Still Trying to Show Slam the Door

by D. Garcia Wahl

Any regular reader of this column is well aware that I am not an admirer of Slam. (Note how I say Slam and not Slam poetry.) So when I read that there would be a class in which Lisa Arnold taught teenagers Slam, my brain began to bleed (a slight hemorrhage, mind you). When others learned I was going to write about this class, children were pulled off the streets, Middle Eastern leaders realized the pettiness of their disagreements, and two seals of Armageddon were broken. It is my firm and ongoing belief that the manner in which poetry is being taught in this country serves the art form the greatest disservice.

I wrote to Lisa Arnold and to my great and humbled amazement she derailed me with six little words:

"Slam poetry is performance art."

If for no other reason than this, I found respect for Lisa Arnold and bestow upon her the first ever SHADY DEALINGS TOUCH OF ENLIGHTENMENT AWARD. For years I have said this and for the same number of years I have been maligned by anyone who performs or appreciates Slam. Lisa is the first person I have met within the Slam community to allow for so bold a statement. Slam is performance art, plain and simple and I can appreciate it as just that. Yet Slam holds so firmly to the need to incorporate that word "poetry" in its title as an element of status.

"This does not mean that the text the poets perform aren't literary but it doesn't mean they are either," Lisa continues. "Some slam poems are well written and make lovely page pieces; some are not. Sometimes poems aren't well written because of the talent/time of the writer but sometimes they're not `well written' (in the traditional sense) because that's not the intent. Poets who slam know that the audience can't stop and mull over a passage in the moment - nuances have to be configured in another way. Poets who don't perform know that a gesture can't contradict the language they've chosen so they have to use other tools to convey their ideas and feeling; different limitations provide different choices."

Why would anyone write something without the intent of it being well written? I have yet to go through a "Slam poetry" anthology and find a single piece that works on the written page. This is the beginning of where the word "poetry" needs to be separated from Slam. I can read poetry to an improvised Jazz backing. Both forms can exist separately. In the case of Slam, poetry is unnecessary. And if poetry is unnecessary, then Slam must exist as Slam and not overextend itself as Slam poetry.

"It's funny how often slam poets get asked to sort of defend how well their work would stand up on page. I wish people would ask poets who write for the page and don't perform how well their work stands up read aloud to the crowd. Could they get a room full of people to stand on their chairs and cheer? If the answer is no, does it make their poetry less acceptable? Less interesting? Less important? Less relevant? Maybe, maybe not. Oral traditions continue and have been held in contempt by traditional western culture for centuries; we're seeing that continue today. I think there's room enough for any and all poets on the planet, we should be supporting and learning from each other," says Lisa.

Well now we will disagree a bit (though she does not lose my respect). Yes, a good poet can make an audience stand and cheer. It's the movement of good poetry. And, while I honor the great Greek oral tradition of poetry, it is simply a matter in which the context of poetry is displayed and the underlying relevance that I question.

But when Ms. Arnold says that there is enough room for any and all poets on this planet, I hear Dorothy Parker explain how everyone throws around the word "artist" and how "that is not a word that is elastic" and I continue to apply the same thought to title "poet".

"You can call slam poets performance artists and you can call them slammers and you can also call them poets. I don't think people/performers/art practices have to fit neatly into one spot. Why can't slam poets fit in with all three of these categorizations and more? Diana Taylor, a theatre scholar, says the problem with labels is that they work to define but not contain. I agree."

Lisa, I can agree with that as well, but we also need to understand boundaries. It's as when, with the old Twin Cities' List of Artists, everyone wanted to have "poet" listed in their title even when they were a solely a sculptor or a painter. It was a need for a further (and higher) recognition. They mistook "poetry" for "poetic". There is a need for boundaries. While labels must never contain, they must never be offered an ignorant free license as well.

Let's look at poetry by mere definition and apply it to Slam:

I say the greatest definition of poetry comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins who said that it is the "common language heightened". By this definition Slam must never take on "poetry" in its title.

Lisa turns to Jack McCarthy's definition. He says that once you've written something and other people call it a poem, anything you write after that and call a poem, is valid.

Lisa, you just lost me. What Mr. McCarthy said is pure idiocy. It allows for absolutely anything to be a poem. It allows for a group of people who have never read or understood poetry to determine what a poem is. But I do think that it is by this reason that Slammers have permitted a complete misunderstanding of what poetry is.

In the end, I got the impression that Lisa Arnold uses Slam as a tool she employs in theatre. She says she includes Slam as part of her theatre syllabus.

"I come from theatre training. I want whole bodies involved - participants do movement exercises, active listening, trust exercises, pair and share, free-writing, reading aloud, performing works in progress, critical analysis... multi-sensory, intellectual/emotional approaches."

For Lisa to teach Slam in perspective of theatrical training is good idea. As previously stated, it is performance art. But be careful not to make of it what it is not.

As for the class itself, it was cancelled due to lack of enrollment.