Slam Poetry, Part 2: The Rules (And a Close Encounter with the Voice of Darth Vader at the White House)

Here’s some video of poetry slam founder Marc Kelly Smith, who I wrote about yesterday. The first link (excuse the lighting) is a show I put together for the Society of Midland Authors April program in the beautiful Cliff Dwellers Club on Michigan Avenue. The room is all windows, high in the air, with a terrific view of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. I borrowed from New York poet Taylor Mali to create a “Page vs. Stage” poetry show, an event in which one poet writes primarily for the page and one poet writes primarily for the stage. Near the end of the show, each poet reads a poem by the other poet. This show featured Marc Kelly Smith vs. Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein. Stein is a good, good guy, and a wonderful writer. It was a great evening.

This next video shows Smith performing his poem “Something” at his home base, the Green Mill Jazz Lounge. The video is part of a 30-minute documentary about Smith and slam poetry, called “Sunday Night Poets,” directed by David Rori. I think both videos represent Smith at his best as a poet and performer.

Looking back, what I should have added to my post yesterday are the rules for the slam part of the show. I suppose anyone can call a poetry slam an event in which poets get up, read poems for about three minutes, and then are evaluated by random judges 0-10, 10 being high. The poet with the highest score wins. What I was trying to get at, at least here in Chicago, is that the competition is only a part of the show—and, in fact, it is my least favorite part. Not the poems, and not the scoring, but people thinking that the scoring means anything. It doesn’t. It is a theatrical gimmick devised to use elements of competition to allow the audience a bit more fun. That’s it.What IS necessary for a good slam is an emcee who knows how to work a room (think entertainment) and keep the talent in line; a narrative in the show that has a beginning, middle and end (think Aristotle); and a diverse level of talent. All of these things under the umbrella of a community of people who want to get out of their houses for an evening—turn off the TV or the radio—or artists, whether professional or amateur, who want a stage to show their work.

When I pitch poetry slam shows to different organizations, I am always operating under the above guidelines. Emcee, narrative, community, and diverse talent. The White House pitch I started in late March was no exception. The resulting White House Poetry Jam became an extension of that pitch. Here is one poet from the poetry slam community who performed on May 12 at the White House event:

I’ll write more about the underbelly of the White House event tomorrow, but here is a fun anecdote. In my role of editor and poetry show producer I have had the opportunity to be braff_smalleraround some celebrity artists. I am always very shy about asking for pictures—I don’t like asking, I don’t like taking. That being said, it was passed down to me by higher powers that the White House event is one of those times you ask for pictures. I did not take any the entire first part of the show, but a very friendly Zach Braff was taking pictures with people, saw me holding my camera, and nudged me to comply. He grabbed my camera and we took a picture together—I was very thankful and I began snapping.

James Earl Jones was a performer that evening, reading from Shakespeare’s Othello:

So I asked him for a photo. His lovely wife grabbed the camera and began taking pictures. It took her a while, so while I awkwardly stood there with my arm around James Earl Jones, I mentioned that I am a high school English teacher. This always gets a response like, “Oh, God bless you, thank goodness it isn’t me,” which is pretty much how Jones replied. But I was prepared. Our discussion, with my arm around Darth Vader’s voice for close to ten minutes as his wife was trying to take our picture, went something like this:

“I’ve met the Chicago writer Bill Brashler who went to school with a professor of mine.”

Jones gives me a blank stare. He looks at his wife, who says, “I’m going to get this picture for you Mark.”

“Brashler wrote The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, about the negro baseball league, one of your early films.”

“Oh yes,” said Jones, recognition dawning. He chuckled and smiled at his wife. “We don’t let the writers on set.”

“He told me that Billy Dee Williams was supposed to be the catcher in the film, but when they started shooting he didn’t want his face covered up by the catchers mask,” I continued.

Jones looked at me, not sure if he was hearing me correctly. He he smiled and pointed at his chest. “I was the catcher.”

“Yes, I know. What I mean is, I think they had to rewrite the script because in the book, Billy’s character, the leader, was the catcher.”

“I was the catcher,” Jones said again, his voice closer to Vader this time then before.

“Billy Dee Williams face was his money . . . he didn’t want it covered up,” I replied.

A blank stare from Jones. “It doesn’t really matter, Richard Pryor stole the film,” I added. (I didn’t mean this as an insult, I meant to compliment the dead, which I’ve been taught to do, and I thought it would be a nice way to switch it up, bring back some memories).

jones_smaller“Honey, you need to take this picture. The President is leaving and he wants me to say goodbye to him before he goes,” Jones said, removing his arm. Pictures were snapped. Jones started collecting his things and his wonderful, beautiful and earnest wife handed me my camera back.

As they were leaving, Jones turned to me one last time, smiled and poked his finger at me. In full on, scary Darth Vader voice (mind you I was raised on the first three Star Wars films and still believe to this day that Darth Vader is the ultimate evil in the universe). “BASHLER,” he intoned, addressing our first part of the conversation.

“No, BRASHLER,” I countered.

“BASHLER,” he repeated, and moved on to say so long to the President. What’s one to do when confronted by the ultimate evil in the universe in regard to a misname? I did as any youngest sibling of four would do, I whispered to his walking back, “Brashler . . . ”

More to the point tomorrow.



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About the Author:

Mark Eleveld has been reviewing for Booklist since 2004. He is the editor of The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (2007) and editor of The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-Hop, and the Poetry of a New Generation (2003).

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