Slammin' at Rehoboth Olympics of Poetry
by Mary Ann Benyo
A show no mercy, no holds barred competition awaits you on Saturday, October 20, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Rehoboth Art League. Called a "bona fide cultural force" by the New York Times, poets are sweeping the nation in Poetry Slams. A lyrical boxing match that pits poets against other poets in three-minute bouts, this is the full contact of spoken word, involving the entire audience with passionate cheering or booing. Over 150 American cities host their own slam, with the National Poetry Slam boasting a yearly gathering of more than 500 performers from North America and Europe, thousands of fans, and a roar of deafening applause. It is described as part Super Bowl, part poetry summer camp, and part traveling exhibition. Now you have a chance to experience this, the passion and drama, the hilarity, the sensuality, the impact of words.
I discovered all this myself quite by accident just last spring, when I attended my first writers' seminar. It was my fortieth birthday, and my gift to myself was to learn more about writing and writers, as I was thinking of becoming one professionally. I entered the room with little idea of what to expect. I knew for certain only that I had no interest in writing novels, as they are way too long, or poetry. I remembered those dreary, dull as dust affairs I suffered through in high school and that cutesy roses are red stuff. So there I was, at this seminar. I learned there are such things as writers' groups, where writers meet to share their work and get critiques. I learned about grants (that's a government word meaning money for work you were going to do anyway). I met several authors, who read from their books and talked about what it was like to write a novel. Revising my opinion, I decided a novel might not be such a bad idea, but I was still not interested in that poetry stuff. We had lunch, always a pleasurable experience. And then, right in the middle of the afternoon, there on the schedule was a Poetry Slam. My mind said, "A poetry what?" and answered its own self, "Who cares? It's still about poems." I felt trapped and resentful, cheated out of an hour of learning about "real" writers. I considered going home early, but didn't want to miss the last part of the workshop on publishing. A little sullen, I settled into my chair to tough it out and wait for this poetry nonsense to be over. Oh, how nave I was then!
A man bearing a clipboard approached to ask if I would consider being a judge. A sticker on his shirt proclaimed "Hello! My Name is Rich." His reddish blond hair, freckles, and bright impish eyes reminded me of a dear friend from college, so I opened my mind a little, just far enough to ask what he was talking about. Uninvited, he sat down next to me and told me about poetry slams, his hands waving the description along. I cautioned him that I didn't even like poetry, and he said that was fine, just so I was consistent. His enthusiasm flowed over me, and before I could stop it, I found myself listening to the basic rules:
In Round One, each poet has a three minute time slot in which to impress us. No props, no music, just three minutes to share an original work. The five judges score the performance based on an Olympic style card system0 to 10 written in blue marker on a card held up from our chairs in the audience. And, just like the Olympics, part of the score is based on technique of how well words were combined to deliver a point, and part on performance, how eloquently and passionately these words were delivered. The highest and lowest scores are discarded, after being cheered and booed at respectively, and the remaining three scores are combined. If the timer guy says you went over three minutes, points are subtracted from this score. Big points. This keeps poets from rambling on. Then, for Round Two, repeat. Same poets, different poems. A poet's total score from both rounds will be used to compete for prizes. Cash prizes even.
And so, with a bit of reluctance and darn few qualifications, I was now a judge. Rich beamed.
After introducing the event to the audience a few moments later, Rich performed a sample piece to show us how the process all worked. Launching into a poem about road rage, he filled the air with loud images of angry drivers, traffic jams, honking, and cursing. Speaking quickly, waving his arms, his eyes flashed. Then, his voice dropping to a quiet introspection, he asked gently, "What's it all about? What would happen," he wondered, "if you were to get out and just give the guy stuck behind you a big hug?" With a mischievous grin and a flourish, he was done. The audience erupted into applause, and we judges presented our scores. The timekeeper verified the time limit, and our demonstration was over.
The poets who competed that afternoon were, in a word, awesome. Again I revised my opinion about what I thought I was interested in learning. I yearned to perform in a slam. I wanted to entertain an audience like that.
The Chicago Tribune proclaimed, "The entertainerrarely had that word been applied to a poet until Marc Smith created the slam." Marc was a construction worker with a skill for wielding words as well as a hammer. In founding the slam style of poetry back in 1985 in Chicago, he says, "I looked for people who had a flair for performance... that was the new direction." Well, Marc, we've got an abundance of flair in Rehoboth!
Rich Boucher will be back to host the upcoming slam at the Rehoboth Art League. With over 10 years experience performing at open mikes and features throughout the United States and a member of three national poetry slam teams, this is a man who knows how to slam. He's a published author and the ongoing host of the Tuesday night Poetry Open Mike and Slam since 1997, now held at the Art House in Newark. More than that, he's a great M.C. who knows how to show an audience a good time.
Because of space limitations, reservations are required. Call early to reserve your seats at 302-227-8408.For more information about poetry slams, see the following websites: www.poetryslam.com; www.worddancing.com, and www.e-poets.net/library/slam/index.html
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 11, No. 13, September 21, 2001.