By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Sometimes," she says, "I catch myself tasting her intonations on my tongue."
Performance is almost everything. One no longer writes poetry, one "does" poetry.
"Some poems read well on the page, but the person who wrote it can't bring it off onstage," Flatgard says. Conversely, the poem might be a rhetorical flurry that, put down on paper, is like a snowstorm in Cave Creek: It fills the air with furious flakes for a few moments, but every one melts before it reaches the ground.
And sometimes, more often than might be expected, a poem turns out to be well-written and well-performed.
@body:The poetry slam was invented in Chicago in the mid-1980s by a former construction worker named Marc Smith. He named it "slam" to try to balance out the innate wussiness that the term "poetry" has held for at least the last 25 years. Smith still stages them at the Green Mill, a gritty tavern in a grittier Chicago neighborhood called Uptown. The Chicago slams are far more brutal affairs than the Phoenix variety. Smith encourages the booing of bad poets off the stage. He exhorts the audience not to clap unless the poet has earned it. The lowest slam score ever given at a slam occurred at the Green Mill; it was a legendary negative infinity.
Mary McCann, the KZON-FM morning jock, brought the slam to Phoenix. She'd seen the New York version in 1990 and was so impressed that the next spring, she rode her Harley-Davidson cross-country to Chicago to see the first national slam championships.
"I loved the idea of hearing these voices that were undiluted and had a real regional ring to them," says McCann. "Ann Arbor poets did not sound like Asheville, North Carolina, poets in the words they used and the scenes they chose to describe. All the New York poems had a gun or a rape in them. The San Francisco poets were a little bit flaky and a little bit pissed off about little-bitty things. There was a poet from Ann Arbor who did historic epics about battles--which would never be something I was interested in. But he was there in his subject."
Besides, the slam felt so close to the nightclub act she'd been developing: part comedy, part send-up of Beat poetry. She'd dress up as a beatnik chick and spout comical existentialism while accompanied by a drummer. Eventually, she dropped the costume, because the poetry stopped being a joke, became more lyrical--even if it stayed humorous.
God must love it when I pray, one poem starts.
I bet he puts me on the speaker phone and
Calls any angels passing by into his office so's
They can all laugh and snort and rock back on their heels
McCann talked the owner of a Tempe club into letting her stage a slam there. "Sometimes it was just me and the bartender's kid," she says of the early shows. But quickly, it took hold. She moved it to the Willow House, a Phoenix coffee house, when the Tempe club closed down. And when the Willow House was sold, she reconvened at Beulah's.
"Most people think that poetry is the last thing that has anything to do with their lives," she says. "They had to read it in school. And the only time they ever came close to poetry was the first time somebody broke their heart, and they wrote something real sappy about it. With all that hurt shit on it and all that school shit on it, it's pretty stinky, and who wants to go near that? The slam is an event. The subversive part of it is that people hear poetry. I love that part."
McCann took a pair of friends to compete in the second national slam competition in Boston in 1992. In 1993, there were two Phoenix teams, one sponsored by McCann's fund-raising and promotional efforts and another from Tempe.
"We did pretty well, actually," says David LaSpaluto, who was on the Tempe team. "We beat Finland."
Then, when asked if the Finns were reading in English, he concedes that they were mostly reading in Finnish. @rule:
@body:The formal poetry readings at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe hum on the same angst-ridden frequency as the average 12-Step meeting. Thirty or more followers of the muse sit in a circle of folding chairs, bald guys with college-town ponytails (mere buns, really) that rise and fall with their breathing as they doze off. High school girls with faces frozen sour by makeup and hormonal overload hang their legs from the balcony above.
Silence fills the room. Squirm, squirm. Finally, a young man stands nervously and walks to the center of the circle.
"My name is James," he says--one expects him to add, "and I'm a poet"--leading the other participants to shout out in unison, "Hi, James!"
Pinna Joseph, a co-owner of Changing Hands, started the readings back in 1976, and though the venue changed a time or two over the years, it settled into a back room at the store, where a handful of dedicated poets came to share their work.