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April 2001

Step Right Up

Slam poets: praised, pummled — or both

Think of a poetry recital and what comes to mind? Probably a small group of earnest lyric enthusiasts gathered at a bookstore or library, listening in hushed silence as the visiting poet laureate recites solemnly from a volume of his works. This, admittedly cliché, image may be the reason why so many people shy away from poetry readings. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The alternative to this elitist approach can be found in a powerful new movement that emerged in the literary underground of the United States in the mid-1980s. Over the last years, it has swept across the Atlantic in a massive wave, taking Germany by storm. As a matter of fact, Munich has established itself as the heart of the German, if not European, poetry slam scene.

As Marc Kelly Smith, the charismatic construction worker-turned-poet, who launched the movement in Chicago back in the 1980s, explains, “Slam poetry is performance poetry. It recognizes that the art of performance is as important an art as the art of forming words into poems on the printed page.” Smith, who visited Munich in January as an eagerly awaited guest of the “Godfathers of Spoken Word” series, says he loves poetry, but was incredibly bored by traditional poetry recitals. In an effort to make the performance itself more exciting and dynamic and to create interaction between the artist and the audience, he initiated the first Uptown Poetry Slam at Chicago’s Green Mill Club in 1986. The mock competition among poets was an immediate success, quickly spreading to other American cities, and on to Canada, Australia, England and continental Europe.

Slams can be as diverse as the people that participate in them, but the basic structure of the event and the modalities of the competition tend to follow the example set by the Chicago Uptown Poetry Slam. The event is usually staged at venues popular with a trendy, young crowd, such as bars, clubs or cafés. The evening often starts out with an “open mike” session, during which budding talents have the chance to present their work without the pressure of competition or with a local independent band. Enter the “Master of Ceremonies,” or MC, who functions as the moderator, explains the rules to first-timers and introduces the contenders. It wouldn’t be a competition, of course, without a jury, which traditionally consists of a handful of randomly selected jurors from the audience, who rate every performance. At Munich’s poetry slam stronghold, the Substanz club, eight poets are chosen from among all those brave souls who put their names on a list early in the evening to compete against each other. Divided into two groups of four, they get on stage, one after the other, and present their poetry. At Substanz, the entire audience functions as the jury, indicating with the volume of the applause their rating of the poetry and its delivery. Poets are allowed between only five and ten minutes for their presentation, and while some stretch the time limit to the maximum, others are confident enough to impress the listeners with just a few lines or rhymes.

For the most part all poets are greeted with benevolent curiosity, but if they can’t win over the audience or at least hold their interest within the first minute or two, chances are they won’t get that attention back. Whether good or bad, serious or funny, there is one thing every slam poet invariably needs — a thick skin. If a performance is rambling, incomprehensive or just plain boring, he or she must be prepared not to earn polite applause but groans, boos and hisses. Smith explained that the so-called dissing is accepted, even welcomed, as a form of well-meaning criticism. “Audiences in the fine arts world are often dysfunctional, dishonest,” he said. “We wanted our audience to know that it’s alright to show that something is bad. If they are not honest, it’s not fair to the artist.” Notwithstanding expressions of dislike, even the best have to contend with the constant noise of clinking glasses and chattering in the background.

While the competitive element should not be taken too seriously, it certainly adds to the dynamics of the evening. Slam poetry can be on any subject and in any style. The language is often plain and direct, without classic rhymes or meters, the style provocative and raw, off-beat and ironic. Surprisingly, there is a lot of humor, and those artists burning to change the world with their poetry should probably take to heart Cary Tennis’ advice: “Don’t try to save the world with a single poem. Leave a few problems for the others.” Whereas the spoken word and poetry slam scene in the U.S. leans heavily toward social criticism, the range of topics tends to be much broader in Germany: life in the city, the media, politics, love, sex or everyday observations—anything goes. When a packed Substanz recently celebrated its fifth anniversary of poetry slam, the performances ranged from pensive poems about a quiet Sunday in the country to a snappy short story about a fictitious meeting with pop star Robbie Williams.

A counter-movement to the literary establishment, slam poetry has put authenticity, spontaneity and fun back into poetry. It has also brought poetry back from the ivory tower into the world of clubs and cafés, back in touch with the people.

The Substanz, Ruppertstr. 28, hosts a poetry slam once a month, usually on the second Sunday of the month. Café gap, Goethestr. 34, presents “Speak & Spin,” a literary performance evening with slam poetry, short prose and music every second and fourth Monday of the month. The series “Godfathers of Spoken Word” at the Gasteig features guest performances by the poets who founded and shaped the American spoken word and slam poetry scene. On April 3 it presents poetry “godmother” Maggie Estep, whose numerous poetry clips on MTV made her a household name. May 23 will see a performance by Patricia Smith, one of the most successful American slam poets.

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