Lots of people are dubbing their poetry readings slams these days. Back in the late eighties and early nineties almost no one outside the slam family dared attach the term “poetry slam” to themselves or their events. Slammin’ was low class, silly, clownish, a bunch of drunks waving their arms. Now it’s in fashion. Even at the White House.
That’s good, I guess. But there are some disturbing by-products of becoming fashionable. Mainly, folks who tell other folks what slam is (or stage events they call slams) without having a clear understanding of its roots and principles. For instance, in France there are commercial entities marketing slam as a musical form evolving out of hip hop and others who say it’s competitive poetry that forbids musical accompaniment.
To clear up the confusion, here are a few of the founding principles that supercharged the Get Me High Jazz Club and Green Mill — ones that brought new vigor and audiences to poetry readings and paved the way for others to follow:
1) Poetry slams are open to all styles of poetry, all themes, and all collaborations with other performing (and visual) art forms: dance, music, video, aerobics, etc.
2) Poetry slams are (or should be) designed to attract, entertain, and serve a diverse general audience — everybody on the block. If a show panders exclusively to one class of people or presents one style of poetics, it is counter to the traditions of slam. If it’s only poets reading to poets it is the exact type of poetry reading I reacted against when I started the beast breathing twenty-five years ago. Slams have audience, real audience.
3) Poetry slams are pro/am events not to be dominated by celebrity big wigs or star status seekers stealing stage time and limelight from everyday people and the grassroots organizers who built the slam reputation from nothing and who for the most part have received little material compensation for the sweat, money, and time they gave to it. It’s a people thing, for the people, all the people: grandmas, grandpas, little kids, scientists, lawyers, cops, plumbers, pan-handlers, professors, and beauticians. If it ain’t a mix of everybody — all generations, cultures, nationalities, races, opinions, and points-of-view — it ain’t in the tradition of what I started in Chicago two decades ago.
4) And one more for good measure, poetry slam is a worldwide community of people that cares passionately about poetry and the performance of it. I didn’t envision it crossing the pond and establishing itself in so many nations and cultures (I’m not that smart) but it has. And for the most part its a good thing. I hope it stays that way.