For the first time in history (well, that we know of anyway), a city will designate a Slam Poet Laureate. Not only is the position new in that it differentiates slam poetry from traditional poetry (slam being performance-based, traditional being more inclined to be created and appreciated on a page), but the designation of said SPL is unique: The SPL will be determined by a panel of judges in a knock-down, drag-out competition.
Slam poetry is usually performed in a competitive nature, so it's fitting that 20 poets will be narrowed down in two rounds, leaving 10 finalists to compete for the title on June 13 (event details can be found at the very bottom of this post). Not only does the creation of this position speak to a modern objective - us crazy kids and our hippity-hop music - but it opens up a venue for dialogue about choosing who represents us and why, and what that representation does for the image of a city and its population.
That being said, I have a confession to make: I'm a bit notorious for declaring how much I dislike slam poetry. I guess I'm a purist in that I think that poetry exists mostly on the page; it is the words, after all, that we're manipulating, right? And when spoken, words are too fleeting to pin down. In order for a word to have any substance, it needs to be written. When a poem is purely spoken, when a poem doesn't hold its own or have the most effect when it's written in ink, it comes and goes too quickly.
Or does it?
Some people may take issue with how the Slam Poet Laureate and Poet Laureate are separate things (by the way, there is no Poet Laureate of Albuquerque; in the past, however, Danny Solis has been unofficially declared Poet Laureate by fans. Solis will compete for the ABQ-SPL title). After all, don't slam poets work in the same medium as traditional poets (perhaps one works with a brush, the other with their fingers)? I, however, greatly appreciate the distinction. Poetry on a page and poetry as spoken are two vastly different things; I can speak from experience that some of my favorite poems are better when seen written down, yet just can't hold an audience's attention when read aloud (have you ever been to a reading of Pound's Cantos? Yeah, thought so). Similarly, poems that can't keep it together on the page are sometimes engaging and ripe when spoken. To designate one Laureate for one form and another Laureate for another form is certainly one solution to a divide in poetry that is doing nothing but getting deeper.
I caught up with ABQ-SPL originator Zachary Kluckman through email, and he explained the intricacies of the position and competition better than I could.
SFR: What made you decide that we needed a Slam Poet Laureate?
ZK: As far as what led me to this idea of a Slam Poet Laureate, it really started with a need for a poet laureate. Santa Fe does have their own laureate... but Albuquerque has never had one. Although our city has had some wonderful, talented writers, it strikes me as almost a tragedy not to have one here, in a city with so many poets doing so many amazing things in the community... Since this idea of service to the community while promoting the art and vibrancy of poetics is what the laureate title is all about, it is a mistake not to have one. I have been advocating for this for three years and the city has been trying to build that office, but it hasn't come yet
Anyhow, I was remembering how the first poet laureate got his title and the idea struck me. Petrarchus, the poet and philosopher who died with his pen in hand, gave himself the title for the first time after writing a poem called Africa. He stuck a laurel on his head and appointed himself... Then Marc Smith started this whole cultural phenomenon of slam in the late '80s trying to get people interested in hearing poetry, and it has gone on to redefine the traditional role of poets as story-tellers and historians in powerful ways.
With that in mind, it made sense to me that we should take what has now been arguably the most important factor in the current rebirth of interest in poetry at a national level, and bring it to bear. We need a poet laureate to represent the city and stand as the voice of the people who live and sweat here, to be the spokesperson for the city and the unique identity of Albuquerque. By bringing slam into the mix, we get to ask the new laureate to stretch themselves in a very significant way by being able to perform and reach the people with their craft and their voice and at the same time let the people actually pick their representative for the first time.
What drew you to slam poetry?
I actually teach slam poetry frequently, often in the schools, including my work with the Upward Bound program through Lulac. One of the things I have seen over and over is the unique power and draw that spoken word has for young people who want to be heard and are not sure how to make that happen. I once taught a student who faced many physical and emotional challenges and watched him go on to use his writing and the tools we worked on together to score five perfect 10s at his first-ever performance. After that show he went back to school and people started asking him about his experiences and the things he deals with every day. All of a sudden people wanted to know about him and he had a chance to share his stories and his thoughts. Man, his eyes lit up and seeing that happen convinced me of how powerful this tool is for the young.
I want to see a poet laureate be able to strive to affect change like that with programs and initiatives in this city, and although that's only one way the laureate will do so, I think the slam element is vital. Frankly, for the youth, simply reading poetry and learning craft sometimes isn't enough and we want our laureate to be able to connect and teach others to connect and that's the fundamental aspect of what slam is.
What kinds of responsibilities will the Slam Poet Laureate have, and what do you hope to accomplish by creating this unique office?
I feel like the biggest responsibility of the Slam Poet Laureate will be to represent and connect with this city. I imagine a laureate role that goes beyond the traditional vague descriptions of promoting poetry. Our laureate will be responsible for promoting literacy, poetry and the power of speaking out loud as well as on paper. But they will also be responsible for being this city's artistic liaison as well. When issues arise that either involve the arts or affect some part of our cultural heritage, I'd like to think that our laureate will be in there finding ways to represent the voice of the people by speaking and sharing thoughts and fears, embodying the concerns and triumphs we experience as a city...
[More specifically,] my feeling is that our Slam laureate will be responsible for helping to organize workshops and events, facilitate getting more poets and poetry into schools, rehabs, homeless shelters, etc. as well as recognizing opportunities for the artists of the city to be involved in things that affect everyone and help to encourage an even higher degree of activism by simply being an example.
...I hope that one day we will actually make this a state-wide office with a salary and clearly defined annual agendas. I love poetry and I love poets and I have a strong desire to see poetry return to a place of prominence in the nation, one state at a time if need be.
Across the cultural spectrum, there are people who absolutely love slam poetry and those who can't stand it. What's your take on the stereotypical, disdainful view of slam supposedly taken by many academics?
An excellent question. Yes, we definitely have seen and are seeing some strong reactions to the idea of putting "slam poets" at the forefront with this... And this isn't only happening with the academic poets. There are also some slam poets who want to know why we're involving academics and form poetry. And I knew that would happen, it was really an unavoidable challenge and I actually welcome it.
Here's the first and most important thing to remember with that though... First of all, slam was never intended to become another type of form poetry... It was never intended to be a different school of poetics. When this whole phenomenon started it was with the sole idea of asking poets to be accountable to the audience and put some soul into their delivery when sharing a poem, and possibly think about how to write and communicate ideas in ways that were less pretentious or obtuse.
...Sometimes [poetry] becomes so mired in the academy or the craft that people without a more solid grounding in poetics never really connect with it, or have any desire to. To me, that's a problem. As artists and communicators, we want people to connect with what we're saying, right? Otherwise, what's the point of putting it out there? ...Simply put, you can't gain new fans for an art form if you can't help them understand it and feel a connection.
Seems there's a lot us uppity academics can learn from slammers, then.
Even in academic circles it has long been known that all poetry has and is meant to be heard aloud. Dylan Thomas wrote it that way, and so do many poets today. But somehow we've lost focus on that aspect of it in the swirl of iambs and meter. So whatever outcome this program has, at the least I hope it encourages poets everywhere to think about that word delivery when reading their poems, because I believe that poetry is the most unique and powerful form of dialogue we have in the world and as artists, especially when given such an important job as laureate, we should be speaking to people.
What's your reaction to people who think that slam poetry is all just "-ation" poets who fancy themselves rappers?
Dig this. New Mexico is possibly the most effective and true embodiment of the old melting pot adage, we truly do comprise a diverse and vibrant, sometimes eclectic mingling of cultures and ideologies. So quite frankly, we have too many different voices to ever fall fully prey to a slam scene where only one style or approach emerges. The sheer diversity of topics and styles you will see in the twenty competitors we have lined up will easily remove all fears on that end. We're taking this back to what slam was and should be: Poets telling the truths they know in their own words and voices with their own unique identities ever present. That's another reason I felt New Mexico was the perfect place to launch this approach to laureate appointments.
Do you write/perform slam yourself?
Oh yeah. I've been one of the top ranked slam poets in Albuquerque for several years now actually, and I have been invited to perform at the national individual championships in Canada as well as doing mini-tours and featured performances in Chicago, New York and more... Ironically I always harbored a secret dream of being the Albuquerque Poet Laureate myself, but at this point, I really want to see this opportunity exist for writers here in town, so I'm just glad I can try to help make that happen at least. The dream has to be bigger than the dreamer, you know?
SLAM POET LAUREATE FINALS
Saturday, June 13
423 Central Ave NW, Albuquerque