Everyone in the room is sitting on the edge of a chair, their bodies as still as statues. But the room crackles with electricity. It's the final round of the national poetry slam at OutWrite '98--the queer writing conference held in Boston--and 300 worshipers of the word pack a hotel ballroom to offer up their energies and raise their raucous voices.
Although a poetry slam is a competition, with scores kept and trophies awarded, it feels like the late-night groovosity at the Sound Factory when you're utterly exhausted but the cells of your body won't stop dancing. The crowd holds the space as each poet performs. Three minutes is all you get to add something to the cauldron and stir it well. Then the judges scribble scores from one to 10: up to five points for the poem itself and another five for the performance. If the audience agrees with the score, cheers explode like firecrackers. If not, heaven help the judges.
Poetry slams have been compared to a cross between a Baptist sermon and a World Cup soccer game, a poetry reading mixed with carnival, a nerd Olympicsand having your ankles crushed by a cable car. Some say slams grew out of the in-your-face attitude of punk; others think they began in the mid '80s at Chicago's Get Me High lounge, where a poet named Marc Smith orchestrated the random challenges of local wordsmiths into a system of matches. But the slam can trace its roots to the same oral tradition that feeds the rest of hiphop. And like rap--which, as June Jordan has taught us, is "the ballad of our days and years"--slam poetry loudly raises issues the canon dares not touch: issues of race, class, and sexuality.
Sparked by their addictive appeal to young poetry junkies, slams have spread across America in the last 10 years. Fanatics can find a slam in any big city, and some follow the circuit like Deadheads in heat. In August, the Nationals--a grand slam in which the best poets from hundreds of local venues compete for the title of champion--will take place in Austin, Texas. Queer poets are imbedded in the mix, as we have been since the birth of slam. But when it comes to going for the gold, the pressure to be as out as your work conflicts with the need to feel safe--and to win.
Even in a setting where freedom is supposed to be fundamental, speaking truth to power when it comes to sexuality is risky. When Justin Chin competed in the Nationals in 1995, he read a poem called "Pisser" about cum eating and drug addiction. People in the audience snickered and guffawed, and one straight couple felt the need to swallow each other's saliva every time he made a sexual reference. William Fogarty, a 25-year-old New York poet, was given the moniker "the Gay One" when he chose to read about his life. "As soon as you identify yourself with a certain group," Fogarty says, "labels abound."
A queer poet in an open slam runs the risk of having her whole life judged instead of her craft. Which is why there needs to be a queer space in slam, where it's possible to shatter the perception that we are all the same, to talk about the mundane aspects of life without having those moments interpreted as "queer," and to unleash the energies that come from the free expression of desire. Sensing this need, Boston poet Lisa King organized the first national queer slam in 1996, giving 60 poets from all over the country a chance to compete. "One of the things I like about queer slams," says Carol Rosenfeld, who cochairs a reading series at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, "is that I always feel like I want to seduce the women in the audience. In open slams, it's like an act of defiance. In queer slams, it's an affirmation."
Anyone who's ever attended one of these events will tell you that the body has a visceral response to some poems, and that when the two best slammers are left to go at it poem for poem, it's hard to breathe. To participate is to climb a mountain, and waiting for the judges to choose the champion is like teeter-tottering at the summit. Finally, the slam master makes the call. It's a charged moment, especially in a world where, despite the pretense of equality, the winners are usually white males. In a "family" slam, it's often women of color and white women who come out on top, venting their pent-up energies in a volcanic rush. That's not likely to occur in the Nationals, where there are typically only four or five queer poets out of the several hundred who compete.
But at least in New York and California, there are openings for queer poets of all races to shine. At the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, 236 East 3rd Street, where slams are held every Wednesday and Friday night, the mix might include Regie Cabico, the first out gay Asian to slam (he's gone on to perform at Lollapalooza and on MTV); Emanuel Xavier, the Latino author of Pier Queen;Cheryl Boyce Taylor, a Trinidadian from Brooklyn,who wrote Raw Air; as well as white queer poets like Bobby Miller and Alix Olson. Here, William Fogarty is not known as "the Gay One." Yet even in the cocoon of a nurturing community, some queer poets are anxious about their reception. "I get scared sometimes reading my work," Cabico admits. "It's always a risk, but I think the payoff is greater."
There's another aspect of the slam that has power for queer poets: its resemblance to competitive sports that gays and lesbians are often intimidated by. Imagine a game of pickup basketball where anybody can come from around the corner and start slam-dunking--and faggot is not a synonym for someone who misses a shot.Along with the freedom to be graceful and fierce comes a special rhythm and pace, a format as fast as our lives. According to Cabico, slam poems are "something that should be belted in front of a large crowd," with an intensity that pulls people off the information superhighway. One of the slam's more fervent moments occurs when a poet does a piece "off the top of the dome," or "freestyle." This spilling out of whatever is in your gut seldom results in great poetry, but it does bring the instantaneous to the stage.
Whether it's spontaneous or premeditated, the queer slam serves the ultimate goal of gay liberation, which is to acknowledge everyone's peculiarities and to create a space for empowered individuals to flaunt their particularities. In that sense, slamming is a way to imagine life. Or as Regie Cabico might shout at the Nuyorican Cafe:
I could give you an epic about my ways of life or my look
and you want me to fill it in "one square box."
From what integer or shape do you count existing identities,
grant loans for the mind or crayola white census sheets--
There's no "one kind" to fill for anyone.
Letta Neely is the current OutWrite Poetry Slam champion. Her new collection is Juba (Wildheart Press).
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