Friday, November 30, 2012

Thoughts on Slam Poetry, Competition, & the Wounded

Today, at 12:21 pm, I wrote in my iPhone: "What happens when you compete with your wounds?"Lyz Soto--poet, community organizer, and activist-- said that, not me. This question is haunting: whose wound wins? And what's the prize? Just as the question is central to Lyz's concerns with SLAM poetry (especially as the Executive Director of Youth Speaks Hawai'i), it has me thinking about the page & stage as platforms for our suffering and the consequences of performing our wounds.

Who wins when we write out our suffering - the inflicter of pain or the inflicted? Who wins when we perform it? How does one perform suffering? Is this disingenuous on the stage and/or on the page? Do we suffer less or more after writing? After performing? And then what our wounds close up after a few hundred readings of our individual and communal devastations, inflictions, or even our slight pains?

As I learned today in Lyz Soto's wonderful talk, supported by the Center for Biographical Research, SLAM originated as a stunt. A publicity stunt that is. How do you get people engaged in listening to,  writing, and performing poetry? You make it a competition. You have rules. You are strict (no props allowed, 3 minutes with a 9 second grace period) about these rules. You have judges who round up or down in decimals. But what's being judged? From what I gather, a good portion of winning depends on your ability to follow the rules, as you are supposed to ignore content to some degree (if that's even possible). Why then does it seem like the one who has suffered the most is the winner?

I was a judge, twice. One time I judged a poetry contest while I was still a M.F.A. student myself. My street cred was undeniably lacking. The second time I was a judge at a Youth Speaks Slam. It was over a year ago at Farrington High School. I'm not a SLAM poet, not event close. However, I enjoy listening, and I also organize community literary events under Mixing Innovative Arts. I think that Youth Speaks, and all programs that offer communal support through literature, is a vital part of the growing community (& sustaining that community) here in Hawai'i (& elsewhere, of course). As a judge, I felt obligated to weigh content and form and performance equally. But then the SLAM started. Teenage sufferer after teenage sufferer took the stage. How could I honestly give these young poets scores based on their experiences with trauma? Long story short - I don't think I can ever judge at a poetry slam again. I enjoyed the energy of the event, the electricity the performances, but as a "judge" I felt too uncomfortable throwing a number up at the face of someone who had just told me one of their secrets. Hey, secret sufferer of bullying, you're a 6... but YOU, who have suffered from years of sexual abuse are a 10! Not for me. 

The poetry I write and read doesn't engage in this type of behavior. Page poets are deemed more civilized perhaps--in our parchment clouds of quiteude-- or, perhaps we're all "winning" in other ways: publications, poetry prizes, honorable mentions, AWP talks, awards named after dead white dude poets, and so on. But let's face it, most of us are losing.

But maybe the page poet is just a wimp unwilling to show her fear of failing on public grounds. Or maybe the act of performing work on a stage as long and wide as the SLAM stage just leads to more suffering. The suffering is no longer yours - a private thing. You've shared it with an audience who genuinely cares (& responds with snaps and sighs, and occasional yelps). Your suffering goes public. Is this cathartic? Do you lose some part of yourself?

I'm not sure.

Lyz talked about how she stopped SLAMMING because it was no longer good for her, or her family. That it posed a potential danger: becoming numb to the experience. This is an interesting point. So I've been thinking about this and its application to all venues of writing. Some memoirists can write four or five different versions--in book form-- of a spouse's death. Sometimes I write 5 poems in one sitting about my dead grandmother's ghostly visits. I probably have about 100 or so "mom" poems. The fact that I'm still writing, even over-writing, my traumas must mean that there are so many different versions of them. Or maybe it's just an unhealthy and self-indulgent act. Who knows.
There is nothing cohesive here for me to say. Just some rambling. I don't have an answer to any of the questions Lyz raised in her talk today, or for the questions I've been formulating since the talk.  But I appreciate and am thankful for Lyz's story, her questions, and her answers -- which are damn good. You should talk to her. Everyone should.
I think the discussion is worth continuing, especially for those who are active in any literary community--SLAM, an old fashioned reading series, a writing group, a literary magazine, whatever. For me, writing through or out of my wounds doesn't prohibit me from processing a trauma, nor does writing make me relive that trauma in any sort of way that seems genuine to my experience of it. Maybe it's because my wounds are so buried in sound and white space and ambiguity. Maybe it's because there are so many different versions of that experience, a new one unfolding each time it is put into words. Or maybe it's just temporary relief.

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