PRINT Summer 1991


the Poets' Slam

BACK WHEN TRISTAN TZARA picked words from a hat, back when Allen Ginsberg created beatnikery with the Howl heard round the world, life still prospered on the book-reading plane, and verse could shake things up. Today, in the age of hype and image, only the hype-and-image hymn that is rap can make any waves. Otherwise, poetry leads with certainty to the state of no-fame no-money, making it possible for it to seem like the last incorruptible art. Making it the logical focus for the last trace of any bohemian energy in Manhattan, from the long-established Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, to the open mike at ABC No Rio, to the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, the only current incarnation of the true artists’ club.1

At the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe poetry is po, competition a slam—as in “slammin’ po bands.” It’s literature as action/adventure. So, while the café features what one would expect from such a versifying hangout—plays and readings and jazz—what really captures the spirit of the place is the weekly Poetry Slam. Miguel Algarin, the poet and playwright who founded the café in 1974, describes the contest as “a tongue-in-cheek activity around poetry that makes it palatable and fun for the uninitiated—and outrageous to the initiated. But they come to love it anyway.”

The poets slam on Fridays, and winners of the various heats eventually meet in a championship tournament. Three teams of judges hold up scorecards after each poem like their Olympic counterparts after judging a dive. Poet Bob Holman, who introduced the slam idea to the café and usually hosts the contest, observes that “you have to have a sense of humor to do it.” After all, the poets aren’t competing for a Guggenheim or a spot in the Norton Anthology of Something; they’re looking for a perfect 10.

One night in March, the slam got underway while the bartender cooked up rice and beans at the end of the antique bar. Our hyperkinetic substitute host-poet, Mike Tyler, reminded us that “poetry is what got Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise” as he dodged and darted around the stage with the mike stand. Wearing gloves and several shirts, Tyler announced that he would take something off any time a poet scored a 10. Several spectators booed. Our host said the three contestants were “a street poet, a club junkie, and a truth-teller,” but he didn’t know which was which. He introduced the night’s scorekeeper: the Invisible Man, someone who’d shown up with his head wrapped in gauze. The winner that round was a Hispanic poet who looked and sounded like a beatnik, what with the goatee, what with the bop and jive sound effects.

“I love to run that risky line between art and entertainment,” says Holman. Call it poetry for the MTV generation. If what’s currently in rotation up there isn’t so great, it doesn’t last long. Poets do only one poem, then the MC comes back with repartee (spontaneous po), after which the judges hold their scores up—these usually greeted with praise or scorn by the rest of the crowd. Each poet gets a second try, and the round’s over.

Last year’s slam champion, Paul Beatty, is a genuine discovery. His Big Bank Take Little Bank became the first book published under the New Cafe Poets imprint. Critics call him “hiphop,” but I see Frank O’Hara: “bob marley banter/from nigguh on decanter/cookin up the rocks/stir it up little darlin/three dead birds wait on the curb/sunken cheeks askin to lick the beaker.” That one’s called “Pyrex.”

Slams have been around for a decade, starting at a Chicago bar called the Green Mill, once frequented by Al Capone and now a rehabilitated poetry site. And the National Poetry Circus in Taos features “an annual slam between two fameys” (as Holman puts it). Sometimes performance skill can put one over on the judges, but the night Beatty won, he barely even made eye contact with the audience. He still earned his 10s. The slam format makes you listen. How else can you score along with the judges? And decide to boo them? All in fun, of course. In this space for poets, the poets themselves are never mocked. Only their critics are. The café sits on East Third Street between Avenues B and C, an area that, just a few years ago, was the heart of the Lower East Side heroin market. It was “multicultural” long before that became a buzzword. “For a Puerto Rican to be isolationist is not to know his history,” says Algarin. That would presume, he says, “an unstained unfettered original culture.”

Every night at the café, someone lights a votive candle at one end of the bar in front of a picture of Miguel Pinero, author of the play Short Eyes and one of the original Nuyoricans. When he died in 1988, his ashes were scattered through the Lower East Side. A smaller picture of a black woman named Catherine Bletson was added to the shrine after she collapsed and died onstage last spring. It’s a memorial, a talisman, a reminder—here poetry is lifeblood.

C. Carr is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York.



1. The name “Nuyorican” is the pejorative term used by islanders to describe New York Puerto Ricans. The café’s five codirectors include Miguel Algarin, Bob Holman, Willie Correa, Lois Griffith, and Roland Legiardi-Laura—black, white, and Puerto Rican but all Nuyorican new.