(Originally posted on the Best American Poetry blog -- thanks, BAMPO!)
I judged a poetry slam on Friday night.
It's been about eighteen years since I was a little baby slammer, all of 23 years old, waving my righteous little fist around on the stage of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, hoping that MTV would put me on the air (they did) and make me into a famous poet (they didn't). And in that eighteen years, I've seen my share of slams, and often enjoyed them, though the formula's getting a little stale. But it's been a while since I put on my judging shoes (sneakers, in case I have to run from an angry poet), whipped out the fat black marker that makes me dizzy when I smell it (I know -- don't smell it! But I have to, just to check and see if it still makes me dizzy!), and tried to assign a quantitative value to another poet's expression of their art.
Then I was invited by a teenaged writer I know to judge the NAACP -- that's the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- Jamaica Youth Poetry Slam. Which was very cool, especially for a comparatively colorless Pink Person, as I am definitely in favor of the advancement of all peoples, especially youthful peoples, and I was eager to see what the ever-rotating cast of Kids Today was up to when it came to the spoken word.
Friends! I have journeyed far and wide! (St. Albans, Queens, which is pretty goddamn far/wide from my place in Manhattan, and is also the birthplace of LL Cool J, and therefore a significant site in the history of hip hop.) I have listened to derivative drivel, and I have had my ears filled with gold! (Metaphorical gold, not the molten metal kind, because that would be painful.) And I have come to tell you that there is hope for slam poetry!
Teenagers, man. They're really good. They're really inspired -- they are passionate about social justice, they are passionate about their loves and their hates, and they are passionate about their art. And they're fresh; they haven't had the hope stomped out of them yet. They haven't been told that their work suffers from a lack of tangible imagery, or the meter here is inconsistent, or that the last word of every line in your poem needs to be the same in every stanza according to this formula: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, OMFG. They just talk about what's on their mind: Paying the bills, getting harassed by law enforcement, worrying about the long term effects of this summer's oil catastrophe (I refuse to call it a "spill," a word that implies a small, easily solvable mess). One young man, in the course of an otherwise beautifully composed and intricately rhymed poem, dropped a couple of lines that suggested he felt antithetical to homosexuality. And he lost to a lovely young boi with a mohawk and a girlfriend.
Not only were the young poets on fire; the crowd was heated up, too. The younger brothers and sisters were rapt, even the toddler-sized ones -- the next generation of poets being hatched. An eleven-year-old named Malachai was too young to slam with the teens, but he was invited to recite something he'd prepared: an excerpt from Jesse Jackson's 1984 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Need I tell you that the crowd went nuts? The lyricism, intricacy, and raw power of the slammers' work was undeniable; the level of talent was unbelievable (I mean, believable, but barely, because they're freaking kids). It was tough, at the end of the competitive round, not to give everyone a 10, or an eleven even, because that's how uplifting the evening was.
Of course we told them they were all winners, just for writing poetry, just for showing up and putting themselves and their words on the line. But the real winners were us, the audience. Me. I won a sense that poetry is in the hands of a capable new generation, that texting hasn't killed writing, and that the kids, as they say, are okay.