Friday, January 06, 2006

Below is an article in the Living/Arts Section of the Globe about the Lizard Lounge and Slam Poetry. Also is Susie Davidson's response in a letter to the Globe, and an interesting discussion with Poet Charles Coe concerning their differing views of Slam vs. Conventional venues.

> The scene is slamming Performance poetry is no longer just an underground art form> > By Ethan Gilsdorf, Globe Correspondent January 4, 2006>

CAMBRIDGE -- Under the Lizard Lounge's amber lights, local poet Eric Darby mixes a verbal cocktail, one part politics, one part personal> experience.> ''What would Jesus drive?" Darby recites from memory as his> three-minute explosive rant about SUVs and religion spills over the> standing-room-only house.> Darby is one of two finalists at this night's poetry slam. He's> competing against Erich Hagan, another talented poet, whose wordplay takes> a different tack.> ''Just hoping to feel necessary," Hagan implores in his tender yet> violent love poem. Both poets receive roars from the mixed-race, multi-age> crowd. After the judges' scores are tallied, Darby wins the night. Which> makes sense, considering he happens to be ranked seventh out of some 500> slam poets nationwide.> The Lizard Lounge may be below street level, but battling> head-to-head with words isn't an underground movement anymore. Whether you> call it performance poetry, slam or spoken word, this literary art is> definitely necessary.> After sharpening its cutting edge on a generation of young poets in> the late '80s and early '90s, spoken word is big again. In Boston, slam> just spawned a new record label and a poetry school. Throughout New> England, spoken word has made significant inroads among academia and into> the suburbs. Slam celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, fully matured> and exerting a stronger influence on the area's cultural scene than ever> before.> ''It's not a novelty anymore," says Jeff Robinson, bandleader and> founder of the Lizard Lounge Poetry Jam, a weekly open-mike slam. In> February, Robinson, his co-host Joyce Cunha, and his jazz trio will mark> nine years of Sunday nights backing up poets in the basement of the> Cambridge nightclub. ''It's here to stay."> Robinson, who also hosts the biweekly radio show ''Poetry Jam" on> WMBR-FM (88.1), launched two important ventures this winter that should> help keep Boston at the hub of the poetry map: a spoken-word label, Poetry> Jam Records, and a teaching venture called the Online School of Poetry,> which begins classes tomorrow.> ''By no means is this a 'slam institution.' Quite the contrary,"> says Robinson, who is 40. His school's teachers may have cut their teeth> in seedy bars, not the halls of academia, but courses like ''Music,> Mythography and Words," with the likes of Patricia Smith and Regie Gibson,> will emphasize more than just high-scoring slam technique. ''Both are very> good page poets who happen to perform well, but they will touch on> performance when the time is right."> Until recently, Robinson would have had to convince more doubters> that writing a good ''slam poem" isn't easy. Spoken-word artists have been> less respected than traditional poets. But the second-class status of slam> is changing.> ''It's different now," says Michael Brown, 65, a Mount Ida College> professor of communication widely credited with bringing slam from Chicago> to Boston 15 years ago with Smith (who is a former Globe columnist). He> was ''slammaster" at Cambridge's other well-regarded spoken-word venue,> the Cantab Lounge, from 1992 to 2004. His ''Dr. Brown's Traveling Poetry> Show" now runs Tuesdays at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square.> ''It used to be hot in here, the atmosphere," Brown says, hanging> out at the Cantab one Wednesday night. ''Now the atmosphere is less hot> but the poetry is better." Unlike a decade ago, he says, younger writers> today have more interesting things to say. Poets are more skilled, their> writing more biting, and their audiences more discerning.> For its part, the Cantab keeps nurturing newcomers. The night Brown> visits his old haunts, a woman named Gina, dressed in tight black clothes> and a sparkling sash, takes the stage.> ''If you can believe it," Gina tells the audience in the malodorous> basement, ''I have worked as a stripper. I can dance around naked. But I'm> terrified to read my poems." The crowd goes easy on her.> The reason a former stripper might risk literary humiliation is> simple: Spoken word is less risque than before. Slams are now found in> elementary schools, teen writing programs, and working-class areas like> Brockton and South Boston. It has infiltrated all walks of life, spreading> from urban centers to places like Providence, Lowell, New Haven,> Burlington, Vt., and even Nantucket.> ''There's been a resurgence lately," says Simone Beaubien, host of> the Cantab's series, which attracts between 50 and 100 spectators each> week. ''I don't know why but I'm not complaining." One explanation is> increased activity: Beaubien organizes a regional slam ''league" among> teams from Boston, Portland, Worcester, and Providence that she's> continuing this winter and expanding to six teams. Adding to the Cantab's> luster is local star Darby, who on Dec. 14 won the right to represent the> Cantab at the Individual World Poetry Slam in Charlotte, N.C., this> February. ''This year is the best we've done since 2000," says Beaubien.> ''It's exciting."> Another ''why" is visibility. Boston slammers reach beyond New> England and have competed in the National Poetry Slam and Individual World> Poetry Slam every year since 1992. Last summer, at the nationals,> Robinson's Lizard Lounge squad came in 16th out of 70 teams. This month,> the Lizard Lounge begins slamming to build its team of poets for 2006> nationals. Anyone can compete. The infrastructure is in place for spoken> word to keep speaking to a new generation.> ''This particular medium seems to be an extremely long-lasting one,"> says Jonathan Wolf, 24, who is the ''slammaster" for Worcester's Poetry> Asylum, a 15-year-old organization. ''With a rich history and grass-roots> involvement, I can't imagine the idea ever being unviable."> That people now expect more than 20-something angst or political> screed from slam has been part of spoken word's maturation as a real art> form. The final hurdle was to convince academia.> Once, a rift existed between two camps -- poet-professors and their> students on one side, and those who ''yell and wave, the wildly> gesticulating types" on the other, as Cantab veteran Adam Stone, 28, of> Somerville puts it. Today there is a two-way bridge, especially in Boston.> Not only have slam poets benefited from more professional training, but> university literature students now read slam-type poems in anthologies.> Meanwhile, their prize-winning poet teachers have jazzed up their> performances with more rhythmic language and lively deliveries.> ''I think the twain are meeting more and more on campus, both> outside the classroom and in the classroom," says Sue Standing, a Wheaton> College English professor and poet. ''The academics have taken on some of> slam's groove and attitude." Standing uses poetry textbooks like ''From> Totems to Hip-Hop" and says students at her suburban campus have organized> their own slams.> Robinson's Online School of Poetry further blurs the academic/slam> divide. For his faculty, Robinson snagged former poet laureate of> California and American Book Award winner Quincy Troupe, a dread-locked> poet known for his powerful, melodic delivery. In September, Troupe> visited Cambridge's Hi-N-Dry Studio, the legendary home base for the band> Morphine, where he spent a highly charged evening recording live with> Robinson's trio and several other spoken word poets -- Askia Toure,> Richard Cambridge, Iyeoka Okoawo, and Patricia Smith. The session will be> the debut release on Robinson's Poetry Jam Records.> During a break between sets, Troupe muses how slam, rap, and hip-hop> have kept the craft vibrant. ''There are some intriguing rhythms that you> can bring into poetry," says Troupe, who is 65 but seems younger. ''You> gotta be a big sponge." All poetry has to be written well, he says, but> working with a live band adds a final, improvisational layer that lets him> weave his ''linguistic gymnastics" around the music.> Then Troupe sits back to hear Okoawo, who is representing the Lizard> Lounge at the Individual World Poetry Slam in February.> ''I want to believe that everything happens for a reason," Okoawo> pleads in a raw poem -- part speech, part song, part sermon. Her body> shimmies as each line rises to the surface. ''What reason comes from Ritas> and Katrinas? All of what we think we know can all end abruptly.">

<> > > There is a "slam rift" between local poets, too> > There exists another, longstanding divergence of opinion besides the> one between poet-professors and slam poets ("The scene is slamming," Jan.> 4, F1). In 1992, when Brown and Smith brought the slam to the venerable> Stone Soup Poetry forum at T.T. the Bear's Place in Cambridge, both the> host, Jack Powers, and a large camp of local poets, who included myself,> just did not feel right about the phenomenon. We have continued to shun> competitive poetry ever since. Now, as then, we feel that the competitive> format can both discourage quality work and detrimentally affect the> fragile artistic egos that are part and parcel of writers. The fact that a> randomly-chosen team of "judges" (who are often spectators with no poetry> background) has the power to inflict these possible repercussions adds to> the unreality of the situation. Back then, we referred to ourselves as> "PUNS - Poets United, Not Slammed."> Jack Powers didn't like what he saw in this scene and what it did to> his poets, who were by nature more supportive than competitive, and what> it did to the poetry he saw performed. He asked them to leave the venue,> and they relocated to Booksellers' in Porter Square and ultimately to the> Cantab, where the rodeo-type atmosphere was more conducive to what they> do. Stone Soup remains a noncompetitive venue which meets every Monday> evening at Out of the Blue Gallery in Central Square, Cambridge.> I say, here's to the Word in its purest form - not its contrived,> theatrical, cutthroat variant.> SUSIE DAVIDSON> Brookline> > Susie Davidson> 19 Winchester St. #806> Brookline, MA 02446> 617-566-7557

> Susie,> > I'm glad you sent that letter to the Globe. You make some important> points. > > I wasn't at any of the Stone Soup events the slam poets started attending,> but I think Jack was 100 percent right in asking that they find another> venue. I really do feel that slam and the more conventional approach to> speaking/reading poetry are ultimately incompatible. I attended a few> slams some years back and quickly realized that it wasn't for me. > > However, I took take issue with some of your letter. Specifically, I think> it's unfortunate that you describe slam as "contrived, theatrical, and> cutthroat." There are a lot of decent, well-meaning, generous people who> participate in that culture, and I don't think you're being fair to them.> Too often, people who feel passionately about their art (as you clearly> do) approach it almost like religious fundamentalists who claim to have> the "truth" and decry others as infidels. > > I personally made peace with the slam culture; by that I mean that yes, I> have a visceral, negative reaction to it. But I realize that reaction> reflects my personal esthetic--it doesn't represent some esthetic Law of> the Universe proving that my position's the "right" one. > > Let the slammers go their way, and folks like us go ours. After all, other> art forms a tremendous range of tastes and styles--everything from> Beethoven to Black-Eyed Peas--can peacefully co-exist. Why should poetry> be any different?>

> Respectfully,> Charles Coe>

Charles:You're right, I don't mean to condemn, and of course, I don't go to them. But I've never been much of a passive objector, and I especially feel that it's important in a huge public forum like the Globe to state the other side, lest everyone reading think that slams are accepted by basically all poets. The competitition aspect is important enough to me that I do speak out against it. As Billy Bragg says, wherever you see injustice, you have to speak out. OK, the slam is not racism or bigotry or exploitation (well, maybe a little), but competition isn't cool, and who knows what receiving a "2" might do to an emerging and sensitive would-be poet (I saw more than a few cases of very crushed egos where I had to reassure poet friends that their work was worthy, back then).Thanks again for your reasoned discussion - I think if it continues tho we should take it off-list so as not to bombard these other folks here - unless any of them contribute.Thanks again!SusieSubject: RE: my letter sent to Globe this a.m.Susie,I hear what you're saying. And my experience with/opinion of slams is prettymuch the same as yours.But again I gotta say, "If you don't like slams, DON'T GO TO THEM." I don'tknow what purpose is served by publicly, and categorically, condemning otherartists...Charles> > > Thanks Charles. I hear you, and I'm sure there are plenty of nice, quiet,> nonjudgmental folks who attend and participate in slams. However, my own> experiences have just been too revealingly similar for me to not maintain> my overall anti-slam position. If it isn't the judging of art, then it's> the contrived performing and content, and then it's the roar of the> cheering and heckling, which is just deafening, if not high-school> cheerleaderish. The whole thing just ain't poetry to me, but more of a> Colloseum-type event.> Sorry to rush, but off to Florida for the weekend (SORRY!).>


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