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'Slam' and 'SlamNation' probe the volatile performance poetry scene

By Teresa Wiltz

There is a not-so-quiet revolution happening in saloons and on stage, a cultural explosion that marries the verbal gymnastics of poetry with the bombast of Mick Jagger, an orgiastic celebration of the spoken word coupled with in-your-face dramatics.

Known as performance poetry, this isn't your typical English prof's cup of tea. It's determinedly working class, visceral and gut-wrenching, flavored with irony and rage. This is poetry that is meant to be heard, not read.

Coincidentally, two films celebrating that renaissance of the spoken word debut this week: the Sundance Grand Jury winner, "Slam," directed by Marc Levin and starring performance poets par excellence Saul Williams and Sonja Sohn; and "SlamNation," a Paul Devlin documentary that also stars Williams.

Indeed, watching "Slam" and then checking out "SlamNation" is an exercise in cinematic deja vu. Yes, one film is fiction and the other culled from real life, but the same characters appear in both films, blurring the line between the hyper-real world of documentary filmmaking and the cinema verite vibe of "Slam."

Still, in spirit the two films are at best, distant cousins. "Slam" explores the pursuit of salvation through verse; "SlamNation" exposes the pursuit of glory through the spoken word.

Shot in nine days with a skeleton script, "Slam" was the darling of the film festival circuit earlier this year, winning the grand jury prize at Sundance and kudos in Cannes. On paper, at least, it was an unlikely winner: much of the cast are non-actors, including ex-convicts and prison guards, who ad-libbed their lines. Like Chicagoan Ted Witcher's critically acclaimed 1997 film "love jones," "Slam" sets the poetry scene against an African-American milieu. But where "love jones" played with the convoluted love lives of middle-class black bohemians, "Slam" comes from a grittier perspective: the Washington, D.C. jail system.

Williams, a quietly intense poet whose free-form dreadlocks and tall, rangy frame give him the gentle guise of an ebony scarecrow, plays Ray Joshua, a ghetto bard who feeds his poetry addiction by peddling pot. He's a gifted lyricist, to be sure, but his words are trapped in Dodge City, the war-torn housing project of Southeast D.C. After he's busted on a petty drug charge, he ends up in jail, where he is told by a prison guard: "We're wiping out our race in Washington, D.C., and here you are, playing these silly games. Well, we've got something for you, son. Welcome to the Washington, D.C. Jail. You might make it out of here -- and you might not."

He's not kidding. Ray just wants to "get his head straight," and his weapons of choice are his pencil and pen. But as he is the target of a simmering gang war, his desire to keep it both real and nonviolent is seriously challenged. Until, that is, he lets fly some fluid verse in the prison courtyard, and everything changes. His impromptu performance, tinged with danger and abandon, dumbfounds his fellow prisoners -- and catches the ear of prison writing teacher Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn), who urges him to choose writing over the criminal life.

"Slam" is beautifully shot, a melange of rapid-fire MTV images interspersed with extreme closeups and dreamy shots of the regular folks haunting D.C.'s urban streets. Think music videos melded with Gordon Parks photography and a Salvador Dali painting. There are powerful performances here, particularly Sohn's impromptu prison scene, where she tearfully recounts her real-life brother's untimely death.

The film is raw in its power, beautiful to look at. It tugs at the emotions, but ultimately it feels unfinished, leaving the viewer hanging.

"SlamNation" is set in Portland, Oregon, the site of the 1996 National Poetry Slam, a four-day poetry marathon where more than 200 performance poets from around the world converge to duke it out over couplets and rhyme schemes. It is the Olympics of verse, and the competition is, to say the least, brutal. The rules are simple: Each team has four players. The work must be original. No poem can last longer than three minutes, or penalties will be assessed. No musical accompaniment is allowed. Judges, pulled randomly from the sold-out audience, rank the poems on a scale of 1 to 10. May the best -- as in the most dramatic -- poet win.

Dramatic is the key word here. After all, with performance poetry, the performance is as important as the poem. With the Slam, it's all about showmanship: recite a brilliant poem with deadpan delivery and you're dead in the water. Take a mediocre poem, add some well-timed theatrics, and leaden verse suddenly soars.

Slamming -- poetry as competition -- was born in Chicago, where construction worker/poet Marc Smith, tired of poorly attended, effete poetry readings, decided to take verse to the masses -- the ones swigging brewskis at the Green Mill. Soon, his Uptown poetry slams took off throughout the entire country.

More than a decade later, the National Slam has grown to over 120 poets competing from 27 cities. And yes, with growth, comes controversy. There is the ongoing feud between wily poet/schoolteacher Taylor Mali, representing Team Providence, R.I., who delights in strategizing -- and bending the rules -- so that his team can win, and nice guy/schoolteacher Daniel Ferri, representing Team Berwyn, Ill., who earnestly believes that the Slam isn't about winning, it's about poetry.

Then there's Team New York, assembled from the famed spoken word juke joint, the NuYorican Poets Cafe. At its helm is "Slam" star Williams, seeming a tad removed from the process as he spins out increasingly baroque poems that draw from rap, mythology and transcendental meditation; Beau Sia, also of "Slam," a hyper-active Asian-American college student; mums the Schemer, a sensitive hulk of a poet who raps about truth and cockroaches; and Jessica Care Moore, whose claim to fame is a front-page photo in the New York Times and five-straight wins on Amateur Night at the Apollo.

Can they beat out Providence? Can a poem about truth ever win over the judges? Will substance win over style? Will any of them ever make it to the big time?

Given the slam's Chicago roots, it's disappointing to see the Illinois teams, among them the Green Mill team and Team Berwyn given such short shrift, especially since Team Berwyn won second place. Nevertheless, the energy pulses, snaps and crackles, and performance poetry is rendered real.

Wiltz is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.

December 29, 1998

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