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Slam poetry is a mixture of prose and performance, with many poets seemingly adopting the same staggered rhythms, rising tones and obtuse subject matter. But the world of slam poetry is actually as varied as any other art form, which is something made very clear by the surprisingly spry documentary Slam Nation. Shot at the 1996 National Poetry Slam competition in Portland, Slam Nation (which was originally released in 1998) really shows poets who run the gamut from intellectual and political to crowd-pleasing and country.
Some of the poets seem to have stepped out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary with their ideas of how to shape their work with the sole intention of winning, rather than expressing something personal. It's almost hard to believe that anyone would approach a poetry slam like it's a junior miss pageant, but Slam Nation shows that particular attitude with relish.
The National Poetry Slam is organized sort of like college basketball, with different cities submitting a team of four poets who then compete in different heats until one city's team is crowned winner. The teams profiled most extensively in Slam Nation are from New York, Providence, Boston and someplace called Berwyn. The differences in approach are definitely striking.
The New York team consists of several poets who have become superstars in their field in the years since, including Saul Williams (who starred in the feature film Slam), muMs The Schemer (who had a regular role on HBO's Oz) and Jessica Care Moore (who broke records for consecutive wins on Showtime at the Apollo.) They're a thoughtful, introspective bunch that doesn't quite buy into the notion of numerically ranking poetry: After muMs receives a harsh judging, Williams asks the camera "How do you give a four to the truth?"
There are numerous instances of poets from other teams claiming that the New York poets walk around with the attitude that they're the real deal, but the four members of the New York team (which also includes the hilarious Beau Sia) are down to Earth and care about their work deeply. One point that the other poets all concede to the New York team is that the Nuyorican Poets Café (a well known poetry club) never chooses the same representatives twice. The other teams, often filled with ringers who perform the same crowd-pleasing poems over and over, have to admit that this is a bold policy.
In stark contrast to the New York team, the Providence team has an attitude dominated by a desire to win, regardless of how. Actually, it's really just de facto team leader Taylor Mali, the kind of goal-oriented prick you'd never expect to see in a documentary about poetry. Taylor loves coming off as the bully who was just clever enough to beat the nice guys. He's a fascinating documentary subject and his demeanor seeps into his self-referential poems, most of which are designed specifically to poke fun at the conventions of his peers. His theatrical readings bring the house down as audiences roar with recognition at Taylor's skewering of the other contestants. The film even gets into a feud between Taylor and Berwyn's earnest Paul Ferri that started when Taylor followed Paul in a competition and unexpectedly used Paul's own words in a poem designed to deflate the other performer. Various controversies swarm around Taylor like flies, but he loves it because it gets him more notoriety and more camera time.
Team Providence's win-no-matter-what strategy leads to strange anomalies, like their pulling out an unannounced group piece to wring out a couple of extra points and win a round. (Stupidly, the audiences over-rank group pieces every time.) But the contrast between this team (who don't come off as poets who care about their poems) and the New York team (who really speak from the heart) is striking. Still, the most powerful poem of the film comes from Jack McCarthy, an older poet from the Boston team. His plain-spoken confession about his family is instant heartbreak and shames the younger poets who only write to win.
As I think about the film I keep coming back to the New York poets. Whether it's muMs' memorable piece from the point of view of a cockroach, Williams' intricate poems about meditation and time, or Sia's tremendously satisfying "When I Get The Money," which climaxes with "Yeah, money can't buy you love. But love can't buy you shit!" their moments are the ones that mix good-natured socializing with heartfelt, personal poetry the best.
The full frame video, in a word, is terrible. Shot on low-grade video cameras (much on home video by muMs for his personal video diary), it definitely doesn't look great. Grainy, blurry, speckled with compression artifacts, this is not a visual presentation to show off.
The Dolby Digital stereo fares better than the video, but it's similarly lo-fi. Voices are usually clear, but the performances were clearly recorded with limited microphone placement. No subtitles, sadly.
This two-disc set is actually loaded with nice extras, including one that might be the most brilliantly simple extra I've seen in many releases. During ANY poem excerpted in the film you can see the entire unedited performance by hitting the "enter" button on your remote. I can't believe that this feature isn't implemented more often in performance-based documentaries. Grated, it's extra work for the producers of the disc, but it definitely elevates the value of the DVD. Some of the poems gain new meaning with the added context of their full performances. And considering that we're talking about 47 3-minute poems, that's a lot of context. Outstanding.
There are also 20 additional poems included as a special feature on the first disc, as well as trailers and bios.
The second disc contains "Slammin'", a 27 minute pilot for a TV series on slam poetry. Hosted by Bill Holman, who gets dissed pretty hard by various people in the main documentary for being a pandering buffoon, the show gives a good sense of the chaotic world of local slam events. The second disc also doubles up some of the extra poems from the first disc, which is actually not a bad idea, even if it's a bit redundant. It gives the viewer more options. Overall, this is a really great set of features for this release.
Slam poetry is not everyone's cup of tea. But Slam Nation, by highlighting the personalities of the poets as well as their words, broadens its potential audience. I was surprised at how engaged I was, hanging on to hear what grand claim Taylor Mali would make next, or what intricate combination of words Saul Williams would dream up.