Charlotte's slam poetry scene is giving the city's growing cultural landscape a much-needed dose of edginess. Slam is the competitive art of performance poetry, with an emphasis on the spoken word and its delivery. It's an underground movement that has moved from the margins to the center of performance art.
Led by coach and slammaster Terry Creech, the SlamCharlotte team also features poets Quentin "Q" Talley, Charles "Maze Forever" Perry, Kendria "Mekkah aka G. Buttafly" Griffith, Bethsheba "Sheba" Rem and Boris "Bluz" Rogers. The team placed first in the 2005 Southern Fried Poetry Slam, a national competition at Discovery Place in June that included slam teams from across the country.
SlamCharlotte performed a group poem entitled "Down the Street," which addressed child victims of gun violence. In a rhythmic cadence of electrifying voices, the team delivered a heart-wrenching tale of death and destruction, eliciting audible gasps from the awe-stricken audience. It is that raw energy and emotion that attracts fans and poets alike to slam performances.
A broken relationship led Bluz to the form. "I started writing and performing poetry at UNCC after I got my little heart broken," he said. "That evolved into performing sexually explicit poems, which became very popular. One day, I heard [slam pioneer] Jessica Care Moore perform and it changed the way I write poetry and the way that I perform it. Now, I focus on more meaningful and creative expressions of poetry, which is most important."
The roots of slam poetry go back to the jazz-era Beat movement and post-50s spoken-word pioneers such as the East Coast-based Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and the Last Poets and West Coast-based Bob Kaufman and the Watts Prophets. Freestyle rap competitions brought spoken-word poetry back into vogue in the 90s, and the scene became popularized by the movies Love Jones (1997) and Slam (1998).
In 2001, hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons launched the HBO series Def Poetry Jam, spotlighting slam poets (including Georgia Me and Charlotte's Creech), revolutionary Beat poetry legends (such as Nikki Giovanni and Baraka) and various celebrity performers. Def Poetry continues to provide poets with a national platform, but not without controversy. Some poets on the underground scene say the commercialization of slam poetry has contributed to a decline in its artistry, as evidenced by the repetition of topics and performance styles.
Amidst the growing pains, SlamCharlotte strives for integrity. "We are all still very humble," said Bluz. "I don't think the commercialization of poetry will affect us negatively. We don't set out to be pop poets." To that end, at the 2005 National Poetry Slam held in Albuquerque, NM, SlamCharlotte was the only team to do the entire competition performing group pieces, earning the team a 2nd place finish, up from 5th the previous year. "We decided to sacrifice our individual opportunities at nationals for the sake of the team and the art of the poetry," Bluz said.
Yet the Charlotte team's New Mexico appearance ended in a rift. After some judging issues and negativity from the audience marred the proceedings, a few Charlotte supporters crossed their arms in protest when the ABQ Team beat the Queen City crew by a fraction. The blogosphere lit up with debate between those who applauded the action and those who thought it asinine. As SlamCharlotte prepares to host the 2006 Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS) championship in early February, the Nationals fallout is something the team will have to ponder and overcome. Meanwhile, SlamCharlotte's next monthly event is this Friday, Nov. 18, at 8pm in McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square.
The team faces other challenges, too, such as bridging the gap locally between people who love traditional written poetry and those who prefer performance poetry, divisions based a great deal on race and age. The split is a reflection of national attitudes among academic poets and literary critics who resent the slam subculture's popularity and democratizing effects on spoken word. Yale critic Harold Bloom -- influential author of The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages -- once wrote in The Paris Review that slams represented "the death of art." When a slam book project requested an interview, Bloom declined, admitting he'd never attended a slam event.
Don Mager, a traditional poet and English professor at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, espouses a less ill-informed view than Bloom. "I would like to see more intercommunication between the various segments of the writing community," said Mager. "The traditional people don't go to the slam events, the slam people don't go to the traditional events, and we could learn so much from each other."
G. Buttafly said it's an age-old dilemma for those who choose to experiment with traditional forms: "It is very difficult for a spoken-word artist to cross over into page poetry. . . because a lot of people don't consider us as poets or artists, similar to the Beat poets."
Perhaps a trend towards more universal themes is key in a transitional market like Charlotte. G. Buttafly and Maze Forever co-wrote and performed the poem "Keep Breathing" at "Remembrances," an afternoon of performance poetry, dance and music in memory of 9/11, hosted by the Afro-American Cultural Center. The poem addressed the Bush administration's policies about war and its inadequate response to 9/11. "I'm not one of the poets that jumps on the political bandwagon because it's popular, but people aren't thinking for themselves," said G. Buttafly. "It is the job of a poet to say the things that aren't popular. It is our job to bring things to paint the world as we see it, even if it's not pretty." Certainly Shakespeare would agree.
Mager sees improvement on the horizon. "A combination of factors is coming together in a lot of different ways to make North Carolina and Charlotte a center for poetry and art," he said. "The Spring Literary Festival at Central Piedmont Community College, World of Words Poetry Festival at Johnson C. Smith University, and the new MFA program at Queens University have been catalysts for the explosion of poetry in the city." Extending the network, the Charlotte Writer's Club has joined with Starbucks on Providence Road to sponsor a poetry series with an open-mic component.
At least one local slam poet said these developments should open the scene to a more diverse group of participants. "Although our team has consistently been black, our audience is very mixed," said Bluz. "Our poetry does not only reflect a black cadence, it speaks to everyone. A lot of it is just pure poetry, with messages that transcend all divides."
See SlamCharlotte's at 8pm Friday, Nov. 18, at McGlohon Theatre. Tickets are $5 at the door; $3 for competing poets. Check out other open mic events at www.urbanqc.com.