This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 423,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The New York Times: Is Slam in Danger of Going Soft?

Sally Ryan for The New York Times
Marc Kelly Smith ("So What?"), creator and host of a weekly contest at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago, said the singer Tom Waits influenced his slam poetry style.
LARRY ROHTER
Published: June 2, 2009

CHICAGO — Slam poetry was invited into the White House last month and it is also the focus of the recent HBO documentary series “Brave New Voices.” So you might think that the originator of the poetry slam, a raucous live competition that is more likely to take place in a bar than in a bookstore, would be feeling rather pleased these days.

But from his base here at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, Marc Kelly Smith expresses mixed feelings about the growing popularity and respectability of the art form that he created almost 25 years ago. From the start, he envisioned slam poetry as a subversive, thumb-your-nose-at-authority movement, and he wants to ensure it stays true to those origins.

“At the beginning, this was really a grass-roots thing about people who were writing poetry for years and years and years and had no audience,” Mr. Smith said recently, just before his weekly Sunday night slam at the Green Mill. “Now there’s an audience, and people just want to write what the last guy wrote so they can get their face on TV. Well, O.K., but that’s not what people in this country, from Marc’s point of view, need. We’ve got too much of that. This show wasn’t started to crank out that kind of thing.”

Like it or not, Mr. Smith’s concept has become a global phenomenon, especially among young people, who, helped by exposure to hip-hop, seem more comfortable with the idea that poetry belongs both “on the stage and on the page.” Slam poetry has been incorporated into school curriculums across the country; more than 80 cities now compete in the annual national championship; and similar contests are springing up in the most unlikely places, most recently on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

“I think that perhaps Marc sees this as snowballing out of control,” said Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, author of “The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry” and a slam poet herself. “This is something that started in Chicago as a group of oddballs who wanted to do some pretty avant-garde things, but over the years, as it entered the commercial sphere, it has gotten more and more homogenous and started catering to a demographic mainstream.”

The poetry event that President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted at the White House on May 12 was a “jam” rather than a slam, perhaps to distance it from the sometimes boisterous atmosphere that Mr. Smith promotes. The evening included performances by two college-age slammers who have appeared on “Brave New Voices” and by Mayda del Valle, a slam poet from Chicago who won the national slam competition in 2001.

The Chicago connection is not coincidental. As Ms. Somers-Willett put it, “Chicago is America’s poetry city, with a rich, rich tradition of orality and performance-oriented poetry that goes way back,” at the very least to Carl Sandburg and Kenneth Rexroth in the first decades of the 20th century.

The Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, also has its headquarters here, and in April set up a Chicago Poetry Tour that includes 22 sites around the city. (An online version of the tour can be downloaded at poetryfoundation.org.) One of the stops is the Green Mill, Mr. Smith’s artistic home since 1986.

“What Marc Smith has achieved here and around the world is remarkable,” said Stephen Young, program director of the Poetry Foundation. “The slam movement summons a lot of energy and has taught some traditional poets a thing or two about how to read their poems in public.”

Yet Mr. Smith and his disciples still raise the hackles of what he refers to as “the academic poets,” on both sides of the cultural wars. Amiri Baraka, a Marxist who is known for his politically provocative poetry, has said, “I don’t have much use for them because they make the poetry a carnival” and “elevate it to commercial showiness, emphasizing the most backward elements.”

On the other side of the divide, Jonathan Galassi, now the honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets, once described slam poetry as a “kind of karaoke of the written word,” while the critic Harold Bloom has called it “the death of art” and complained of “various young men and women in various late-night spots” who “are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other.” George Bowering, a former poet laureate of Canada, condemns slams as “abominations” that are “crude and extremely revolting.”

Mr. Smith seems to relish such attacks. The initial impulse for slam poetry, he acknowledged, came from his disdain for the conventional poetry readings he attended when he first began to study the craft.

“I went to them, and they were stupid and horrible, with nobody in the audience, and somebody up there onstage throwing all these allusions around, acting as if it’s a crowded room and he’s communicating,” he said. “So I started looking at these poetry readings like, ‘These people don’t know what they are doing.’ And they didn’t, which gave me the confidence to say, ‘Well, I can do that.’ ”

A college dropout, Mr. Smith, born in 1949, worked for more than a decade as a surveyor and construction worker. At the same time he was also writing and reading poetry, verse from Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, all of whom he admires, to Ezra Pound, “who I hated, because, what is he saying, you know?” But when asked about influences on the slam style, he mentions the singer-songwriter Tom Waits first. On hearing songs by Mr. Waits, like “Putnam County,” he said, “it was like: ‘What was that? Wow.’ ”

To spread his version of the slam poetry gospel, Mr. Smith has recently released two books, “Take the Mic” and “Stage a Poetry Slam,” which he wrote with Joe Kraynak. In addition, the Sunday sessions he leads at the Green Mill are broadcast nationally on Sirius XM satellite radio.

He also continues to refine the show here, which consists of an initial open-microphone set, followed by a performance by an invited artist and finally the competition. But since “the competition from my point of view is meant not to be serious, but a mockery,” the first prize is $10, which is an improvement over the Twinkie he used to offer.

“The gimmick here has always been to entertain you and then pow, put it right in you,” he said. “Slam is a serious art form that seems like it’s just a big, goofy thing. But it’s deadly serious. Why do it? Why do any art if you’re not going to bring out of yourself the thing that is most vulnerable and most precious, that has to be said? Why do something unless you’re really trying to get at what it’s really about? And that’s what this show is.”

Read more about slam poetry.
Mayda del Valle at the White House Poetry Jam

5 comments:

Emily Lyons said...

Okay...yes, I think it's going soft. In fact, I think it's been soft for a long time. I think Harold Bloom is a colossal douche who doesn't know what he's talking about, and Amiri Baraka, while I respect him, seems to be missing the point.
I think good slam moves you, makes you think, and makes you aware. To paraphrase St. Paul, like love, ... Read Moreslam should not be boastful or arrogant or rude, but rejoice in truth. I think it's rare that slam--however impassioned and well-intentioned--is anything but boastful, arrogant and rude these days. And largely because, as Susan Somers-Willett put it in the article, "it has gotten more and more homogeneous and started catering to a demographic mainstream." I still support the idea of slam, but I don't blame Marc Smith for his disillusionment.

Christopher Fox Graham said...

I've always thought of good slam poetry as another genre, like sestinas or haiku. Granted, once an anti-authoritarian art form gets the POTUS as an audience, whether he or she is from Chicago or not, it's no longer anti-authoritarian for all intents and purposes.
When the revolutionaries get into power, the revolution is over and no amount of ... Read MoreCultural Revolution is going to dissuade the masses that the revolutionaries aren't in power. But once it gets into that position, it needs to change shape. Yes, slam has come a long way from bucking the system, but once it began to spread, it could no longer be the beast Marc Smith bore. But that was the irony of slam itself: he created it essentially as a gimmick to get people interested in poetry, he shouldn't be surprised that people got interested. As far as I was concerned, the death of slam as avant-garde wasn't Def Poetry but when the mayor of Albuquerque kicked off NPS 2005.
Of course, there were steps long, long before, perhaps the first newspaper article about slam or the first NPS in 1990, or the first time a slam poet sold a chapbook. Marc Smith seems to want slam to still be edgy, which it can be, but at the same time wants slam to successfully connect with audiences worldwide. He rides the fence that we all do: ... Read Morewe want to be seen as fighting the system, but when we get paid to feature, paid to host slams, or offered to read slams in schools, we have to say we're fighting that system either tongue-in-cheek or fighting from the inside.
As long as articles keep coming about slam that put it into context as social and artistic criticism, I'm happy that it enters self-reflective analysis beyond the typical "anti-slam slam poem."
However, Bloom is a douche, or at least an "old fuddy-duddy dunder-head" as others have claimed.
Off topic, when I first uploaded Susan Somers-Willett's Website, http://www.susansw.com/ I thought she was you. Just for a second.

Christopher Fox Graham said...

I've always thought of good slam poetry as another genre, like sestinas or haiku. Granted, once an anti-authoritarian art form gets the POTUS as an audience, whether he or she is from Chicago or not, it's no longer anti-authoritarian for all intents and purposes.
When the revolutionaries get into power, the revolution is over and no amount of Cultural Revolution is going to dissuade the masses that the revolutionaries aren't in power. But once it gets into that position, it needs to change shape. Yes, slam has come a long way from bucking the system, but once it began to spread, it could no longer be the beast Marc Smith bore. But that was the irony of slam itself: he created it essentially as a gimmick to get people interested in poetry, he shouldn't be surprised that people got interested. As far as I was concerned, the death of slam as avant-garde wasn't Def Poetry but when the mayor of Albuquerque kicked off NPS 2005.
Of course, there were steps long, long before, perhaps the first newspaper article about slam or the first NPS in 1990, or the first time a slam poet sold a chapbook. Marc Smith seems to want slam to still be edgy, which it can be, but at the same time wants slam to successfully connect with audiences worldwide. He rides the fence that we all do: we want to be seen as fighting the system, but when we get paid to feature, paid to host slams, or offered to read slams in schools, we have to say we're fighting that system either tongue-in-cheek or fighting from the inside.
As long as articles keep coming about slam that put it into context as social and artistic criticism, I'm happy that it enters self-reflective analysis beyond the typical "anti-slam slam poem."
However, Bloom is a douche, or at least an "old fuddy-duddy dunder-head" as others have claimed.
Off topic, when I first uploaded Susan Somers-Willett's Website, http://www.susansw.com/ I thought she was you. Just for a second.

Emily Lyons said...

Good point about riding that fence, and also ... slam is as slam does. Slam IS the poets. And at least from what I've seen in the past however many years, a disproportionate number of slam poets are middle class, straight, white men who want so much to speak on behalf of people who don't resemble them: 1) Because these men (most of them) aren't talented or insightful or introspective or hard core enough to put their own lives and struggles out in front of an audience in a way that's both thoughtful and thought-provoking--unless it's a self-deprecating, quasi-autobiographical sex poem played for cheap laughs. (Which, by the way, has got to be a blow to one's ego night after night--again, I'll bring up the "I don't want to fuck a fat chick poem" because it sticks in my mind as being something that's genuinely honest, thought-provoking, funny and sad. I couldn't say about artistry; I don't remember it that well.)
2) Because that's what slam is "supposed to be about" . . . right? I'm sorry, but I don't want to hear a poem in which a to empathize or capture the emotional state of a girl who has been raped. Men can write good poems about rape. It is possible. Men, however, cannot speak for women who have been raped. There seems to be some confusion about this distinction among slam poets. I'm just using this as an example, but I think it's a good example because I've heard too many of these poems to ignore the trend.
This goes back to what I said above about poets being impassioned and well-intentioned. I believe that male slam poet X sits down to write a poem responding to the rape case he read in the paper, truly believing in his heart that rape is an awful thing. I believe that this same poet thinks he is serving the human race by putting the belief of his heart in a slam piece.
And I believe that that same poet has, in the back of his head, a voice that says, "If I write this poem about rape and really put my feelings out there, and maybe tweak this detail here and that detail there to amp up the emotional impact, I am going to win some serious points at the slam."
Poems on difficult topics that touched me the first time I saw them performed really lost me the second, third, fourth, fifth times around because the poet was acting, and any real emotion in the words was long gone. I find that kind of disgusting, actually. It's a disgusting spectacle, and it perpetuates victimization and disempowerment. If men stopped raping women tomorrow, what would Aaron Levy write a poem about?
You know what I mean? Too much of slam, fueled by the competitive elements, takes messages of real social weight out of the mouths of those who own them and repackages it as entertainment. And young people (an older people too) who go to watch buy into what they're sold--this message that this is really socially cutting edge and breaking down barriers and whatnot. I guess slam really has gotten a generation of people interested in writing, which is good, but has taught them to write bad, wrong-headed poetry, which is bad. Anyway. I could go on and on, and I already have, so...

Yes, Susan Somers-Willett looks uncannily like me. I'd take her credentials, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such stories. I love to read articles like this. BTW add more pics :)