Slammin’ Poetry

Poetry makes me really uncomfortable. In elementary school, I purposefully wrote verses which revealed absolutely nothing about me. I figured that, perhaps, attending a “Poetry Slam,” a Black Arts Week performance, might unleash my inner Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot. Poetry Slams are competitions in which poets perform their pieces to an audience in a signature style and rhythm. Judges, in this case four randomly selected audience members, rate the performances on a scale of 0-10. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the two scores in the middle are summed. Slam poetry has been hailed by its proponents as the “democratization of verse,” while others, including Yale Humanities Professor Harold Bloom, have labeled the movement “the death of art.” The Poetry Slam in Kemper Auditorium at Phillips Academy on January 3 was nothing if not interesting. With slam champion Anthony “Boogie” Rucker serving as emcee, the audience bore witness to performances that consisted of a tremendous range of structure, subject matter, and, most notably, delivery. The Slam started with thirteen competitors. Highlights of the first round included Jessica Cole’s ‘08 “Words of Self-Sexpression,” a piece which rendered me more uncomfortable than I have ever been at any school-sponsored event. That is, until, Edwin Kulubya ’06 commenced a mild strip-tease during his poem, “Butter.” The first round came to a compelling close with Desmond Bonhomme-Isaiah, the name-dropping notorious beat poet, whose performance included the lines “If I had a country girl / I’d force her to vomit propane / And legalize crack cocaine.” While the judges deliberated, Boogie performed some of his own poetry. He drew on a hip-hop-influenced delivery style and social themes. “Pizza in the Hood” and “Get Off Me,” from his book The Poet, were his most gripping performances. “Baddest Poet,” a more lighthearted piece, inspired by the blithe self-boastings of the earliest emcees, proved equally entertaining. At one point, Boogie lamented that he wished his audience was in college so he could perform more controversial material. Although the audience urged him to proceed anyway, he refused noting, “I’ve gotten kicked out of places before.” The semifinals consisted of six competitors: Kelicia Hollis ’08, Brittany Achin ’08, Edwin Kulubya ’06, Akosua Oforiwaa-Ayim ’07, Jessica Cole ’08, and Desmond Bonhomme-Isaiah ’06. Cole’s insistence that her second poem was “not about sex” was greeted with skepticism by the audience. Hollis’ sensual “That’s What Feels Right” not only furthered my squeamish discomfort, but prompted Boogie to declare adamantly, “I’m telling your parents!” Of the final three, Achin, Bonhomme-Isaiah, and Cole, the winner was to be determined by applause. The contestants were whittled down to Achin and Bonhomme-Isaiah. However, as the contest devolved into what Interim Dean of CAMD Linda Griffith characterized as nothing more than “a battle of the sexes.” Both Bonhomme-Isaiah and Achin were jointly awarded the fifty-dollar cash prize, with the stipulation that each would “Slam Off” at a later date. A conversation with Boogie the “Def Poet” after the Slam provided insight into his background, beliefs, and lifestyle. Boogie was introduced to poetry by “friends, mostly,” and “got into performing poetry…to sell books.” Boogie writes “about life…everything that pisses me off or makes me happy.” As for pet peeves, he said, “stupid people piss me off…and governments. Name one thing governments do except go to war with each other and piss each other off.” But, he notes, “I also write about what makes me happy…when you’re black they expect you to be angry. If you’re happy, they don’t know how to react, but if you go in there like ‘I hate whitey’ they clap.” When asked about his self-censorship earlier in the night, Boogie said that, “it’s not pressure, I just got tired of getting thrown out of places. But then again, I never got thrown out because of profanity. It has always been because of the content of what I was saying, and it makes you feel special.” Boogie spends most of his time touring and doing workshops, where he aims to “teach things that couldn’t normally be taught because they’re not politically correct.” Regardless of the opinions of academic social critics, there is no denying that the Poetry Slam movement represents ideals that are not merely political, but fundamentally cultural.