Last weekend, I coached the Emerson College Slam Team (a.k.a. "the /b/ team") at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (a.k.a. "College Nationals"). The team was made up of my friends and excellent poets: Maxwell Kessler, Carrie Rudzinski, Carlos Williams, George Watsky, and (our rookie) Peter Lundquist. We made finals and took home 4th place.
I'm very proud of my team for getting to finals, and all four of them gave extremely good performances of extremely good poems, and the crowd seemed to love all four of them like long-lost children. Some other teams, such as UPenn and UC Santa Cruz, put up some really good poems in slams that I saw last weekend. That said, I came home with some freshly agitated opinions...
Many of the performance poets I know will agree with me when I say that Slam Poetry is one of the stupidest inventions of the 20th century (ranking just under the neutron bomb or the self-spinning fork, depending on which definition of "stupid" you're using). It was designed to steal poetry back from the academics, but now that poetry belongs to the people, it's just a really flimsy centerpiece for this community of orators, too many of whom seem less interested in the craft of poetry than they are in half-informed political grandstanding.
The main problem with slam, structurally, is that it forces the judges, randomly selected audience members, to give public scores to the poets. Audience members who have never seen a poetry slam before are especially encouraged to judge, so not only do they have to evaluate art in front of a crowd of strangers, but they very well might have to do so while forming their taste in said art form.
But the biggest problem with public scoring, as many slammers will tell you, is that a lot of poems that get performed at poetry slams deal with hot-button issues. Understandably, most judges feel uncomfortable giving a low score to a bad poem denouncing a hate crime, but they might give a low score to a great poem about, say, the troubled life of an ambulance driver.
I feel that poetry is an inherently valuable addition to social discourse. When people listen to any well-written poem, they are moved to think about the world in a way that they have not thought about it before. To submit oneself to an evening of good poetry is to appreciate existence on a higher level than usual--which, frankly, is good for humanity. Bad poetry at its best is boring; at its worst, it appropriates and trivializes the struggles of humankind, all of which deserve more attention than it takes to write a half-assed poem and perform it without having revised it thoroughly. Any mechanism that favors poor writing of a particular political persuasion over effective writing is a harmful one.
Still, Emerson's victory, paired with the Cantab team also taking 4th place at Nationals (and the recent attendance boom at the Cantab) gives me hope that good poetry is on the rise, and that it might soon overshadow the gaudiness of slam.