed in every issue. But who judges them? Editors behind closed doors. Slam just makes competition public and democratizes it by asking people who aren't poetry experts to make a judgment based on the emotion and connection between themselves and the poet."
Outside the Academy
The widespread popularity of poetry slams have opened them up to predictable attacks. These attacks have primarily come from academic poets and literary critics who seem puzzled and sometimes even angered by the democratizing effect slams have had on the world of poetry.
"Some time ago," says Mali, "Harold Bloom, the influential critic from Yale, wrote in The Paris Review that poetry slams were ’the death of art.' But when asked to be interviewed for a book on slams, he declined and said he'd never been to one!"
Such ill-informed opinions from academics are common. Solis points out that Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate, once said that poetry slams are to poetry what Jerry Springer is to television. "I just think they feel threatened," Solis says. "Someone like Pinsky could never do something like what [four-time national individual champion] Patricia Smith does. I think she's a better writer, but if she's a better performer, too, it makes Pinsky irrelevant."
Solis believes that blanket judgments about poetry slams usually come from people unfamiliar with the subculture of slam. "Poetry slam is so huge and so diverse right now you could go to 50 slams and still barely scratch the surface and the richness of the thing that is poetry culture. And everyone's welcome, that's the big thing. Go to the opera—everybody's over 30 and white. Go to a hip-hop concert—everyone's under 30 and dressed the same. Go to a poetry slam, and everybody's welcome, gays, straights, blacks, whites, everyone. That to me is the most beautiful thing about the poetry slam. Everybody has a seat at the table."
The Hometown Crew
This year, Albuquerque's slam team consists of city champion Hakim Bellamy along with Kenn Rodriguez, Esme Vaandrager, Cuffee and Carlos Contreras. "They're a great team," says Solis. "They've got chemistry that I haven't seen on an Albuquerque team since 1997. And I was on three teams in between. They really love each other. They've got the right combination of chemistry, talent and work ethic."
Even so, with 75 teams competing, making it into the final four will be a tough challenge, even if the Albuquerque team can find some way to benefit from their home field advantage. Regardless of who wins and who loses, though, organizers are confident that this year's National Poetry Slam will be a success.
"St. Louis was underpublicized and underattended," says McIver. "It was definitely one of the worst nationals ever. They put poets in hostile venues in inappropriate parts of town where they didn't normally do slams. We've definitely learned from their mistakes."
So whether you're a closet versifier or just a curious bystander, come on out and see the show. Odds are you won't see anything quite like it in Albuquerque for a long time to come.
For additional details about the 2005 National Poetry Slam, go to nps2005.org.
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