When Marc Kelly Smith invented slam poetry nearly 20 years ago in Chicago, he brought a democratizing spirit to the poetry world, envisioning slam as an inclusive art form in reaction to the elitism he perceived at poetry readings. He felt the audience, not a self-proclaimed literary establishment, should be the arbiters of what makes for good poetry.
Those I know in the Toronto performance poetry community seem to hold pretty firmly to this founding principle and so might be surprised that some poets would consider them elitists. Such poets can be found at the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, participating in Reverend Jen’s weekly “Anti-Slam,” which she started more than a decade ago.
An Anti-Slam, like a slam, has judges but they are required to give perfect 10s to all performers. Also, audience jeering, which used to be common at a slam, is not permitted. The audience is encouraged, if not commanded, to cheer wildly for every performance. This movement is, of course, a reaction to perceived slam elitism; the notion that certain styles of performance and kinds of content are snobbishly worthy of a higher rank than others. The principle behind the Anti-Slam is best summed up by Reverend Jen herself, on her website: “I never really believed in good art and bad art… I don’t believe in talent or genius, but in authenticity and desire.”
I can appreciate where the Reverend is coming from. Just as there are favoured aesthetics for particular page poetry journals, there does appear to be a certain favoured style of performance and content which wins a slam. So maybe the “anything goes, everyone is great” approach of the Anti-Slam is the only opportunity for a truly democratic poetic event.
The only problem is my recent experience attending the Anti-Slam was far from inspiring. It was not a mix of “page” and “stage” poets coming together in acceptance and non-judgement, but an attempt to reject both. How do you do this? Evidently by taking off most of your clothes and swearing a lot (and I mean a lot). Performers tended to rant about someone being a “F…ing A… hole,” or something being “F…. ing stupid,” before taking off some or all of their clothes. While in certain poetry circles form trumps content and vice versa, the position of the anti-slammers seemed to be “screw form, F…mother… F…ing content.” I guess, because such things interfere with “authenticity and desire.”
So, I suppose I’ve proven I am an elitist: I am not able to just say what I witnessed at the Anti-Slam was not to my taste. I feel compelled to say that it, by every conceivable criteria, sucked.
But (and here comes my absolution) the democratizing, rebellious spirit of the Anti-Slam in practice proved itself to be just another kind of elitism. The lack of standards was the standard to live up to. Each performer seemed to want to prove him or herself more shocking, unconfined and unrefined than the others. I was there with a couple of other Canadian poets, and we signed up for the open stage. But as the night went on, we began to feel that unless we were willing to strip we would be shunned as elitists. Actually, at that point stripping really wouldn’t have cut it. I really felt the only thing I could do to receive any attention would have been to defecate on the stage.
It made me want to go back to a stuffy old poetry reading, where no one will judge me for keeping my clothes on or being toilet trained.
Jacob Scheier is the winner of the 2008 Governor General’s Award for poetry for More to Keep Us Warm.
Reflections on Jen’s Anti-Slam, Bowery Poetry Club