Poetry for Southern California
Michael Paul Guest Editorial
By Michael Paul
Twelve years ago this writer stumbled into the wonderful world of poetry by a kind of happy accident. There was, at that time, a sense of anticipation in the poetic community, a feeling the art was about to undergo a renaissance which would take it from the fringes of American culture into a more central space, with larger, more appreciative audiences, and a much bigger readership. The spoken word scene was one of the principal reasons for that anticipation. Slam, with its origins in The Green Mill saloon in Chicago, with non-poet audiences judging original works and scoring them Olympic-style, and slam’s viral spread from a local phenomenon into an international one, gave impetus to the notion that poetry would finally take its rightful place in the forefront of the arts.
What we saw and heard back then was encouraging. A wide spectrum of voices, an equally wide diversity of styles, which, along with the “urgency” of the content (slam often relies heavily upon emotional intensity), often showed genuine lyricism in the work—evidenced, for example, by slam poet Beth Lisick’s work being selected for inclusion in Best American Poetry in the mid-nineties. Even in the academic camp there was a migration of verse off of the page and into the ear with the L.A. Stand-Up poets, Suzanne Lummis and Charles Harper Webb, to name but two, taking poetry out to the “masses.” It was all quite wonderful, robust, and very hopeful. And we stood on tip-toe along with the poets, in anticipation.
From twelve years of perspective, we have not seen and cannot say that a real renaissance has taken place; we have seen many positive developments, many fine inroads, e.g., poetry in the schools and in places where marginalized folks did not have a voice, but found one in poetry, with lives changed or even literally saved in the process. And a greater appreciation of the art has taken place, on a smaller scale than what was expected, but still an enriching one. April was declared National Poetry Month, a publishing-house ploy, perhaps, which nevertheless accomplished a bit of consciousness raising.
But what of slam and the spoken word phenomenon? Was it, or could it have been, or may it still be the hope of an underappreciated art? In order to take its pulse and see firsthand what was happening in the “scene,” we attended the finals of the 10th Annual West Coast Slam in Big Sur, at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. We met and spoke with Garland Thompson, the very personable organizer of the event, sharing views on the state of the art. We had a pleasant dinner and visit with Jerry Quickley, the big-time hired-gun host of the slam. And along with the simple joy of revisiting Big Sur, arguably one of the most beautiful places on the planet, we had the special pleasure of time spent with a remarkable poet, Patricia Smith, who was the featured performer for a special set on Sunday, the day of finals.
There were 10 teams fielded by 10 towns, which represented the cream of the crop, slam-wise, for those cities, and on Saturday, in two five-round bouts, those ten teams were competitively skimmed down to the four finalists, who would contend for the big bucks and big honors on Sunday, the day we attended. The reports, from informed and discriminating sources, were not too encouraging in terms of expecting artful poetry; in fact we were forewarned that the kind of angry, loud-voiced, typical rants and screeds which we have come, unfortunately, to expect, would be the order of the day.
So it was quite refreshing when, instead, the four final teams trotted out their best work to vie for the final honors. Instead of the frighteningly homogenous hip-hop we have seen in slams (skinny white boys and little old ladies from the old country attempting to conform to and perform in the cadence and body language of African-Americans, which does not ring true) there was diversity. There was originality. There was some real poetry. And there was a redemptive and life-affirming quality to much of the work.
After all the scores were tallied, the Berkeley Team took top honors and a $1000 prize. Oakland took second, Hollywood third, and San Francisco fourth. The “unofficial” scores (from a biased but hopefully honest source) for all teams were:
DAY ONE, Bout One:
1. Oakland 116.45
2. San Francisco 115.99
3. San Jose 109.55
4. Palo Alto 108.2
5. Monterey 107.95
DAY ONE, Bout Two:
1. Hollywood 114.9
2. Berkeley 114.0
3. LA Green 112.0
4. San Diego 111.2
5. Los Angeles 108.9
DAY TWO: Finals:
1. Berkeley 109.85
2. Oakland 105.38
3. Hollywood 104.6
4. San Francisco 104.0
The jury is still out as far as we are concerned, as to whether or not slam is or will ever become the “hope” of poetry. As we said before, slam, and poetry in general, have made some important inroads into mainstream life and the collective consciousness. No doubt owing to the passion of the poetry hosts and slam masters who press on year after year. That is all good. Major kudos to Garland Thompson, by the way, for undertaking the logistical nightmare of this particular event for the last 10 years.
One element of the event, one performer, did give us a great deal of hope for the art, the four-time National Slam Champion Patricia Smith. Her set ranged from tried and true slam pieces, performed with the verve which won her those four-time honors (a feat as yet unmatched), to newer pieces reflecting the nuance and craftsmanship which won her latest volume of poetry two major awards: selection by Edward Sanders for inclusion in the National Poetry Series in 2005, and selection for the Paterson Poetry Prize in 2007.
Slam may or may not be the hope of poetry, but Patricia Smith, and poets of her heart and skill and love of craft, are and will continue to be the hope of slam.
Michael Paul is the author of six chapbooks of poetry. His work has appeared in a number of literary journals and poetry anthologies. Michael co-hosted two poetry readings while he lived in Southern California. He is currently working on a full-sized volume of poems, a series of short stories, and writing Outdoor/Adventure articles for Gold Country Media. Michael now lives in Auburn, California with his wife, Claudia Licht.