For better or worse, as we now know, artists moving into the neighborhood is the first step toward developing a quaint, historic commercial strip suburbanites can visit on weekends, leaving lots of money, trash and legends of embarrassing behavior in their wakes. Artists--with their unique, challenging visions, their tiny incomes and their resultant hyper-resourcefulness--are the prep team for an area's economic growth (and aesthetic moderation).
Then the artists have to move out because it's too noisy and expensive.
I first heard about Poetry Slams in the early '90s. With a history of street-arts activism back east, I was only softly hardwired to the academy. It felt deliciously counterculture to sneak away from The Mill, as we called the academic creative writing program, and participate in language-based activities of a seedier nature. The fact is, most of us were sneaking away; so it wasn't really sneaking at all, rather keeping a sense of perspective. Whether you call it the written/spoken word, the field of literature or ranting, the teachers, acclaimed authors, small-press publishers and street poets simply occupy different regions of the same gradient: poetry.
Interestingly, before the Poetry Slam hit Tucson there was Poetry-O-Rama, a strangely significant blip in our literary history--a meteor falling to earth, utterly gone before it could hit the dirt in sooty indignity. Basically a game show format at the pre-cyber café Club Congress, Poetry-O-Rama took the idea of poetic competition to before unknown heights and depths. Cunningly simple: two contestants, three rounds and a panel of three celebrity judges. Utterly kooky.
Round One involved the recitation from memory of as many poems as possible within the space of a minute, a test of linguistic fortitude and rote memorization. Round Two required the onstage composition of an original poem on a theme selected by spinning the parrot on a large wheel of fortune. Round Three was a wrestling match (yes, this was often the deciding round). Somewhere in there the contestants read some of their own poetry. All of these activities were presided over by the smarmy, lounge-lizard MC--like a small Jerry Rivers ... uh, that's Geraldo to you, bub--on a very mean pill. The rounds were heralded by a placard-carrying woman in cat-eye glasses and a dainty apron over her '50s homemaker wardrobe. Very Necessary was a cross between Laura Petrie, JoAnne Worley, Vanna White and a French maid--a gal who really could clean her carpet today and entertain guests tonight.
My most memorable night at Poetry-O-Rama was the semifinals between Fish Karma and a woman who was out of town for the weekend. My friend Greg, cross-dressed and looking like the girl my mother dreamed I could be, stood in for her. Greg had stunned us with his recitation of Turkish poems (in Turkish) and excerpts of Chaucer (in proper dialect), but Fish Karma held his own when he read an original pantoum that began, "I am Hindi in the morning."
Maybe Greg had a bit of an edge at this point, but my heart sank; the next round was the wrestling. The relatively burly Fish pinned his opponent neatly, three out of three, with hardly a flailing of skinny girl gams, and the contest was over.
Soon thereafter Poetry-O-Rama was itself history. There were new faces in town, however. One soon bounced into the UA Poetry Center, where I was fortunate enough to work at the time. His mission: to bring Poetry Slams to Tucson. By this time, Slams were well known. A movement emerging mainly out of Chicago, Slams seemed to offer a more united response to the notion of academic poetry than previously wild-crafted poetry adventures. And you could win money ... which is always an attraction for poets since they are virtually unemployable in their chosen field.
Over the years, trickle-down from the new wave of organizers brought Tucson a few Slams, The Tucson Poet, the WomanSpeak series, the Poetry Crawl, and Tucson's first poet laureate (we're still kind of wondering about a second poet laureate). But I'm convinced Slam culture never really distinguished itself here in the Old Pueblo. It became assimilated into the healthy variety of poetic presentations that have always existed here--readings, discussion groups and interdisciplinary performances--so that this fall we actually saw the UA Poetry Center Reading Series feature an evening of mondo hip hop.
In Tucson, it seems, we don't have enough to complain about in the poetry realm to spur a recognizable counter movement. Plus, most of the people organizing poetry events in this town have had one foot in the university at some point or other. Let's face it; it's just not a very aggravated, revolutionary environment. Tucsonans are privileged to have one of the finest reading series, one of the finest poetry festivals, one of the top literary centers in the country, as well as several well-known small presses. Plus you can bump into some of the nation's best writers in the refrigerated section of Wild Oats. I just saw one the other day, buying cheese.
Regrettable as it may seem, the annals of literature in the 20th century will probably not list Poetry-O-Rama. But you'll no doubt find the Poetry Slam, which I like to think of as the viable offspring from the mating of such unsustainable ventures as Poetry-O-Rama and the relatively sustainable ventures of the academic program.
To learn more about the history of the Slam movement, you'll want to attend Saturday's Poetry: Performance: Poetry at The Mat Bevel Institute. The event features Gary Mex Glazner, poet, editor and poetry activist. Glazner produced the first National Slam in San Francisco and served on the original board of directors when the Poetry Slam incorporated in 1996. His work has been published widely, and translated into several Asian languages. He has received grants to work with Alzheimer patients using poetry, and has been involved in research for an upcoming continuation of the PBS special, The United States of Poetry. Glazner won the individual series in the first Poetry Olympics in Stockholm in 1998.
Most pertinent to his first Tucson visit, Glazner is the editor of Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry and organizer for SlamAmerica, a 35-city, month-long bus tour across the country. Published in July 2000 by Manic D Press, Poetry Slams documents the first 10 years of the National Poetry Slam.
On Saturday, Glazner will perform "Voices of the Slam," an interactive and informative presentation that includes poems from the Poetry Slams anthology, stories about the poets and the making of the book. Appearing with Glazner is poet Noel Franklin. Also a seasoned poetry organizer, Franklin studied printmaking in the Northwest. Then she turned to words, nabbing a Seattle Arts Commission award, a Jack Straw Foundation Writer's Fellowship, and a place on the Seattle National Slam Team. Franklin, whose work is also published widely, was one of the driving forces behind the Seattle Poetry Festival.
Along with Glazner and Franklin, the night features one of Tucson's best known masters of verbal kinesis, Mat Bevel, who will perform a variety of poetic monologues throughout the evening. All of this will take place within the Mat Bevel Institute, Tucson's most notable monument to mechanized sculptural kinetics and ART (Available Resource Technology).