National Poetry Slam comes to West Palm Beach this week
Slam poetry may have done more to save traditional poetry than all the English departments in the universe.
The 2009 National Poetry Slam, the biggest spoken-word competition in the country, starts Tuesday in West Palm Beach, continuing at various bars and other venues until Saturday, when four surviving teams compete in the finals at the Palm Beach Country Convention Center.
Slam poetry emerged from Chicago in the mid-1980s, spreading rapidly throughout the country and the world — a team from France is registered for this, the 20th anniversary of the National Poetry Slam. Teams of four to six members are given three minutes to deliver a spoken-word poem before a panel of judges–chosen at random from the audience immediately before the competition begins.
The popularity of slam poetry doubtless has something to do with the dominance of rap and hip-hop in the music world. But it also arose in a time when spoken-word performance, from on-stage monologue artists to audio books, became more prominent.
Slam poetry gave voice to young black, Latin and West Indian poets and performers, drawing upon strong oral traditions. This not only gave the movement a powerful energy, but it made it hip, too.
Slam poetry has its critics, many of whom find its competitive nature distasteful or even antithetical to the poetical spirit. Conservative literary critic Harold Bloom went so far as to label the poetry slam movement “the death of art.”
That’s the kind of dismissive overstatement that manages to not take slam poetry seriously enough, while at the same time taking it too seriously in exactly the wrong way.
The truth is, not so long ago poetry was being given up for dead in this country. At the 1992 Key West Literary Seminar, the poets gathered to celebrate Elizabeth Bishop indulged in grim humor. Only 400 people read poetry in the United States, one of them told me, and they’re all poets.
Since the advent of hip-hop, spoken word and slam poetry, traditional poetry, too, has seen a remarkable revival in popularity.
One of the most intriguing events during the five-day poetry slam is Page Meets Stage , co-sponsored by the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Roxys Pub (309 Clematis St.). Traditional poet Maureen Seaton will read poems crafted for readers, while Blair, a former National Poetry Slam champion, will deliver poems created for listerners.
Unlike most events in the National Poetry Slam, the point of Seaton and Blair reading from the same stage isn’t competition, but illumination — showing how the two forms, closely related as they are, differ. And what they have in common. Page Meets Stage is free, but there is a fee for most National Poetry Slam events. Check the website for details.