Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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"I’m Marc Kelly Smith," the assured, fit, middle-aged man in black jeans and black t-shirt said as he slid off the table he’d been sitting on at the front of the room. We applauded.

Wrong beginning. "So what!" he said. "You’re supposed to shout So What!"

And we did.

My first lesson in slam poetry, the art that –as Smith wrote in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slam Poetry--"resurrected the spoken word literary tradition." I have never been to a poetry slam. I had imagined them as events in dark, meager clubs where people who didn’t read poetry, but wrote it anyway, got up to shout their poems. Loudest voice wins. I’d imagined the content being pretty close to heavy metal.

In other words, I figured it didn’t apply to me.

Then an email arrived from Albuquerque’s Open Space Center announcing an upcoming poetry weekend, coordinated with the official opening of the haiku show in their main gallery. Because one of my haiku had been accepted into the show (all haiku were transcribed by a calligrapher on top of an abstract watercolor done by an artist), I figured the poetry weekend did include me. I registered for two classes. One, taught by the poet Richard Oyama, a class in the "Persona" poem, writing poetry with a voice other than your own, seemed a natural for me as I work on a novel containing many voices other than my own. That story is for a later article.

But registering for Marc Kelly Smith’s Slam Poetry class was an instinctive move, the sort one enters into without a reason. Don’t think. Just go. (Which, of course, is the way one ought to write anything.) By the time I called, there was one place left in the class. Obvious proof I was supposed to be there.

Marc Kelly Smith invented the poetry slam in the 1980s. Now he considers it "probably the largest social arts movement ever, bigger than the Beats . . . it came out of the folk movement. It is the remarriage of the art of performing with the art of poetry."

"People write wonderful stuff," he told the eighteen of us in the room, "but they don’t communicate. It you’re going to stand in front of an audience, you have an obligation to perform."

Engage the audience. Grab their attention. Change their perspective. Give them something new. Move them. "You move people by reaching deep inside yourself," he told us, giving everything to your community. It’s not your job to become a star. It’s your job to move people."

For Smith, community matters—the community of performers, of audiences, the larger community that doesn’t even know slam poetry exists. "Over the centuries, the artist’s job has been sacred. It has been the vanguard of changing the things that need to be changed. As performers, you are instruments."

Speaking about volume as a fundamental of performing, he asked us to repeat a single line one of us threw out. Over and over we said the line, the volume increasing with each repetition until the sound we made was probably the loudest sound on earth. (Now there’s a way to loosen up a group . . .) That done, three of us went to the front of the room while the rest of the class voted on who—individually-- was loudest. (I volunteered because I was curious to test my normally soft voice. ) A man with an incredibly large voice won easily. I thought I was shouting, but I was beat out by a woman with a much louder voice. When we were finished screaming, Smith said, "A bad thing that’s happening now is that slam poets are screaming. Speaking loud with authority is what politicians do, not artists."

In other words, volume isn’t only about noise. Using lines of his own, he showed us how effective great softness is. Or total silence. A look that connects with the audience. He talked about tempo, about articulation, about all the facets of speech that go into performance. "You must know who the audience is . . . Who is the poem speaking to?" Smith said. "If you don’t know, the audience won’t know."

Pushing aside the chairs, we did a few movement exercises, acting class exercises. Plucking butterflies out of the air, we placed them in the (imaginary) jars we held. We traded butterflies for hornets. We lifted (imaginary) heavy gold balls from the floor. Everyone one of us forgot who we usually are, forgot we were shy or awkward, forgot the others, so that by the time we sat down again, we were changed.

We’d all been asked to bring a poem, but there was only time for several people to perform. The first man, a poetry slam veteran, entertained us all, although, interestingly, I remember the others better. The second recited his poem three times . . . getting corrections from Smith (whose corrections were unfailingly kind, hugely constructive) on unconscious nervous movement after the first reading; getting questions about intention and meaning after the second; doing a polished job on the third.

A teenage boy, reciting, did a rapid patter. "You’re young," Smith said to him, "so you do what all young people do, you imitate what you know to be successful. Now, what is it you are telling us?" The boy slowed down, threading his way among the lines of his poem which made it clearer to us, but not yet right. "What was your feeling when you wrote that poem?" Smith asked. "What was your feeling about that younger you in the poem?" The boy stood in front of us, as if we didn’t exist, remembering. "I guess shame," he said. "I guess I was ashamed." "Do the poem again," Smith said.

And all of us heard it. The boy did, too. Before us, we saw someone enter his own poetry. We had seen it with the man before him, but the man was older, more conscious, clearer about performance. The boy, with a greater distance to go, went the distance.

A middle-aged woman who did not look like a poet stood clutching her poem in her hand. It was a hard poem she read, a poem about bearing witness to an older man preying on young girls. I thought she was talking about a husband. The situation was sad, but not much happened through it to us in the audience. Smith asked her questions about the man in the poem. "My father," she said. He asked her to read the poem again. Now the poem became more visceral for us, came closer, came harder. Then Smith asked about her feelings as she wrote the poem. She watched him ask. She answered. She read, and her poem became a raw, open fountain.

There was not one of us in that room who did not cry.

And we all understood what Marc Smith had to teach us. So what? So . . . . Everything.

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner