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Grand slam 

When poets collide

"Authors are actors, books are theatres."

-- Wallace Stevens ("Adagia")

I was sort of flattered last week when Dennis Coburn, emcee of a poetry event at the Defoor Centre, approached me and asked if I was there to read. I laughed because he was the second person to ask me that.

"I guess you look poetic," he joked.

I laughed again, although I was wondering what it means to look poetic and officious at the same time.

"Maybe it's the dark glasses," he said. Indeed I was feeling quite silly sitting in the dim auditorium in my sunglasses. They are prescription lenses and I'd forgotten to take my regular glasses. I guess people imagined me with a bongo between my legs, enveloped in a halo of reefer smoke.

I say I was flattered by Coburn's assumption because I've had a lifetime fondness for poetry. In grade school, I memorized long poems that I recited to my classes. In order to avoid the excruciated looks of my classmates, I closed my eyes, rocking back and forth on my feet, feeling the rhythm of my recitation. It was lots more fun than recess. When I was 12, I bought my first book with my own money -- an arty little volume of Pablo Neruda's poems. (Don't get excited. My second was Tarzan of the Apes.)

I won a state poetry contest during my senior year of high school. Unfortunately, the honor initiated my role as the misunderstood artist, rather than giving me an excuse to wear laurel leaves. My poem, "Ode to a Mechanical Goddess" was directed to the heartless girl who had jilted me that year. But the judges obviously thought it was about a car that had failed me, since it was illustrated with a junked jalopy. My mother, the compulsive reader and blocked artist, didn't exactly cheer me up by telling me that I could probably expect a lifetime of being misunderstood. "Face it!" she commanded with her favorite mantra. I'm still trying to face it, Mama.

The most entertaining part of last week's event, sponsored by Georgia Tech, was a slam in which four poets competed for the crowd's favor. Slam poetry is controversial with purists since it combines performance with the poet's art. Thus a charismatic performer may win the crowd's approval even if another participant is the better poet in a technical, literary sense. Some of that was evident last week. The irony of Karen Wurl's well-wrought verses profited from her deadpan, wry delivery but it didn't excite the judges, chosen at random from the audience.

Generally though, I find the criticism that slam is "unfair" or corrupts pure poetry silly. Slam brings poetry out of the ivory tower and revivifies the oral participatory tradition. Improvisational and gritty, slam poetry simply doesn't exist without an audience, whereas a written poem can exist as unread printed text languishing on a page. Slam poetry, as embodied metaphorical dialog, is thus more directly rooted in the poetic nature of everyday relations.

Perhaps that's why the poems I heard last week were mainly personal. I expected some political comment about the war but the closest to the topical was work by Ayodele who, using his body and voice in dramatic ways, riffed about the names and identities of African-Americans in one poem and about the space shuttle disaster in another. Not surprisingly, he joined Wurl in being eliminated from the final round. A little too tragic, perhaps?

I don't mean to suggest that Jon Goode, who won the competition, didn't deserve first place. His bittersweet and funny recollections of childhood, recited in hip-hop style, starkly demonstrated how poetry illuminates reality rather than disguising or mystifying it, the way some people complain. In one poem, he talked about his mother's habit of whipping him for any offense he committed. In another he riffed about his father's primary love object, scotch whiskey. Unlike the often myopic perspective of psychotherapy, which divides people into abusers and victims, Goode was able, with images, to reveal a deeper truth: Love brings everyone into relationship with pain. Our sanity depends on making meaning of that fact without completely sacrificing our love to the hopelessness of pathological narratives.

The runner-up, Chezon Jackson, similarly blended eros and pathos -- the stuff of poetry in every life -- in her poems about love, PMS and the inherent madness of creative expression. Her oscillations of ferocity and delicacy reminded me of Rilke's caution that "every angel is terrifying."

I gave up writing poetry years ago, but never the reading of it. And listening to last Saturday's four slam poets I realized how important the art has been to my survival. Through the "alchemy of words," as Rimbaud put it, I did find something beautiful in a terrifying childhood. Rocking back and forth on my feet before my third-grade class, reciting "Hiawatha," worlds of possibilities opened behind the closed lids of my eyes. Poetry has always been and always will be the best therapy there is.

Cliff Bostock, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in depth psychology. His website is

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