Everyone's a Poet: Criticizing the Poetry Slam
Issue #8, October 1993
'The spirit of a poetry slam is similar to what would happen if a sensitive soul stood up on New York subway train and began to recite rhymed couplets.'
— (From a recent Bay Guardian blurb on the National Poetry Slam)
People often exhibit a singular attraction to artists of all types: poets, writers, painters. Society celebrates the artist as a unique figure separate from the mundane rhythms of everyday life. With this celebration in mind, many people aspire to enter the artistic sphere, yet soon realize this sphere is ultimately open only to those with the appropriate level of inspiration, with THE GIFT.
This general phenomenon is joined by a related but more specific one, namely the profusion of amateur poets, poetry slams and open-mike nights. Central to these events is their populist inflection. The common man and common woman with day jobs and who are not personal friends of the muse find in the slam or open-mike night a public forum and an appreciative audience for their work. It is also significant that many slams and open-mike nights are held in bars, or, in other words, outside of socially sanctioned locations for the presentation of art, e.g., museums and theaters. This combination of populism and 'outsider' status represents a critical commentary on the dominant way cultural and aesthetic meaning is produced in society.
In examining slams and the like I am working towards a political approach to culture. It is not so much the cultural 'text' and its content that are important to me, rather I am interested in the relative social positions of the artist and the cultural consumer. These positions are heavily influenced by the interaction between art and the market economy. Within our economy aesthetic products are commodified to an enormous extent. Works, especially those of popular culture, are seen not so much as moments of creativity but as objects to be bought and sold. This manufacture of creative works possesses its own division of labor. The expression of creativity and the shaping of culture is the job of a select few, that is, the professional artists. These individuals are separated from the rest of society by what is deemed to be artistic genius or, more often than not, by a professional education. Genius or education are the pass keys to the houses of American culture: studios, magazines and publishing houses.
Once inside, the artist, and here I am thinking primarily of a pop culture artist like Michael Crichton, enjoys a privileged and enviable position. He has the opportunity to express himself and contribute to the shaping of American culture even if his work is distorted by market relationships. After all, it is better to produce art and thereby contribute to culture, however banal and commodified it may be, than to be excluded from any sort of artistic and cultural production.
In contrast to the productive artist, most individuals are in fact excluded from directly shaping the cultural context that frames their everyday lives. Presented with cultural products, the individual can only choose whether to buy or not to buy. Forced into the more or less passive position of the consumer, this individual does not so much participate in shaping the cultural context as she simply validates it with her movie or paperback purchase.
With these uneven cultural positions in mind, the societal tribute paid to the figure of the artist appears in a new light. Behind this tribute, the desire of the many to shape culture is coupled with their jealously of the artist for her ability to do so.
The argument up to this point still leaves open the question, What does all of this have to do with poetry slams and open-mike nights? I read slams and open-mikes as popular initiatives aimed at shaping the cultural and aesthetic context and regaining for the participants the freedom of creative expression. Participants attempt to enter the artistic sphere by creating new places for creativity outside popular culture. As such slams and open-mikes draw attention to the passivity and exclusion that dominate in popular culture generally. It is fair to say these events contain a moment of cultural critique and commentary.
Yet identifying this critical moment opens up even more questions. One of these is, What are we to make of this critique? Left-wing analysis often examines cultural and political phenomena for both their regressive and progressive elements. In Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebrve defines the essence of such a project:
'The true critique of everyday life will have as its prime objective the separation between the human(real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life.'
As much as I embrace this project, it leaves me at times profoundly unsatisfied. Then, even when one has located the progressive elements, one cannot look past the fact that these elements are surrounded and vitiated by powerful and regressive social relationships.
Therefore in looking at slams and open-mikes, I am tempted to ignore their progressive element(the critique of culture)and emphasize their incomplete, apolitical and conservative elements. Such events are incomplete because they only indirectly identify the deficiencies of cultural production in society. These events are apolitical because they do not consciously point to anything beyond themselves; that is, they do not engage the social relationships supporting a culture of exclusion and passivity. The slam and open-mike simply open up a new area of creative privilege for a relatively few. Insofar as these events simply adjust to the exclusionary cultural system and indeed depend on it for their own 'bohemian' and 'alternative' allure, they function as conservative social devices. They simply make a bad situation bearable. In a society in which all had a stake in cultural production would poetry slams and open-mikes even exist?
All of this might seem unduly harsh on poetry slams and open-mike nights. Perhaps it is. Yet, in critiquing slams and open-mikes, I want to underscore the importance of a coherent political project and the limits of art. It is not enough to open up alternative spaces for artistic and creative activity. A political project is needed that can extend the progressive impulses radiating from such spaces into a program able to address the larger social relationships in which slams and open-mikes are embedded.
Perhaps poetry slams and open-mike nights would be the primary mode of expression in a more inclusionary and active culture. However, as it now stands, they have certain negative dimensions that should not be overlooked if we are to adequately understand and evaluate them.
John Brady is a graduate student in Political Science at UC-Berkeley. He is also a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org