POETRY SLAM PERFORMANCE EXHIBITION:
TARA BETTS, MELISSA CAHNMANN, LEA DESCHENES,
REGIE GIBSON, M. AYODELE HEATH
FROM THE MOMENT I ENTERED THE DOORS of the NEC MFA in Poetry, I struggled with this dilemma: Do I leave my slam performance history behind me, or do I drag it with me inside the door? (Furthermore, would it even fit?) Prior to my first residency, my concerns were slightly alleviated when I learned that Tara Betts, who also had a history in slam, would be entering with me in the same class. Ah, a kindred spirit!
During the January residency, once we were alone, Tara and I had a long conversation about the stereotypes of slam - especially within academia. One might be surprised at people’s misconceptions - particularly those who’ve never even attended a slam! Some of these:
"I thought the poets ad-libbed their poems on the spot"
Or "Doesn’t slam mean that the poets put each other down?"
Or (gasp!) "I really liked your rap!"
As I began to hear these sort of things coming out of the otherwise-well-educated mouths of my fellow classmates, I saw it as an opportunity to shed some light on this black sheep of contemporary literature. And so, an army of five - Tara, Misha (Melissa), Lea, Regie, and I - brainstormed during lunch as how to best go about dispelling some of the myths.
One thing we all had in common: We wanted the student body to understand that the craft elements of the writing were as important as the more in-your-face elements of the performance - more specifically, that these craft concerns are not very much different than the craft concerns we discuss daily in our workshops for quote-unquote "work-on-the-page."
(This would be validated in my next day’s workshop as Jeff Friedman gave us handouts on rhetorical structures - anadiplosis, gradatio (climax), and parallelism - in which he cited examples from our slam performances.) We also wanted to show, indirectly, that performance isn't just relevant for one particular type of poem, but that performance applies to all types of poem - narratives, lyrics; ballads, villanelles, sonnets - especially when considering that poetry's origin is as an oral art.
As a plus, Tara and Misha came up with the excellent idea of providing a handout giving a history of slam and explaining the rules of competition. As not quite a plus, Regie seemed concerned with being "labeled" as a slam artist. So my work as emcee: to (hopefully) provide the student body (and faculty) with a brief background on slam, to showcase the diversity of slam, to clarify that slam refers to the competitive format and rather not to the writing, and to ensure that the performers - most notably, Regie - felt comfortable with the way they were being presented - as poets first and performers second. Whew! (Now that I list everything, it’s no wonder I blanked out in the middle of one of my poems! I was quietly devastated.)
Since none of us wanted to compete against each other, we decided to perform without the score cards and timekeeper, but decided to pull names from a hat to determine our order of performance to give a pinch of the drama of a slam competition. We would perform two poems each.
When I asked the room the question, "How many of you have never been to a poetry slam?" and three-quarters of the room raised their hands, I think all five of us were surprised - at least I was. And so, in fact, we weren't just performing, but we were educating. Which made me suddenly feel a lot better.
If the attendees were disappointed that we didn't hand out scorecards and give an all-out slam, they didn't show it. The presentation moved along quickly and, despite the length of the day, the audience remained attentive - enthusiastic, even!
Perhaps against his will, I decided to 'out' Regie as a former national poetry slam champion. I wasn't sure how he would take it. But he lived.
Overall, I felt the performances went pretty well - diverse in content, delivery, and length. Regie is otherworldly. The audience asked thoughtful questions and seemed genuinely appreciative afterwards. And most importantly of all, they seemed to enjoy our words. Now that we've unveiled the mystery and now that most of the pressure is gone, maybe next residency, we can open it up to all of the students and have a real slam!
This is an excerpt from a residency journal I was required to keep as part of the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College.