Awhile back, through the magic of the internets, I met a couple of fabulous local fat girls through one of my regular FA blog reads. As it turns out, one of the gals, L, is a serious (and good, I have learned) slam poet, and invited me to their next slam, which happens to take place at Bentley’s, home of my regular open mic. I have been known to write poetry, though have never experienced a poetry slam, and I was curious as to what it was all about, and whether I’d be interested in participating myself. Scott was going out to a football game last Saturday night, and would rather eat glass then listen to an evening of poetry anyway, so I went on my own.
You may recall the post wherein I lamented the entire concept of competitive poetry, and indeed, it turned out to be exactly as I expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was to directly contribute to the very thing I spoke out so vehemently against once upon a time.
I didn’t mean to, actually. When L asked if I please, please, please, would judge the slam, I said sure, my only thought being to help out a new friend, as it was evident that they were having a hard time finding judges.
It was only when the dry-erase scoreboard was put in my hands that I thought, “Oh god, what was I thinking???” and remembered that I was, in fact, philosophically opposed to competitive poetry on a visceral level. The horror gripped me about 5 minutes too late to be useful.
L and A, the host, explained to me about “score creep” and about how the enthusiastic and partisan crowd often boos low scores, which frequently intimidates the judges, who then start giving higher and higher scores to avoid the censure of the crowd, which puts early performers at a disadvantage. They asked merely that I stay consistent with my scores. The more I heard about it, the sorrier I was I said yes. But it was too late to back out now; I’d committed and was stuck seeing it through.
Now, I have spent many years in the study of poetry. I was an English major. I taught English and Creative Writing for years. I’ve evaluated a lot of writing over the years, that of students, of classmates, of writer friends, and I have pretty sharp editorial skills. Not to mention the fact that I am a writer and poet myself, and have worked hard over the years at my craft. I feel confident in saying I know my way around the written word, and am not intimidated by poetry.
This, then, was the background I brought to my judging duties. I rather expected some kind of artistic unity to the pieces I was hearing, some consideration of sound and rhyme, some interesting turns of phrase, and some evocative imagery. These are the things which make a poem. It doesn’t have to be poetry like mine; poetry, like any art, is very individual and its merit highly subjective, and I’m always the first to make that case. But there are common aspects to all forms of poetry that are what allows it to differentiate itself from really pretty prose. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with pretty prose. I’m exceedingly fond of it, myself, but this was a poetry slam.
Being new to the whole slam experience, though, I was not prepared by the performance art aspect of it. If I were to get up in front of a group to share my poetry, I’d be reading it to you. With nuance and dynamics, sure, but I’d still be reading it. Not these folks. They were performing it, very much like a monologue. It was pretty damn impressive.
If I’d been scoring on performance and charisma alone, some of the folks would’ve gotten higher scores than they did for performing brilliant, witty monologues that were, in the end, straight prose narrative pieces and not poetry. If they had been auditioning for me, I would’ve cast them immediately. The sweet young boy with the speech impediment deserved a full 10 for gumption and another 10 for his charm, but not so much for poetry. And I understood my mission to be the judging of poetry, rather than the apparent merits of the individuals before me.
Apparently the crowd disagreed, so much so that the manager came to whisper in my ear, “They don’t like you very much.” Gee, I hadn’t noticed.
I got booed when my scores were often, (but not consistently), lower than the other judges’, as this was not a secret ballot. It was announced for all the world. It quickly became clear to me why the organizers had such a difficult time finding people willing to judge. The crowd could be brutal, and it was highly tempting to give higher scores just to avoid it, but that wouldn’t have been fair to the folks I’d already judged.
Truly, I wouldn’t take back a single one of my scores; I think they were fair. When I taught, I wasn’t stingy with the As, but I didn’t toss them about like confetti, either, and so it was Saturday night. When the poem deserved it, I gave it high marks. When it didn’t, I gave it what I felt it deserved; nobody got less than a 5. Some of the poetry I heard that night was beautiful, gorgeously and thoughtfully wrought, and soul-stirring. Some of it was drowning in cliché, gimmickry, and the liberal use of both volume and swearing in the guise of being “edgy.” That may impress the young crowd, but not this old lady. And it showed in my scores, which did not please the crowd. I was accused at one point of being heartless, in fact.
It was so bad that when the judges at the table next to me had their marker dry out, and I offered to share mine, one said, “I don’t know if I want to be associated with your marker.” Wince. However, I did not waver. I know my stuff, and I am a grown-up; I can take it.
When I hugged L at the end of the night, and she thanked me again for judging. I said, “You’re welcome, and I’ll never do it again.”
Because it was exactly what I imagined competitive poetry would be like, and I didn’t care for it at all. I didn’t like the idea that someone could “lose” at poetry. Sure, some poetry was better and some worse, but based on the wide range of scores for each poet, what that meant was different for everyone. I think a lot of it was based on age and experience; the younger judges, at least those at the table next to me (and the unofficial judges of the college crowd) preferred the stuff that sounded more like rap, the lovelorn poems, and the stuff with the message of “Down with The Man.” I’m 36 years old with 2 cars, a mortgage, and I don’t work nights or weekends; I AM The Man. The table of college kids next to me who were doing a communal score were baffled when the older judges, myself included, gave high marks to a poet they’d just panned. De gustibus non est disputandum.
If I hadn’t been involved in the scoring, I would’ve enjoyed the evening a lot more. The featured poet was brilliant and brave and I could’ve listened to her all night. The better poets of the evening I was eager to hear more from. It’s pretty cool to sit around and share poetry. It’s just not cool to sit around and judge poetry. At least not for me.
I strive for excellence, but I’m not competitive. Inherent in any competition is an implied conflict, and conflict makes me sick to my stomach. My first and constant instinct is to withdraw. Which is probably why I don’t enter writing or music contests, or submit my stuff for the inevitable pile of rejection letters. I love writing, and I hate conflict, and bringing the two together is only going to ruin a perfectly good romance.
On the plus side, I was inspired that evening to write my own poem. I realized recently that I haven’t written a new poem in over a year, which is a pretty long drought for me. I’ll share it with you here. No scores required.
I am old
I have read and written and forgotten
so many poems
steeped myself in
of the ages
and the aged
We have all been so precious;
the only thing shocking about you
is your youth
your sweet belief that you are
Believe that as long as you can.
Believe it for those whose innocence has been
knocked out of their hands.
Believe it for me.
There is nothing new under this tired sun;
one man’s novelty is another woman’s gimmick;
I know the difference between
soup can and Sistine Chapel
and some day,
god help you,
you will, too.
Show me your soul
where it has burned
where it has yearned for more than you could articulate
but found a way to nonetheless
Show me where you live,
not where you play house.
1 September 2008