Saturday, July 2, 2011

Poetry Slams: A Fair Target for Disdain?

I was having dinner with a friend last Wednesday night and we were chatting about another poet who I don’t enjoy being around, because they don’t like me—or rather they abhorred the poetry I used to write.  Now I know what you’re thinking, but this has absolutely nothing to do with ego.  I can literally feel a foul “dislike” emitting from their eyes and it’s awkward.  So I avoid it.  The point is that this person wasn’t entirely off their rocker when it came to how I was writing when I first became interested in poetry.
Slam poetry was my initiation into this writing life.  It was that culture that got me to think seriously about how writing and reading poetry aloud could impact people—the audience, as well as the poet.  But the truth is, looking back now; I can empathize with the many who believe it to be flashy and craft-less.  This however does not mean I turn my nose up at it.  In fact I still champion how it gets poetry out there to new audiences, inspires many to pick up the pen, and even reminds academia that poetry can be loud, entertaining and theatrical while still being dynamic and good.  The only difference is now, two yearsire out of an MFA program and even longer out of SoCal’s “slam scene” I’m much more critical.  I want my slam poets—the ones representing my cities—to be better.  I want them to work on their metaphors as much as they do their memorization.  I want them to practice page presence.  And forget about the volume of their voice; I want levels and range from their writing.

I bring this all up because after our dinner conversation, I was fortunate enough to see a young poet feature who is doing these things.  Mae Ramirez is a poet to watch.  She’s just about to begin her own two-year stint in an MFA Program, and if she decides to stick with the form of slam, after what she learns there, she’s going to challenge others to step up their game.

More importantly, Mae and other like-minded writers who see the same value in slam poetry are interested in getting things happening in Long Beach—a city that has a long been dormant in the slam arena—and I’m stoked to see what comes of it.  Long Beach is a thriving city of writers and it deserves a group dedicated to creating a slam that will reflect that.  If anyone can, I feel they will.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t poets competing in slams locally that aren’t doing this either.  But on the occasion that I make it out to a slam today, I still see a lot of awful poems performed with such misplaced earnestness that it bums me out.  Probably because it’s a lot like looking at myself five years ago, wanting to pull that young poet aside and show them so much.

That conversation I had at dinner, followed by Mae’s feature and news about her and others trying to get a slam kicked off in Long Beach was ironically—or maybe perfectly—timed.  Looking back, I can appreciate what that poet’s criticisms were, but feel they stemmed from a blind disdain for slam itself—not my (haphazard) writing of it.  Poetry slams should not be the target of disdain, rather it should be directed at those competing in them, who oblivious, are unwilling to grow as writers.  I want every slam-competing poet I know to be the beacons that those lost souls need.  Mae and her crew give me hope.