There is a cohesive community of would-be slam poets, could-be greeting card writers and should-remain computer programmers in New York City, and they meet at various open mic nights around town. I happened upon one of these amateur slams when a friend of mine admitted to being a closet writer of poems (she wasn’t sure if she could actually call herself a poet quite yet).
Beth is a reedy woman with thick auburn hair and damp hazel eyes, snobbish about alma maters. She will not, for example, consider dating a man who graduated from any SUNY school, and she’ll think twice about accepting an invitation from a graduate of her own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. Dating, she’s discovered is a popular topic for amateur slam poets and so she’d written a funny poem called “Celibate in the City.” It was this poem that she wanted to read at Tonic, a small club on the Lower East Side.
Tonic is just around the corner from the Delancey Street subway stop and is crumbly and dank. The basement used to be a distillation room for Kedem Kosher Jewish wine. For the slam, huge, hollowed-out wine barrels were used as seating pavilions, with folding chairs arranged carefully inside. Our hostess was Pearl, a stylishly dressed young woman who wore rhinestone cat-eye glasses.
Slams have become more democratic in the last five years. Slam poetry – seen by purists as a bane and by freer spirits as entertainment – began in Chicago in the late ‘70s. Clubs like Get Me High Lounge, Green Mill, O’Banyon’s and La Mer hosted poetry battles almost every night. Poets Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldeman went head-to-head in one of these battles, draped in boxer robes and wearing gloves, jabbing as they delivered their poems. Back then there were rivalries, literary skirmishes and even physical confrontations. Poetry was war. Fast-forward to 2002, and the slam scene is more equal opportunity and politically correct. Poets are still scored, but kindly; the scores are usually padded.
The first reader at Tonic that night was a lumpy, middle-aged woman who took the mic after pushing her eyeglasses up onto her head. She loped around the barrels and did a stand-up act. This apparently irked Pearl since it contained no poem. It irked everyone else because it wasn’t funny. Clement, an affected Oscar Wilde doppelganger in heavy-rimmed glasses, said he couldn’t be a judge because he had “an unnatural affection for the number eight.” He surprised no one by awarding the first poet an eight and the second an eight-point-eight.
When it was Beth’s turn, she read her poem about forced urban celibacy, in which ovaries were left to decay and men were left to make double entendres, in a kind of breathless syncopation. She clutched the paper between her hands and I could see the edges grow transparent with the sweat from her fingertips. It was good, I thought. And she read it with such urgency that people paid attention.
But when she ended up placing third out of seven poets – two of whom had performed stand-up acts instead of reading poems – I was positive it had been a fix. The first and second place winners were two teenage boys who’d read poems about sex and Valentine’s Day and virginity and girls who have eyes like oceans and hair like gold.
In the subway station afterwards, I told Beth that I’d heard professors in my MFA program talk about slam poetry like it was the downfall of civilization. She inferred from my comments that I disagreed with these professors, which wasn’t necessarily true.
“I think it’s fun,” Beth told me as we rode the uptown train away from Tonic and its thumbtack-earring wearing slam winner. I told her I thought poetry had suddenly become too democratic.
“Well, that’s snobby,” she said. When I raised an eyebrow I didn’t even need to mention the educational requirements she has for the men she dates. She shook her head. “There’s a difference between equal opportunity dating and equal opportunity slamming.”
I realized she was right. She’s actively looking for a husband, so she only goes out with men that she considers viable candidates. But when it comes to poetry, Beth likes her slams egalitarian. It may be that all eligible men are not created equal but all amateur slam poets are.