If you think you want to launch a new poetry slam, first take a walk through the Bay Area. Your cutting edge idea may have already been done. In San Francisco, SoMa’s Brainwash Cafe has called dibs on hosting an open mic in a laundromat. Quiet Lightning has taken poets everywhere in San Francisco, including to a sporting goods store. Oakland’s Tourettes Without Regrets has trademarked the Burlesque show-dirty haiku contest combo. Each slam is different, but finger snapping, occasional jeering, and cash prizes have become the slam standard. If Roman Gladiators were handed poetry and told they had to bring the crowd to their feet or be fed to the lions, it would look like a poetry slam.
Take the tightly packed Berkeley Poetry Slam held weekly at the Starry Plough. Slammers can earn up to $100 if the masses love them. There, “love” is determined by the loudness of the applause and the quietness of the hisses. An emcee reigns the show like a circus ringleader. Poets are ruthlessly given scores after baring their souls to strangers. By the end of it, they could be 100 bucks richer, or have their spirits crushed.
It only took one time for Tatyana Brown to get hooked. “The Berkeley Poetry Slam was one of the most welcoming community spaces that I found,” Brown said. “It was a place that really made you feel at home and gave you the opportunity to get on stage and experiment.”
To her, slam was a way to take stone cold poetry to a live audience. But critics of slam think poetry should be read carefully, on the page. Plus, some say slam produces low quality art because slammers try to shock the audience with vulgarity or gimmicks in pursuit of the cash prize. But, after a few years in the Bay’s slam poetry scene, Brown decided she would try to bridge the divide between the highbrow literary school of her art form, and the lawless oral tradition of slam.
Brown approached the owners of the antique shop at 998 Valencia Street in San Francisco with her idea. She called it “Lit Slam.” The two poets with the highest scores after three rounds would be featured in a new literary anthology she would publish called Tandem.
At my first Lit Slam, the room was packed. About half of 60 or so people who were there had never been to a slam before. Brown says Lit Slam attracts a whole new audience and set of participants.
“There are some poets who thought they hated slam, who thought slam was a stupid circus filled with something signifying nothing,” Brown says. “But ultimately, when you see this is a chance to get your work published, and you’ll be published alongside these other excellent authors, the incentive shifts pretty heavily.”
Maisha Johnson was one such poet. Her challenge was to turn her poetry into a performance.
“I consider my poetry to be more on the page. These were poems I could kind of put a personality to and a distinct tone,” Johnson says. “Even if I wasn’t feeling confident I could take on that persona to put it on stage.”
Johnson says it was nerve-wracking – not just to have her poems scored, but at Lit Slam, the judges critique them, too, in front of the poet and the audience. These judges are considered editors; they get to decide what goes in the journal. And they were chosen that very evening from people in the crowd. Brown asks me if I’d like to be one of those editors, and I’m a bit surprised, but rise to the occasion.
Normally, bartenders, cashiers, and others who aren’t qualified Doctors of Literature don’t get to decide what goes in a literary journal. But Brown says this type of crowd-sourcing is a way to break the highbrow image of published literature, and replace it with something more democratic.
“And for me that question is also about, ‘Can you trust the general public to know what good art is?’ ‘So often we get taught that you can’t,” Brown says. “that people don’t know greatness.”
But Brown says we do. That I do. She trusted me to help her make a book, and it was scary.
After each performance, we had about thirty seconds to pass Brown our feedback and scores: 1 would be if we wanted to jump off a cliff before the poem ended, and 10 if we believed the poem could be the de facto standard for all art anywhere.
And then she reads them out loud right there in front of everyone. It felt like our critiques were also being critiqued – some inspired wild applause, others were boo-ed.
Suzette Saint-Pierre, Kristin Badolato, and their two friends are also judges.
“It’s kind of an honor to have your opinion valued. You’re not a tourist. You’re a participant,” Saint-Pierre says.
“We felt like people getting up were so brave,” Badolato says. “You’re inspired by them, and to be a little piece of that was cool.”
Poet Maisha Johnson gets some love from the beginning with her poem Black Girls Don’t Do Yoga, and Sibel Sayiner is another crowd pleaser.
She and Maisha Johnson make it to the last round, but Maisha emerges as the victor. But it’s still not quite over yet. The next step is to turn the energy, applause, pandemonium, sweat, and fear of Lit Slam into a literary journal. For the next year or so, Tatyana Brown will have to contemplate commas, periods, and fonts – all those literary devices you don’t see when words come directly from a poet’s mouth.
But if all goes according to plan, when the journal Tandem is ready, it’ll be possible to hold a poetry slam in the palm of your hand.
Lit Slam takes place at 889 Valencia every third Monday. For details on how to purchase your own copy of Tandem, click here.