TOPICS > Arts

Poetry Slam

August 17, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: More than 200 poets from dozens of U.S. cities gathered in Chicago last week for the Tenth Annual National Poetry Slam. The idea of poetry performance as competition goes back to the mid 1980′s, when a Chicagoan originated the word “slam” to refer to what some people call poetry as a contact sport.

BOY: Stop tormenting your sister, boy, Little Cass. You will never be bigger than Big Cass.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Slammers mix verse and performance art. They are usually, but not always, young.

GIRL: Don’t let me keep achieving — harder bricks stacked up – then leaving because the levels keep on rising until it’s hard to see inside what I’ve done.

“Soft-spoken revolutionaries”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Poems can’t be longer than three minutes, and contestants are judged numerically, like Olympic ice skaters. Teams from San Francisco and San Jose tied for first place in Chicago. San Francisco’s Ariana Waynes’ poem started out critical of the United States.

ARIANA WAYNES: To the patriots and the activist poets, I sit here in the audience, reeling from the words of the soft-spoken revolutionaries, wondering if I should hate my country as I am strangled by my stars and stripes, Mexican, Armenian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Yugoslavian, Bosnian children cry for inclusion.

Would you have me forget that the blessed first amendment of these United States that I can raise my voice to shake the world, or at least the trembling foundations of this atrocious, ferocious land that I love, but have never been exactly proud of.

Would you have me forget that when I come up on the box, check if you are black but not Hispanic?

Would you have me forget that I am African and Cuban and Jamaican and native American and Chinese.

Would you have me forget that I am all of these, that I am none of these, that I am more than the sum of the Census Bureau statistics or the stereotypes held against me, that I am the product of my everything?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But she ended on a different note.

ARIANA WAYNES: Would you have me forget – is nevertheless one of the few – in which I can speak my mind or pray to whatever God or goddess I choose or choose to refuse without being mutilated or murdered for it?

Would you have me forget that in a large Asian in Southeast Asia the lips of my labia would have been sewn together with a white, hot needle when I was 12?

Would you have me forget that in the mid-sized nation in Central Africa I would be the property of my husband, lord and master?

Would you have me forget that in the modern industrialized nation in Western Europe I would have to flee the country to have an abortion or a divorce?

Would you have me forget that I could be shot as a matter of course for raising my voice?!

And I pray to a God that I gave up with Santa Claus to thank her for birthing me here, where the sidewalks are paved with potholes of potential – and where else would you rather be?

I sit here in the audience reeling from the weight of internal contradictions and hysterical afflictions of patriotic asphyxiation for loving a broken nation that it’s up to us to fix. Power of the people. Remember?

At least it doesn’t take a military coup. Ask not what your country can do for you, because you I am tired through and through of waiting, of hating my home.

I still love my country. I guess it’s like my mama says, I yell because I care. (cheers)

“It’s short for Magdalene”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: New Yorker Roger Bonair-Augard Bonair won the individual competition. Here he is reading a poem that compares his grandmother to Mary Magdalene.

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD, Poet: It’s short for Magdalene, one of the enigmas of biblical law found religion.

I have often questioned her motives, this love of Jesus Christ, this holy supplication to the son of man and I think about Lena, my grandmother, great big woman, skin of ash of city, and hair, whitened with the burden of conviction – and I wonder about this business of weeping and foot washing.

But I can only remember her iron hand and rigid schedules – the admonition on catching me lounging on the outhouse roof. Get down off that thing, boy, you have your book to study. What kind of man do you intend to become?

I recall her jacking up of my equally stern grandfather, informing him of the folly of any repeated attempts to hit her — never does Mary Magdalene come to mind. Not in the helpless, weeping for the crucified way, not in the convenient Catholic depictions of feminine frailty, of morals and spirit.

I know of a Magdalene with fight. More Joan of Arc than Maid Marian, more sojourn of truth than damsel in distress.

And I want to tell the withering two dimensional ghost crouched and crumpled at the foot of the cross, get up and fight, woman. Wake up and live, if you love him. Jack up the Pontious Pilate and refuse surrender. (Cheers)

One day, if I am worthy of her expectations, I will become a man worth crucifying and all her beatings, her lessons, her Puritanism and superhuman rage will have taught me that surrender is not an option.

On that day, I expect to see standing at the foot of whatever urban crossly fashion, all 5’10″ of Lena, pointing one huge gnarled finger at me, the shining authority of her eyes coming from the white forest of her hair, lips trembling in rage, get down off that thing, boy, and fight! What kind of man do you intend to become?

Poetry as a contact sport

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Roger Bonair-Augard joins us now. He lived for 18 years in Trinidad and came here to attend Hunter College. A collection of his poems will be published next month. Ariana Waynes is with us too. She’s a junior at the University of California- Berkeley, and is majoring in creative writing. Congratulations to you both and welcome.

ARIANA WAYNES: Thank you.

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Bonair-Augard, tell me why the use of the word “slam.”

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: You know, there are a number of — there are a couple of legends told about how the word “slam” came about. The originator of the slam, Mark Smith, is the one who came up with the word, and the legend that I think sounds most believable is that he was being interviewed one day about hat he would call this new performance style, this competitive style of performance poetry, and that he had been looking at a baseball game, and he thought, you know, all of a sudden, you now, slam was a good word for it. So from what I understand it, you know, something that happened quite by chance.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you get started slamming?

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: I first started with the Nuyorican poet’s cafe in late ’97. I had been writing — before that, I had been writing poetry, and I walked into the Nuyorican poet’s cafe one day and -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is a café in New York City?

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: That is correct. And I slammed for the first time. And eventually, I won a prelim, and then I won some semis. Then I ended up on the Nuyorican team for that year, for the ’97 Nationals which were in Middletown, Connecticut.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then it just went on from there?

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: Yes. But from then on — what I did after that is the very next year, I coached the Nuyorican team, which won the entire nationals. I was in Austin, Texas, last year. And then I moved on this year to another New York venue called Bar 13, where I was coach and a slammer.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ariana Waynes, how did you get started slamming?

ARIANA WAYNES: Well, I was on campus one day shortly after the movie “Slam” came out, and I saw flyers that Tower Records was holding some sort of slam. I didn’t know what it was or what it was out, but I thought that I would check it out. I only told maybe two people that I was going, and I ended up winning. And that encouraged me to see other slams. And I stumbled entirely accidentally into the San Francisco Bay area spoken word scene, and I met a lot of people who encouraged me to continue participating in the slam and invited me to lots of different events. And I ultimately ended up trying out for the San Francisco team – and making the team and going to nationals.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who are your models? Are your models written poets that you’ve studied or the slammers that you’ve watched? Who?

ARIANA WAYNES: For me, both. Definitely I am very influenced by some contemporary writers like Sandra Cisneros, June Jordan. Maya Angelou is probably the first poet that I ever actually heard perform, and I wanted to be just like her. So — and now absolutely slam poets and performance poets in general have greatly influenced my work and what I want to do with it, absolutely.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Bonair-Augard, who are your models?

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: A number of people. They run the gamut. My mother introduced me to poetry from a really early age. And the first people I remember reading are people like Camil Brafit and Kwesi Johnson and Sonya Sanchez. But they run the gamut all the way from, you know, your Shakespeares and your Coleridge and whatever up to very — you know, the contemporaries. And there are a lot of people on the slam scene, and I’ll probably leave out some names, but people like the bogeyman from Cleveland, Renegade, D.J. Renegade, from D.C.; Patricia Smith, who has won the individual competition four times; and a number of other people who buy the quality of their work, you know, have inspired me, and whose work I hope in style and form to be able to incorporate in mine.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ariana Waynes, what are the other influences on slam besides poetry?

ARIANA WAYNES: Well, there is definitely standup comedy. There’s theatrics. Anything involving performance has been incorporated in slam and has helped shape what slam has become. There are a lot of movement-oriented people. Lots of people that I’m familiar with are dancers, and so they know how to use space well, and so when they’re reforming a poem, they’re very spatially oriented.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.

ARIANA WAYNES: There are people who incorporate sign language. It’s amazing. Any type of performance art has helped shape what slam has become.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Bonair-Augard, what do you say to the people who say “this isn’t really poetry?”

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: I really don’t give too much credence to people who criticize slam as such. Within slam, one of the big criticisms of slam, as with a lot of performance poetry, is that it is not well translatable to the page.

And I have always been an advocate of the fact that I think the best writers are the ones who will most consistently win the slams, because those are the things that will translate well to the stage, so that — and for that matter, you have page poets, so -called, who are not good either, so that it is a kind of a hierarchy, I think, that people tend to try to set up between writers who write for the page and people who write for performance, or people who write for the slam.

And slam has its flaws. It is difficult, I think, to bring it out like poetry and incorporate competition judged by random members of the audience and not have it flawed, but I think what it has definitely done is brought poetry back to people in a way that not many gimmicks have done before.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ms. Waynes, do you agree with that?

ARIANA WAYNES: Absolutely, absolutely. The poetry slam puts poetry in a context which laypeople can grasp and enjoy. It felt like poetry was getting — was really being taken out of the mainstream, and still is rather out of the mainstream. And this has been a mechanism for bringing it back and creating a dialogue between the audience and the performer. It’s like in the coffee shops and academic cafes and all sorts of poetry readings, there was never such a dialogue between the audience and the poet. The audience was to sit still, be quiet, you know, clap quietly after it was all said and done. And now the audience gets to influence what’s going on, and respond and react to it and not just accept what is given. They can make a decision for themselves whether they like and understand and appreciate what they’re seeing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what’s it like, Mr. Bonair-Augard, that audience, to be up there performing in front of them with all the yelling and screaming and everything?

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: It’s — I think it’s a very electric feeling, especially like these last finals. It was a 3,000-seat theater. And it’s difficult to explain how charged that can become. But, you know, the whole idea of the audience and what slam has created is in a kind of a way, it’s made the artist accountable to the people whom he is giving his word to, accountable to the society he is trying to represent. And when you go there and you deliver your work, and it is well received by judges and/or audience, apart from the euphoria that, you know, feeds our egos and so on, there is also the feeling — there is also a certain amount of vindication that, well, you know, I am doing the right thing and I am reaching the people who I want to reach.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us, and congratulations again.

ARIANA WAYNES: Thank you very much.

ROGER BONAIR-AUGARD: Thank you.