Saturday, February 09, 2008

Memories and Poetry: a Quasi-Review

This week I read Words in Your Face, a new book by poet/spoken word artist Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz on the history of the Slam Poetry movement. It's a decent book---maybe a bit overly NY City focused, but still a nice overview from the beginnings, to the mass popularity with shows on MTV and the current trends. All to be expected, I guess.

But what I wasn't expecting was how many memories this book would dredge up for me. I did my undergrad a couple of hours south of DC at James Madison University. I worked at the campus radio station WXJM, and helped edit the school's small literary journal. Like most kids, it was a formative time of my life, a time that exposed me to music, art, fiction and poetry that shaped my tastes and preferences more than any other point in my life. And while my classes certainly played a part it was often my outside-school activities that really shaped me.

I saw a flier for a Slam Poetry night at the Little Grill and I just thought it sounded cool. I had no idea what the term meant when I first heard it my sophomore year. Just the sound of those two words together, Slam and Poetry, was interesting to me. One so aggressive, the other so pensive, I didn't quite know what to make of it. I had to go, just to see what it was all about.

The LIttle Grill was a special place. It was a teeny-tiny vegetarian diner on the outskirts of town. Plain white walls decorated with old guitars and photos of Bob Dylan, it was a pretty popular lunch spot for the veggie crowd. At night the owner put on special events like small concerts, fiction readings and even Slam Poetry.

I went with one of my good friends at the time, a guy who went by the name of MC Legit. No, that wasn't his real name. He was a heavy set white kid with glasses from a posh suburb of northern Virginia and had a normal, white kid name. But he loved hip hop and had already recorded some singles on a DC label by the time he hit college. As odd it sounds now everyone called him Legit or Git, and never by his real name. Even now I barely remember what his real first name was.

We got there a few minutes early, and both got some vegetarian chili and cornbread. After a little bit, the owner of the Little Grill stood up and started to talk. The owner was a soft-spoken aging hippie type. Scruffy beard, ratty hair and so skinny I could have slung him over my shoulder and carried him around campus all day without any problem. Anyway, he went over the rules and who the judges were and people started reading. There would be three rounds and the winning poet would get a free meal.

It wasn't anything like what I would see on MTV a few years later. It was relaxed, casual---just a bunch of people getting up and reading their work straight off of the page. There were confessional poems, folk singers reading lyrics, rappers, imagist stuff, prose work, genre work, and more. Students read, professors from the University read and some people from the town read. It was a great event and I, eventually, got over my own shyness and read my own work aloud for the first time.

Nowadays when I go to readings I often hear people comment negatively about Slam events, all because they have this in your face NYC-MTV image in their minds of what Slam Poetry means. But in my experience, and it seems in Aptowicz's, there is a Slam event out there for every type of writer. Her book draws a wonderful portrait of a movement that's broader, fuller and deeper than I was expecting. And while it may not be as critical as some readers might want, it's a solid, informative read and well worth picking up for anyone interested in more recent trends in poetry, writing and performance that academia often ignores.


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