Thursday, August 23 2001, 6:36 PM
Another year, and another National Poetry Slam is complete, with Team Dallas taking the 2001 crown from host city Seattle last week. Bad Subjects marked the occasion by convening the following group discussion to talk about slam, an art form in transition from underground sensation to corporate sponsorship. Since Berkeley is Bad's production hub, and some of us are Oakland nationalists, this poets' summit focuses on East Bay performance poetry, a more inclusive term which allows ritual theater and neo-griot polemics into the mix, along with the tighter confines of three-minutes-and-you re-off-the-mike slamming.
Such distinctions of geography and genre are far from academic, since one of the first things to confront in writing about performance poetry is its internal diversity. The night Bad met five of the scene's leading lights at La Peña, there were poetry events in the concert room, the café, and the bar next door, each with its own flavor, its own rituals, its own favored and frowned-upon styles. Performance poetry draws crowds large enough to merit coverage as a phenomenon, to move from the backpages of event listings to the front of the newspaper, yet too often, critical analysis telescopes an art form into a single night's gathering, hailing or condemning a popular practice on the basis of singular successes or failings.
This poets' summit doesn't claim to represent such a divergent phenomenon. One of the things East Bay performance poetry does is chuck the notion of representation in art and substitute hip-hop's value of representing of manifesting, testifying, breaking it down, telling it, letting the spirit move you, or any other of the myriad phrases people have devised to refer to the power of individually borne and conveyed experience. In place of an epic poet's grand scale and sweeping pronouncements, performance poetry often substitutes a first-person voice that is at once individually specific and culturally rooted, able to locate the epic qualities in everyday life. While the I, I, I, at poetry slams often gets satirized as me first self-indulgence, or essentialist identity politicking, more often poets use it as a tool, digging into personal pasts in a Herculean effort to clean out the stables of imperialist culture, root out the foulnesses there, and create new ways of identifying and relating to themselves and other people.
The poets featured here have all done their I-work. They have all performed in groups that create new arrangements of "I"s, to foster a collective sense of what these "I"s have in common. They have all produced and promoted poetry events, and most of them have brought their creative, analytical, and professional skills to the next generation of poets, as artists working in Bay Area public schools. They are all in their late twenties (to be charitable in some cases) and they see themselves as a generation in-between between the elders of their arts movements, who could not study people's history in public school, and the youth who take this for granted, along with the presence of poets in schools and the slam at the cultural center next week. The following discussion represents five Gen-X intellectuals, responding to some of the issues and transformations on the scene they've been making for quite some time.
Aaron Shuman is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.