Poetry Slam Iowa City

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about this group, other than I often see signs up in town announcing their events. But they are planning a big show at the Englert Theater next Wednesday, February 22 that seems interesting.

From their Web site: "This event will feature some of the best spoken word and musical talent around including Cynthia French from Minneapolis, Amy Steinberg from Florida, Jupiter Jazz from St. Louis, and Nikki Lunden and the Heinous Canis.... The proceeds from this show will benefit the Iowa City Poetry Slam team heading to the National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX this August."

I have to say it takes cheek, cajones, and chutzpah to charge folks $10 for anything in Iowa City, let alone a poetry reading. Hence, I'm truly intrigued and plan to go. The night before the Englert event, they're warming up at the Mill. They already rocked the Hancher last month. They seem to have their shit together, and I'll bet the Englert slam is going to be fun.

Here are the rules that will be in effect at the show. Anyone planning to sign up for the slam at The Mill next Tuesday? Has anyone here slammed with these cats?


gillymonster said...

I was way into slam in Knoxville. There was a truly vital scene for a few years that included my friend Julia Nance. I never slammed myself because: 1. I dislike public speaking and 2. I'm a wimp. Slamming takes cheek, cajones, and chutzpah, and I can only muster one of the above at any given time.

That said, when a slam is good, watching is a lot of fun. When slam is bad, it is not at all fun. The problem is that often the judges, who should be random members of the audience, end up not being random at all. When the fix is in, some bad "poetry" gets good scores, and that drives out the good poets. Suddenly the scene is invaded by bad poets spewing rhymes for the sake of rhyming.

If IC slam is good, then we need to go and keep going so that at least some of the crowd is cheering and jeering correctly. I’m willing to give it a try. See you at the Mill on Tuesday.

Charlemagne said...

I've never been to a slam Grendel, although I dated a slam poet for a bit in college and she was all the stereotypes of the slam poet: angry, rhyming, loud. But she wore leather pants.

It is comments like this from the site you linked to that make me uncomfortable about slams:

Unlike formal readings, it is the job of the poet to command the attention of the audience. Well written and rehearsed work help accomplish this goal best.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the poetry reading. Its not that I'm an introvert, anyone who knows me knows that is quite the opposite. And I enjoy people hearing my work. I just was a part of a benefit reading for a Milwaukee bookstore with Nate and Chad. But the poet at a poetry reading often takes it too far. They act in a similar way to a pop star. The reading series often breeds this "look at me mentality". I don't trust this cult of personality set up by readings. It seems much more about style than substance.

And the slam reading takes this cult of personality to the next level. Its about posturing and cleverness. I don't think these people are bad at what they do. But they often seem like glorifed Beats to me. I don't aprreciate the attack on "formal" readings and the "academic" poetry the seem to think everyone who isn't a slammer writes.

The very posture of outsiderness that they take makes them a part of the mainstream. They are what people think of in the wider world when they think of poetry. Its a commidification of a style. Like the commidification of punk culture in people like Green Day or Blink 182.

The true avant-garde, if there is to be such a thing, always takes place through education in the art. You have to see what to rail against to really be effective at railing against it. Even the slam poet patriarchs and matriarchs went to places like Columbia in NYC and started things like the Naropa Institute. Outside the academic world, for sure.

Poetry very well can be a violent contact ripping art. Look at Dada or Surrealism or John Cage or Language poetics. The slam world is quite frankly boring.

Charlemagne said...

But I don't want to be called out as being a proponent of some silly shadowy avant garde either. Today, there is no such thing in my mind as the avant garde because once someone calls him or herself that then they are very not the avant garde. It becomes a movement, excepted. You very well can't be the scouts of the army if the army is all made of scouts. What about exploring to the sides and what about exploring the ripped apart ground the army has just galumphed over? Surely there can be something there everyone missed.

So I think there is an avant garde, multitudes of them, and as long as they don't think that of themselves, they are fine. I think it was in an essay by Susan Bordo (my critical theory is pathetic so I could be soooo wrong on who talked about this) about punks and bondage where she said that there was a song called "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" The very idea being that once bondage has become understood and eaten by wider culture the "punks" should turn against it to be punk.

possum said...

Dudes. My freshman Humanities class is planning a slam for the whole school, but kids can do other peoples' poems. They're doing it because they've been learning about how the brain works, and that some people learn better and pay more attention when they hear the work. I think it's pretty cool.

As far as slams go, I've been to three -- all in NYC, all at the NuYorican Poetry Cafe in Alphabet City. There were some pretty amazing things going on there, chief among them a bar stuffed full of a buttload of races, genders, cultures, and no one pissed off at anyone else unless he performed a shitty poem. I was 21 when I was in Manhattan, and I was scared to be in a real city. That place made me feel okay about being a confused Hoosier. On the third night, I got up and did a sestina about Indiana things -- probably dogs and fishing, and they cheered and booed, and it felt good to have done it.

However, I, too, am reluctant to get involved in slams for a lot of the same reasons as Charlemagne. However, again, I think it's a mistake to start saying, "They do this," and, "They do that." That's the kind of thing that sets up teams who fight against each other. Gilly seems to have some good ideas. Check it out. Meet the people, hear what they say. If I was in Iowa, I'd go. And I would be skeptical. But not as skeptical as Lucy.

Pete said...

I use poetry slams in my cw classes at MXC because the students respond to it and enjoy it. Some of them are pretty good too, blurring a line between poetry and hip-hop in a way I very much encourage, if only because among the population I work with there, hip-hop is fucking golden, and if it can be an entre into a serious consideration of language and aesthetic, so be it.

That said, I agree whole-heartedly with the emperor on this even if I'm not sure it is a point about slam poetry so much as "experiment" and "avant-garde" in general. When novelty itself becomes the chief aim of an artist, he puts quite a millstone around his neck and it limits him more than it frees him. I think this is because novelty is an external and relational judgment. That's not to say I don't value novelty, because I absolutely do, but it's rarely something that can be achieved in a calculated manner. I believe that every artist has the idiosyncracy within themselves to be truly unique, but it isn't something you bring out by donning the leather jacket that is "experimentalism" or "avant-garde." It seems to me that novelty is something that comes out of you when you resist such external validations, not when you embrace them.

Maybe that's way some of the most novel writing in today's fiction is coming from sci-fi writers, a group who has been told over and over how unoriginal and cliched they are. I'm sure they understand novelty in a very different way than most of us here, and my hunch is that their attitude is more productive.

For me personally, all this means having the confidence and stubbornness to listen to myself rather than to others. That's not to say I don't value feedback on my writing, but I try to think of it as 95% beside the point. Sometimes it takes me several readers before I decide that the one thing they're all complaining about is worth changing. It's not efficient, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Whether or not my writing is novel isn't really something I worry about anymore (just as how punk I am or am not is something I don't really worry about anymore). There's really only one question I ask myself now about what I write, two years out of the program: do I like it as much as I could?

I'd be interested to know what Mr. Cicero thinks of this argument, assuming he's still reading.

Charlemagne said...

Good comments from both Possum and Pete, and yes I agree I shouldn't throw the whole thing out. That of course is a mistake. And my ramblings into experimentation were due to the fact that I get up at 4:30 AM to go to work.

More specifically I think I was getting at the point of embracing a multifaceted avant garde. Everyone seriously involved in their art is breaking new ground one way or the other, even if that is past ground that people think is dead and defunct.

The only real points I'm going for are:

a) Slamming seems to lead to this cult of personality even more than what is present in all readings or gallery openings that should be left up to the people in the business of being pop stars.

b) Lines like "unlike formal readings, it is the job of the poet to command the attention of the audience." really piss me off. It is an attitude I've seen often coming from people of the Green Mill poetry slam here in Chicago. It is a real polarizing statement. It doesn't seem open and loving to me at all. I give I guess formal readings.

So I hope people pay attention because the language is alive, because it is fresh. In fact, I don't want to command the attention of the audience at all. I want them to give it to me, freely. This is art, it is give and take between speaker and listener, viewer and viewee. Boos and cheers do nothing. They are not necessarily bad, but they work on the one level of "yeah they like me" "boo-hoo they don't." Or "fuck you, they don't" depending on the reader. But this one level gets in the way of the give and take between mind giving the poetry and mind receiving.

And, now I'm speaking generally here so bear with me, I think that poetry is much more a written word than a spoken word. To really have a good experience with a poem you need to wrestle with it, read it a bunch of times. Even things like "Red Wheelbarrow". The reading, slam or otherwise, makes this difficult. But here is where the real generalization comes in, how well does the slam stuff hold up on the printed page? Besides getting politically indignant, laughing, social indignant, crying, or what not, how many reads does this stuff have. Is it more than a one shot experience?

Noah Cicero said...

There is no avant-garde in America. Literature is no longer popular enough to rail against it. Excluding genre novelists. But literature's most popular writers Joan Didion or Dave Eggers still aren't famous enough to take time to rail against.

Literature or non-genre fiction as an art doesn't reach even three million people anymore in a country of 290 million. Looking at those numbers, even Joan Didion is underground. Considering probably NOFX outsells her. And they are underground.

Currently the way of the sales of fiction are, we are all underground writers. From a bennington writer, to a zinester, to a slam poet.

Grendel said...

My favorite moments involving poetry were experiencing Talk Art performances by people I knew and loved. Isn't the source of poetry spoken word performance? Didn't Homer chant his incantations wild-eyed around a fire? I guess I don't care if it's called avant garde or whatever, just as long as it's sincere and intense. Maybe this slam will be that and maybe it won't, but it's just cool that people still bother to gather and hear poets at all, isn't it? And tsk tsk, knockin' the Beats, Your Highness! I would love to have been there at the first performance of "Howl," swigging off the wine bottle from Kerouac and passing it to Ferlinghetti, and so would you.

Charlemagne said...

Well I'm not trying to set up some sort of slam vs. experimental thing here at all. That is not an intent because it isn't true.

But I also don't agree with the fact that the avant garde doesn't exist because literature is not popular enough to rail against. That doesn't make sense to me. As long as there is more than one person writing can't we have an avant garde? It has nothing to do with the underground nature of things. Avant garde does not equal underground. Maybe it does in a time and place like Nazi Germany if your name is Kurt Schwitters or if you are Bulgakov on Soviet Russia. But to be avant garde you don't have to be underground. I would say, based on the recent Duchamp incident (one of his fountains,er, urinals was smashed at a museum) that he is not underground. How in the light can you get if they are running stories on NPR. But then again, he is not any less avant garde than he was.

The avant garde doesn't just rail against literature either. In the best of situations it mourns or rails against or throws poop in the face of the whole world. Take a look at Dada. Please. It was literature for sure but it also was attacking the inhumanity of WWI.

Charlemagne said...

Not knocking the Beats, Grendal. Not at all. They were super important to me. First people I loved. Given Kerouac, read some Ginsberg, fell in love with poetry, and that was it.

But what I am saying is that I think what I have heard from the slam scene alebit I haven't heard much, seems very derivative of the Beats. Thats why I say ho-hum. Not because I was attacking the Beats. That would be an amazing moment to be there or to see them read. I saw Ferlinghetti read, it was great. But the Beats are pretty ho-hum too after you really get down to it. They did their thing, but it wasn't something really lasting that you could riff of off very much without sounding just like them.

Tao Lin said...

nofx is better than this blog

"There's something grand about being nothing / there's something lame about being grand."

Grendel said...

Cool. I feel better about the Holy Roman Emperor now. I'm off to the Dean Young lecture, but won't be able to post from my notes till Saturday morning.

chad said...

The avant guard though doesn't depend on popularity. It depends on norms, and we have more of those than ever. The avant guard has the pesky habit of becoming the norm though, no? That's why it is always dying but never gone. It seems more a state of mind, insofar as one tries to avoid the staid conventions of the day, which are very much worth railing against. A former poet laureate of ours is rather "famous" in poetry terms for his faux-profundity and observational humor (what's the deal with flowers, I mean have you seen these things?). Many a night has been spent discussing how terrible his poems are and why they are so well liked. Then the next day is spent trying to do precisely the opposite of him.

The slam poetry that I've seen has been unlikable because it was, at root, very conventional. I’ve been to a few and could never resist watching the lamentable Def Poetry Jam on HBO (was that show a fair representation? I don’t know.). They were basically rhymed platitudes exasperated by the insistence that they were deeply felt. And they may have been. But seeing the audience cheering their agreement was creepy and depressing. I’ll take the avant guard.

slamiowacity said...

Let me introduce myself, I am Joe Mirabella, the founder of the Iowa City Poetry Slam. A friend of mine e-mailed me a link to your conversation about the Iowa City Poetry Slam, and slam in general and I couldn’t be more thrilled about some of your applause and moreover your disgust. Not surprisingly, several of the most annoyed bloggers have never been to one of our events. But I forgive them; it is easy to be fearful of the unknown.

When I started the Slam in Iowa City about four years ago, it was my goal to attract people to poetry and poetry events who would otherwise be turned off by the idea in addition to traditional poetry fans. It is a utopian event; anyone who signs up can perform. The consequence, of course, is that on occasion we do have some bad poetry, poetry that is riddled with cliché or unnecessary rhyme. But more often then not, I am wowed by the courage and the talent demonstrated by the performers. They arrive well read, written, and rehearsed; they move the crowd to tears, laughter and even disgust. Their styles vary as widely as their personal experiences. Some exemplify the traditional bard rattling off their poetry quickly and traditionally, others leave the audience wondering whether this writer is related to a Martian. Several months ago, a poet performed a sound poem reenacting the death of Pope John Paul, it was a happening in the sense of John Cage, and is stilled talked about whenever the poet enters a room, “Hey did you see that guy do the Pope thing?!?” These unscripted moments are what thrill me most.

One concern of mine, is also a concern of yours, it is the “us and them” aspect of having an event like Poetry Slam in a city that is dominated by one of the most highly respected literary schools in the country. It has never been my goal to distract from or criticize in any way the success that writers achieve through academia. In fact I encourage our most talented writers to pursue an academic approach if I think it fits them. At the same time, there are those poets, especially those who tour the country on their own dime, with their self published books, who inspire audiences at every turn, who find success without academic credentials. Their raw original voices are simply brilliant, and it is events like ours that make it possible for them to live off their art form. Perhaps it is Warholian that they are greeted on the stage with applause similar to a rock star, or perhaps it is because they are just plain talented. In an over mediatized world like ours, both academic and urban poetry movements should have a similar goal, reaching their audiences whether large and rowdy or small and sedate, in new and interesting ways. There is certainly plenty of room on our stage for everyone. Thanks for your interest and thoughtful comments.

Grendel said...

Hi Joe! Thanks for jumping in here. I for one am looking forward to the Mill and the Grand Cabaret the night after. It's terrific that you've organized this thing and kept it going for four years. Your eloquent description of your goals and process is inspiring. Good for you. I am embarrassed that I've never been to one of your slams before, but better late than never. I wish you luck in the national competition.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

With all this talk about poetry slams, I wonder how much you have heard about story slams?

The 2007 St. Louis National Storytelling Conference will have a Story Slam that I will attend. You may want to check out my blog entry comparing these two different art styles.