Published July 1, 1998
Slamnation by Paul Devlin is a ridiculous if not often comical documentary about the growing fashion of the “poetry slam” — a kind of competitive sport involving mostly execrable poetry and the little clique of neurotics and borderline exhibitionists who write it for performance before vast arenas of enthusiasts. The film tells the story of the national championships of slamming of 1996, held in Portland, Oregon, and gives far too much attention to the frankly boring business of slamming strategy and gamesmanship, especially as expounded by one Taylor Mali of Team Providence, who is apparently the acknowledged master of the art and, not coincidentally, even more of a strutting popinjay than his fellow slammers.
To give Mali his due, his poem “Whatever” is the only one of those on display here which is anything but flaccid, witless and self-indulgent. It is an occasionally amusing little satire of fashionable inarticulacy, particularly among the young “Where are those limbs out on which we once walked?” he asks. “Cut down like the rest of the rainforest?” (I give this line the benefit of the doubt in supposing it intended ironically against the bien pensant.) He concludes by challenging those he calls the “aggressively inarticulate” by alluding to the bumper sticker: “It’s not enough to Question Authority/ You’ve got to speak with it too.”
But one can’t help feeling that what he really objects to is not the inarticulacy of the sloppy teenage “Whatever” so much as it is the understatement, the doubt. The aggressiveness of the “slamming” and “rapping” vocabulary (“This is poetry as war,” says the Austin Chronicle) suggests a stridency that is curiously at odds with the subtlety and nuance which have been the prime desiderata of poetry in English for, lo, these many years. But, like Maya Angelou, these are a kind of poets who seem to believe that poetry is just personal intensity and authenticity in vaguely evocative words.
Also like Ms Angelou’s works, most of these poems are political in the broadest sense (and sometimes in the narrow sense too: in one scene a judge holds up her score card where she has written next to the number: “F*** Newt!”) and are intended for an audience of the progressive-minded.
This is only one of several forms of self-indulgence on display here. Beau Sia, a Chinese contestant from New York offers a fantasy piece called “When I get the Money” — in which he imagines himself able to buy MTV or the Stanley Cup, to throw out the first pitch at World Series or to make white supremacists “acknowledge my superiority in Mandarin Chinese.” It is apparently a liberating experience for these poets’ oppressed self-esteem to indulge in such Baroque power fantasies. So “I am that nigger” by Beau’s black teammate, Saul Williams comes down in the end to “I am god.”
In such “poetry” the mere mention of sexual or racial stereotypes in exaggeratedly ironic fashion is enough to draw hoots of laughter from audience. Another of Beau Sia’s fantasies invents a rumor that “Asian men are hung like horses” and the audience can’t decide if Beau’s imagined revenge for sexual rejection or his ridicule of sexual stereotypes is more funny. I confess that neither made me fall down laughing, but then I am not the sort of person for whom such “poetry” is intended. Which makes me wonder: can it be poetry at all if it depends on a partisan audience? I believe not, yet these people appear to imagine they are doing something similar to the great poets of the language. That’s the only real laugh in the movie.