Poets use their words as weapons in tense film
January 24, 1999
BY TERRY LAWSON
Despite their name, poetry slams aren't actually a contact sport. They can, however, be verbally vicious, intensely athletic and brutally competitive. So it seems fitting that the prior credits of the director of "SlamNation," a documentary filmed at the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Ore., include the Summer and Winter Olympics and soccer's World Cup. Those experiences serve him well in a movie that is far more exciting than pro sports playoffs.
Part of that is because the competitors in the National Poetry Slam aren't highly compensated poets, as if there ever were such a thing. With a few notable exceptions, they are amateurs and they are unpublished. They are also hungry, motivated, talented and tense, and watching them combine words with performance and strategy -- for a grand prize of $2,000 -- is like watching the best schoolyard basketball teams you've ever seen facing off for chump change and bragging rights.
Though the National Poetry Slam has individual categories, director Paul Devlin wisely focuses on the team competition, in which four-poet squads from cities both enormous (New York) and anonymous (Berwyn, Ill.) compete for points as individuals and in ensemble. The judges are audience members, and they have no academic credentials. No matter; few of the poets have any, either.
Though some of the poetry heard in "SlamNation" would be effective on the printed page, most of it seems impossible to separate from the performances, which range from the charismatic cadences of Saul Williams, a member of Team New York City and the star of the recent dramatic movie "Slam," to the stand-up-style ranting of Taylor Mali, of Team Providence from Rhode Island. Mali's inspired essay on how Americans have stopped conversing in declarative sentences may be the brightest bang of a film glowing with verbal explosions. He has a smug arrogance similar to Dennis Miller's, but his loquacious logic reveals Miller for the intellectual flyweight he is.
Mali figures greatly in the drama because he is engaged in a feud with fellow teacher Daniel Ferri of Berwyn (who resents Mali for parodying one of his poems) and because he takes the competition extremely seriously. Mali plots strategy for the team (the rest of whom seem bemused by his intensity) and takes the extremely few rules imposed on the slam into gray areas that precipitate an administrative sit-down.
Director Devlin occasionally leaves the competition to provide the uninitiated a primer on slams, which the film says originated in the Green Mill jazz club in Chicago when Marc Smith, a former construction worker, encouraged audiences to score the poets who appeared on stage.
One thing that is apparent, if uncommented on, is the obvious connection to rap, heard most clearly in the rhythms of poets like Mums the Schemer, a New York team member who has since landed the role of Poet on the HBO series "Oz." (He and Williams aren't the only quasi-celebrities on hand. Team Boston member Patricia Smith turns out to be the woman fired from her columnist's job at the Boston Globe for fabricating stories.)
The other obvious comparison is to stand-up comedy, and it's difficult to watch Mali, the hyper-observational Asian-American Beau Sia or the entire membership of the creatively cranked Team Austin from Texas without fantasizing about firing the entire tired cast and writing staff of "Saturday Night Live" and replacing them with these poet-provocateurs. It might mean the show wouldn't always be funny, but it would regain some meaning, which would seem to be a trade worth making. Real comedy, like slam poetry, isn't for sissies.
Shows at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward. 1-313-833-2323.
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