This past Wednesday I went to see my friend compete in a poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. The Cantab has a rich history of poetry and music and is nationally recognized as a great slam venue. I felt lucky to be able to go and I plan on going again whenever I can! It was awesome! I was struck by the diversity within the community and the great sense of support for everyone from everyone. I have attended many slams in California, where I’m from, and always there is a sense of support for the poets and disrespect for the judges, which I think is an important and fun element of slam poetry. For those of you who don’t know, a poetry slam is a spoken word poetry competition in which the poets perform, are judged, and then move on or don’t, based on their scores. This particular slam was one in a series that decides who will compete nationally on the Boston Poetry slam team. I had not been to a slam in several years, and I quickly realized that my listening skills were rusty. Spoken word goes incredibly fast and is densely laden with images, ideas, feelings, etc. all expressed in sharp, concise poetry. Slam really uses words as weapons, a concept which we explore in acting classes, but I have never seen so directly embodied before. These poets are interacting with politics and oppression of all kinds. The poetry I heard addressed specific issues in such a vivid, personal way. Poets force you to listen to them. Poets are powerful! As I watched, I realized all over again that Spoken Word is hyper theatrical. It examines human life and tells stories in a similar way that theatre does, and those poets who embraced theatricality, tended to ‘do the best’ according to the judges. It is interesting how in acting training, we spend so much time ‘getting rid of our judges’, whereas in slam they give them power and say ‘fuck you’ to them anyway.
The modern Poetry slam movement began in Chicago in 1986. It is a fringe movement, driven by activists and artists. I was surprised to learn from my friend who is deeply immersed in the slam community that it is a very male driven art form and there is a lot of sexual abuse of women within the slam community. I was shocked to hear this because I’ve always thought of slam as a tool through which the oppressed can attack the oppressors. Apparently though, recently in New York, in St. Paul, and in Vancouver, there have been accusations of rape within these slam communities. Each community is handling these allegation in a different way. I have not been able to support these facts, as there is not information about this available online as far as I can find, so I report this with my source being word of mouth from my friend. The perpetrator in New York has been banned from competing in New York and has been prosecuted legally, but could not be proven guilty. In St. Paul, the offender was banned from the slam community for two years and I don’t know if he was prosecuted legally or not. In Vancouver, the abuser was not prosecuted legally or excommunicated, but rather dealt with in a very honor/shame system way. Once the women that he had raped spoke out, the slam community supported them, told the offender’s parents and friends what had happened, and required him to go into treatment for anger management. I find this approach interesting and very reflective of the poetry slam community. To me this shows that the slam community is one that is so tight-knit that a transgression of this kind can be handled more effectively by the community than by turning the case over to the police. Feeling as if one has hurt one’s own community is awful, and he is now also in treatment programs that he might not be in were he in jail.
At the slam that I attended, there was a very powerful poem about sexual assault. All of the poems were incredibly moving. As I sat in my seat and watched, I found myself observing the audience. There were young, middle aged, and older people sitting side by side, of all different colors and sizes. There was an older African-American woman sitting and watching in what looked like her Sunday best. I suddenly had such a strong image of church. She could be sitting in the pew and looking up at the minister, or rabbi, or officiator with the same expression of awe, joy, and rapture. Instead she was looking at a young white boy slam about his loss of virginity with an older man. She was clearly enthralled and moved by his story which he shared with sharp images and vulnerability. Slam is the religion of this community, the Cantab their temple, and I could feel the energy present, which left me in no doubt that here there was a higher power, flowing through each poet who got up to speak. Each poem was a gift, a generous expression of self, a call to action, and each applause was the audience answering with “Thank you, we see ourselves in you”. As I walked home in the cold spring night, streetlamps illuminating the beautiful trees of Cambridge Port, I felt incredibly lucky to be an artist.