Poetry Slam, Ratatouille and Flashbacks

Roger and I were joking on Monday about his first chapbook (Of Revolutionaries and Romance I believe it was called), the existence of which he denies and if Lynne ever wanted to really get at him, she’d pull from the vault and sell reprints on Ebay. Preparing for tomorrow night’s slam at the Nuyorican, I opened my old poetry archive folder that has stuff of mine from 1997-1998, my first season on the slam scene, a lot of which was read once or twice and retired, deservedly so. Most of it didn’t even make my own first chapbook, the hastily put together Full Disclosure, which includes several poems that make me cringe whenever I look them over nowadays.

I won’t disown them, though, because they represent who I was at the time, an angsty, belligerent sunovabitch, more than willing to call people out by name and verse, from stage, with them in the audience. I occasionally got the same treatment in return and loved it whenever I did, especially if it was a strong response. I’ve always been a rather modest egomaniac, but there was something about getting on stage and calling out somebody specific that appealed to me; like the rap battles back in the day, before the gangsta mentality ruined it all and made it dangerous.

Anyway, I’m a little wired tonight after getting home from a late family movie night (Ratatouille is, pardon the pun, INCREDIBLE!) and was lying in bed nowhere near ready to fall asleep when I realized I didn’t have anything picked out to read tomorrow night.  I don’t even know the format for the slam, and don’t want to be caught off-guard again if it’s more than one round, so I started going through my files, and the aforementioned folder, and came across a little ditty that I’m pretty sure I only performed once, maybe twice, called “Why I Slam…

It’s a typically belligerent, sophomoric effort from my early slam days, sometime right after I made the Nuyorican team that summer — tying with Alix Olson for the final two spots — when I was starting to shift towards more personal, narrative pieces but didn’t have the confidence to slam any of them yet. It includes what was perhaps my favorite line of any slam poem I ever wrote, and one of the best received despite the fact it disses the audience for being illiterate idiots:

Sometimes it’s published and sometimes it’s not
and sometimes it’s slammed
because half you muthafuckers ain’t picked up a book since Dr. Seuss
and there’s no other way for us to reach you.

Reading it now, it’s a terrible bit of chest-thumping, rah-rah pandering, but I have to admire the sincerity behind it that, I think, marked the majority of my organizing efforts on the scene. I’ve always believed in the democratization aspect of slam, that anybody can get onstage and read a poem and the audience, drunk as they wanna be, gets to determine whether it’s “good” or not. Audience gets entertained, while being exposed to poets they might not have ever heard otherwise, while the poets get a lively audience who’s there for the taking, as well as [potentially, ideally] becoming part of a community that’s focused on improving their poetry.

Ratatouille takes that basic theme as its foundation, that anyone can cook, even a rat, and when it ended, I had a huge smile on my face that was partly because it was such a great movie — Brad Bird brings more humanity to his animated characters than most directors do with their human actors — and partly because it reminded me why I used to slam.

Later this month will mark the 10-year anniversary of the first time I ever walked onto the stage at the Nuyorican to participate in a slam — the Wednesday night open, then hosted by Dot Antoniades — a somewhat cynical audience member who thought he could do it better and had recently gotten comfortable on stage thanks to a few acting workshops. I performed a poem about wanting to commit suicide and got a 27.3, came in 3rd place and was invited by Keith Roach to do a Friday night slam a couple of weeks later.

The rest, as they say, is history, some of which [plug time!] will be recounted in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’ Words in Your Face, which I strongly encourage all five of you to buy when it’s published later this year!

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