What do an accounts-receivable clerk, an exterminator, a sociologist, and a pawnshop worker have in common? These are not recovering alcoholics huddling in a basement for a noontime 12-step meeting, nor are they castaways in a reality-based TV show. These seemingly everyday folk are some of South Florida's most accomplished performance poets. On Friday at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach, they match one another metaphor for metaphor in "Hot Air," a team poetry-slam competition at which squads from Orlando, West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, and Miami compete.
The poetry-slam craze, started by Chicago construction worker and poet Marc Smith in 1984, began as an attempt to breathe new life into the open-mic format and has blossomed into an international phenomenon. The battles gained fame in venues such as New York City's Nuyorican Cafe and Chicago's Green Mill (Smith's slamming ground); today 53 cities participate in the National Poetry Slam, the Super Bowl of slam. Last year a team from West Palm Beach became the first from Florida to be certified to compete in the nationals.
Delray Beach slam mistress and event hostess Marya Summers describes the difference between a reading and a slam: "At a poetry reading, the audience is focused on the top of the poet's head, because their face is so deeply buried in the poem they are reading that's all you can see. At a poetry slam, you are involved in a theatrical performance. Sometimes it's like watching a car wreck in slow motion, because people try something that just doesn't work and you agonize watching it. Other times it's like watching a circus with all its well-timed orchestrations and comic antics. Either way, it's never boring."
Can the slam format rescue poetry from its eternal "almost-extinct" status? In his book Can Poetry Matter?, poet and critic Dana Goia posits that the literary movements of the past 50 years (the Beats, feminists, Confessionals, anti-Vietnam writers, et cetera) were attempts to escape the shackles of academia and reestablish poetry's link with the broader culture. No phenomenon has filled this role over the past ten or twelve years more than poetry slams, which have an element of outrageousness and irreverence that has managed to remain uninstitutionalized. For example Summers describes a recent Delray Beach slam in which a poet dramatized an antiabortion poem by stuffing raw liver down his pants and sucking it out with an industrial-strength vacuum. Besides the outrageous antics, slams are also distinctive in their irreverence for authority. "Recently a poet threw a glass of water in a judge's face," Summers laughs. "Actually it turns out they knew each other, but something surprising always happens."