After competing in the Slam for the last few times, & coming in 2nd in Slam #10, I was a judge for the first time tonight. I read in the open mic & not in the Slam, & thus eligible to be a judge. I have my “issues,” as folks like to say about such things, with Slam. Primarily it is my dislike of competition in the Arts in general, of the hierarchy of “this is better than that.” Defenders of Slam will say “it’s all in good fun,” but in reality, at Slam events there are fist fights in the parking lots over scoring, who’s better, my belt is not a prompt, etc. (not here — not yet). & then there is the so-called scoring: there is no criteria per se. Each judge (often someone at a poetry reading for the first time) have their own agenda (or not), & none of them match. So on a night like this night when 10s sprang up like hardons at a toga party, I was the “curmudgeon” with the 7.9s & 8.3s.
So here is my agenda:
A 10 is a perfect score. Any faltering, hesitation, hiccup in the performance is less than perfect; few real poems are perfect; a derivative, stylized performance is not perfect. 10s should be as rare as the appearance of the deity, as rare as the perfect date, Bo Derek in a string bikini. From a practical point of view, assigning a 10 to anyone leaves you no options if you think someone later is better. Also, since the highest score & the lowest score in a round are dropped, scoring a 10 is meaningless, unless you are in cahoots with another judge who also scores a 10, the 10 will just be dropped.
The scoring is all skewed to the top of the range. No one gives a 5 or lower (except the occasional 0 — at Slam #1 I was scored a 10 & a 0, go figure). Based on the scores given, this night’s Slam could have easily been scored on a 0 to 5 scale.
3 minutes. Now that’s the limit, the maximum, not a target length to reach by padding your piece with repetition & every-expanding digression. This is Slam poetry not Slam essays; poetry is what is said in 1 page that a prose writer takes 10 pages to say. I know you lose points if you go over 3 minutes, but if you’ve already said your piece & keep going, & I’m one of the judges, I’m going to get very cranky.
“This is not a poem, this is an attitude” — There’s an old saying that the perfect Slam champion is a multi-racial, disabled, immigrant, trans-gendered lesbian. I like political poems & have even written my share. In fact this night I scored Thom Francis‘ well-performed anti-military piece (he was the sacrificial lamb, meant as a way for the judges to “calibrate” their scoring prior to an actual contestant) as a 9.0 — a good (political) poem performed well — & used it as my touchstone for the night (i.e., was this poem/performance better or not as good as Thom’s). But when a poet takes on a “I’m-more-oppressed-than-you” attitude & the poem doesn’t confront the issue, just rails against it, she/he is not going to get much from me. Tenesha‘s poem “Terrible Stories” (that she read from a notebook) was a wonderful example of how to present/confront racism without “playing the race-card” — a thoughtful, vivid poem built around a seemingly simple story.
Same with self-referential poems about Slam &/or how great it is to be a Poet. Most of us found our identity through writing, now get over it & write a real poem. In fact, Kevin Peterson‘s piece about writing “lyrics” at the bar was a good example of how to do it right, a poem about writing (& more) without being whiney (although I think he performed it better at Steamer 10 on Friday night, but nevermind).
Just because you got it memorized doesn’t mean it’s better. I’ve heard lots of great performances read from paper, notebooks, even smart phones or laptops, & lots of predictable copy-cat/cookie-cutter performances from folks who learned their gestures, phrasing, even their accents all from the same Slam coach. Memorizing may set the bar higher for the performance, but I’d still rather hear a great poem read badly than a great performance about nothing. I know that’s not “How you win a Slam,” but I’m in it for the writin’ not the recitin’.
So if you see me with the marker & a judge’s clipboard, beware — I am the curmudgeon judge prick. But know that whatever score you got, I thought about it. If you think it’s too low it doesn’t mean I don’t like you, just write a better poem next time.
You can catch the Slam (& often me) on the 1st & 3rd Tuesdays of the month at Valentines on New Scotland Ave., Albany (NY), $5.00 (or less with student ID), 7:30 for the open mic. Visit AlbanyPoets.comfor more information.