San Diego Slam and the Christian Right
About fifty people meet to judge poetry. The stated rules are pretty clear: three minute time limit, no props, no costumes, just the poet and his/her voice; maximum score 10, minimum score 0, points deducted for every 15 seconds over time; poets judged on "content" and "performance" (5 points each); five judges instructed to be consistent in scoring but also responsive to audience feedback; audience encouraged to "let 'em know it" if any score seems too low/high; first round yields 4-5 top scorers; top score in second round wins the pot.
The unstated rules--and conventions--are less obvious but here's my take: Collaboration or team-slamming (here in SD at least) is inherently discouraged, or at least never invited; the book, the writing journal, the reading surface, the mic, the stage, etc., are all unacknowledged props; participants are costumed to the hilt in pants, T-shirts, jackets, vests, caps, and jewelry, and these constumes mark the poets in particular ways that the audience responds to; poets are on stage, under lights, standing, facing the audience; the audience is on the floor, in the dark, seated, facing the poet; poems are verbal/vocal things, usually rhymed and metered; poets are "guys" (of the last 21 perfomers, spanning two weeks, 4 were women, and none made it to the second round); "performance," despite the stated rules, is the main criterion; collective audience response (applause, etc.) is a good indicator of the score average then tabulated, with occasional discrepancies between audience and judge perception regulated/corrected via audience "feedback"; "content" and "performance" are categories that go unexplained beyond recommended gestalts like "excellent" or "really sucked"; ambiguity aside, one kind of poetry that wins audience favor in both the content and performance (loosely conceived) areas is poetry that preaches salvation through Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel.
The structures and tropes of ritual "witness" are everywhere in slam and other formal spoken word events. "Witness" in the sense that Rothenberg has it, albeit in a hugely different context: "the sounding of the written ‘law’" where the poet, through oral performance, "is witness to the way it goes," witness "to a (prior) vision," to the original sounding (making) of the poem and also to its re-creation, now, in the moment of oral delivery. However, the social "law" of slam poetry (and spoken word in general if we can go that far) is a rather vague set of visible and invisible conventions only partly covered in my lists above. Slam law is also a general law of self-aggrandizement masquerading as "witness" in the sense of witness to re/creation.
At the two most recent San Diego Slam events, the same "guy" won both nights, and with poems (performance and content) that I'd characterize as post-enlightenment protestant evangelical -- i.e., a certain monotonal vocal intensity supporting a message of personal salvation and empowerment through the teachings of Jesus Christ, who authors (according to both the winner's and the runner-up's testimonials) the poet's word and sponsors its delivery before the audience/congregation.
"Walk with me," the winning poet would say at the end of each poem.
And the audience ate it up: two or three perfect "10"s.
Slamming (in San Diego) is a winner-takes-all, Survivor-style arrangement where competitors offer up a $5 entry fee that goes toward the winning pot. The winner wins the pot (along with a small "trophy") minus a small percentage for the house. The winner is the one with the most points by the end of the night. Losers are systematically removed (from the stage if not the island) if point totals don't add up. The goal of slam is to win -- and to win (over) the hearts and minds of the audience, whose proxy judges issue verdicts within seconds of witnessing the (witnessing of) the poet's performance. In winning, the winning poet witnesses the winning, as well.
"These are his words," the winning poet said, holding the trophy aloft.
On the Right these days we see a marriage of molecular individualism and righteous Christian entitlement that resolves most often to grand indictments of any one or any group unwilling to "walk" with the cult of "me." The style is obtuse and powerful, a slick costume of imminent freedom (the self saved in rapture) and eminent domain (the truth is out there and we know where and how to find it). The troops advance from the City of God to sing a song of hope and redemption through perseverance, self-reliance, and the pursuit of personal property. Not we, but I shall overcome, and overwhelm, and win (over). Dear World, they seem to say, Walk with Me.
Slam is not all that, to be sure, and what I got a glimpse of the other night--taking into consideration both content and performance--was a lot more than that, too.
Best to go judge for yourself:
Every 2nd & 4th Monday at
Voz Alta (www.vozalta.org)
San Diego, California
Call (619) 230-1869
Sign up to compete at 8:00.
Witness at 8:30.