Poetry as a competitive sport

March 29, 1994|By David J. Williams | David J. Williams,Special to The Sun

Say what you want about poetry, but you can't say it's dead.

Consider Maya Angelou's moving eight-minute reading during Bill Clinton's inauguration, or poetry as the subject of reports on "Nightline" and "Good Morning America," in Newsweek and the New York Times; or as showcased on MTV's "Spoken Word" program and as TV-commercial fodder for the GAP. Not only is poetry alive -- it's in your face.

Leading this poetry renaissance, or Spoken Word Movement, is a touring group of performance poets from New York's Lower East Side called the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Live, which appears tomorrow at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the museum's Off the Walls performance series.

The movement and the Nuyorican Poets are all about poetry-as-performance. It's part theater, part stand-up comedy and part musical performance. Its modern influences include hip hop, rap, jazz, street slang, television and tabloid news. Meld the technique and the content and the resulting work is provocative, sarcastic, political, brutally frank and often very funny.

The new poetry is "a genre that comes from urban America," says Deborah Tunney, director of programs at the BMA. "These poets are black, white, Latino -- they're from all walks of life and a lot of their work responds to very contemporary issues. And you'll hear a lot of that in their readings. It's work that really does respond to our times."

"Expect the unexpected," says poet and group manager Tracie Morris, speaking from Raleigh, N.C., on a road tour that's taken the Nuyoricans to more than a dozen cities around the country since January.

"You'll hear different voices coming from different communities, different languages, sounds, gestures and personalities," she says. "But the foundation of our work is writing with a strong literary background. It's very dynamic literary work, but it definitely has a performance element that makes it very engaging for the audience."

In addition to performances by the Nuyoricans, local poets who are brave enough can read their own work in an open poetry

"slam" -- a competition among the poets, who are judged by selected audience members. These judges, who may have no literary qualifications, rate the poets on a scale of 1 to 10, including Olympics-like decimals.

"A zero rating is for a poem whose words should be eaten, not read," says Bob Holman, artistic director of the Poets Cafe Live. "A '10' is when the audience experiences simultaneous orgasm." Ties are sometimes broken in an "instant haiku, sudden-death overtime round" where the poets improvise on the spot. Ironically, the golden rule of poetry slams says: The best poet always loses.

"A slam is an impossible event, an absolute contradiction," says Mr. Holman. "Rating poetry is the antithesis of what poetry is about. Having poets up there in a gladiator-style event is absurd, and that's why it's so much fun to do it."

Ms. Tunney, of the BMA, agrees. "A 'slam' is a very tongue-in-cheek competition because poetry is hardly a competitive sport. But it takes the standards of competitive events and applies them to the realm of poetry.

It can get a little bit loud, a little bit raucous and can go on to the wee hours of the morning."

Jenny Mikulski, of Towson, is one of the brave local poets who will compete tomorrow night. Soon after discovering the slam scene in Boston as a student, she was competing several times a week.

"It really sustained me during that year I was living in Boston, and I miss it terribly," says Ms. Mikulski. She views slamming as a way of bringing out the best of a poet's work that otherwise might never be read.

"When it's healthy, everybody gets into it and it's exciting. It's not whether you win or get great points. It drives people to come up with the best material they can come up with and really polish their performance. You're not going to get up there with a sheet of notebook paper and kind of stumble through something you wrote over a cup of coffee yesterday."

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe Live will take place in the Museum Cafe, which will be transformed into a poetry cafe for the evening, says Ms. Tunney. There will be informal table seating, with cappuccino and espresso, beer and wine available. Sorry, beatniks -- no smoking. Baltimore jazz musician Carl Grubbs will perform during breaks.

POETRY SLAM

Who: Nuyorican Poets Cafe Live

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art Museum Cafe, Art Museum Drive

Tickets: $7

Call: For tickets, 235-0100; to participate, 396-6314

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