Judge Neal Solon was all decked out in his Doc Martins and chains, ready to mosh. But the pit was filled with a bunch of poets talking in front of judges. They asked him to say a few words, but his guttaral "Primus sucks!" didn't earn him many points.
The Sport of Spoken Word
I first came across Saul Williams while sitting in my apartment a number of years ago. It was sometime after midnight and I was on my university-issue couch. On television was my typical nerdy, post-midnight fare: PBS. Only that night, it wasn't Nova or American Experience. Instead, it was the documentary I'll Make Me a World, a documentary about the history and the current state of African-American art.
For me, this documentary was not only the start of a minor obsession with Williams, but also an entry point into the world of slam poetry. Since then, I have encountered the "sport of spoken word" many times, most recently serving as a judge at a slam organized by a co-worker. Mind you, I'm no expert; slam judges are always random people chosen from the audience.
In the small portion of the slam world that I know, all roads lead back to Saul Williams (Slam). In 1998, Paul Devlin released the documentary SlamNation. It serves as a good introduction to the slam poetry scene. It also spends a good bit of time on Williams and his teammates on the New York team at the 1996 National Poetry Slam.
Facts of the Case
Every year, a group of poets from around the country gather to compete in the National Poetry Slam. In 1996, the slam took place in Portland, Oregon. The team representing New York featured a number of fresh, young faces as well as some old standbys. Filmmaker Paul Devlin was there to film it all.
I first attempted to write this review in the form of some bombastic poetry, complete with alliteration and obfuscation, but the result was laughable. I felt compelled to approach the film with a more serious tone. While the performances within it may cover the range of stereotypes about slam poetry, they are entertaining, and the film deserves serious consideration.
Realizing this, SlamNation can be approached on two levels. It can be seen as a film about the art of slam poetry or as a film about competition. The film provides direct support for either viewing as it explores the tension between the poets who consider themselves artists and those who primarily consider themselves competitors. This duality—an exploration of art or of competition—gives SlamNation its greatest appeal. Without the competition angle, the film would attract only slam poetry enthusiasts. Without the poetry in the film, it would offer little that's new.
A few poets stand out in the film, whether because of the camera's focus on them or because of the uniqueness of their poetry and their delivery. The first is, as already mentioned, Saul Williams from the New York team. Williams' poetry is often cryptic and droning, full of emphatic sounds, syllables, and breakbeats. Williams takes poetry seriously and feels, somehow, that he is a conduit for the universe when he is on stage performing. He is sincere, but not laughably earnest. His poetry is enthralling, as is his presence.
Williams' polar opposite is a man named Taylor Mali, from the Providence delegation. Mali is a strategist more than a poet. He is less concerned with the art of spoken word than with the prestige of winning spoken word competitions. His poems are often funny—but biting—attacks on the quirks of other poets, and he definitely gets a mixed reception. He seems to obsess over the order the poets on his team perform, how their poems relate to the other teams' poems, and how these things will affect the outcome of the competition.
In between these two extremes is the man who is generally considered the father of slam poetry, Marc Smith. Smith serves as a respected arbitrator when the two sides clash. He also fancies himself a sort of caretaker for the genre of poetry he cultivated. Smith must defend his brainchild from people who would try to turn it into nothing but strategy or commercialism.
A handful of scenes exemplify the tension between art and competition and convey the sort of backbiting that can take hold in any competition. In one of these scenes, a meeting is convened to discuss possible cheating. Rumor has it that the writing of all four poets on the Providence team is not being represented on stage. In other words, people think that while all four performers are delivering poetry on stage, one or more of the team members are performing only material written by someone else on the team—by Taylor Mali, to be precise. This accusation creates quite a stir.
The situation is not that hard to imagine. Each team performs only four pieces in each round of the competition and most teams perform "group pieces" where two or more of the poets are on stage at a time. If Mali wrote Providence's group piece in its entirety and he also performs one of his solo pieces during a round, then it's likely that one of the other poets on the team didn't write anything that made the cut. The two questions, then, are whether it is true and whether this would actually be against the rules.
The discussion that follows is about the semantics of the rules and about the intent versus the letter of the law. The conflict is ultimately resolved by the intervention of Marc Smith. It is not the only such conflict that takes place in the film. Cheating is accused a number of times. Once, the alleged infraction results because two of Saul Williams' poems contain the syllable "Ohm." They are two different poems, but someone on another team heard that syllable twice and was convinced that Williams was reusing material.
On top of all of this drama, there is a lot of poetry. There are good performances from the poets mentioned above, along with dozens of others. One of my favorites is Vancouver's Alexandra Oliver, who adds an understated, deadpan comedic style to the mix. While the poems don't each appear in their entirety in the film, for once a DVD includes a branching "Follow the White Rabbit" style feature that makes sense. You have the option to watch the film with an icon that pops up during each poem allowing you to choose to watch the whole performance before returning to the film.
You can also make your way through all of the poems through menus in the bonus features. In addition to all of the poems from the film, this two-disc set includes dozens of performances that didn't make the cut, featuring nearly every poet appearing in the film. Docurama's presentation of SlamNation also features an informative commentary track with Paul Devlin, Marc Smith and Taylor Mali. Smith and Mali are engaging speakers, as one would guess from the nature of their involvement in poetry, and they share some interesting tidbits about what goes on off-screen during the film. Mali seems a bit embarrassed by how conniving he could be as a younger man, and the two poets have a good rapport despite still having different beliefs about slam in general. Director Paul Devlin is also engaging and provides a lot of insight into the making of the film.
Adding to the value of this package, Docurama also includes four entertaining deleted scenes, biographies of the central players, and trailers for SlamNation and other related Docurama releases. Last, but not least, is a broadcast length pilot for a show Devlin created called Slammin'. The show never got off the ground, and it's easy to see why. Slammin' is an interesting document both as an early incarnation of the SlamNation idea and as a standard against which to compare the film. It has all of the poetry of the later feature film, but none of its drama or appeal.
On the technical side, Docurama's presentation is as good as one could expect given the source material. Many of the poetry slams were filmed by last-minute, local crews in venues not designed for filming. The quality of the full-frame video varies widely, but the defects are never distracting. The sound issues are a little more apparent. Most of the poems are caught only by the in-house, onstage miking. This means that if a performer steps away from the mike, the poem becomes harder to hear. Devlin's choices throughout the film, however, make this problem a rare one that becomes more apparent only in the poems included in the extra features.
SlamNation is a document of a particular moment in time and in the development of an artistic genre. It will obviously appeal to fans of slam poetry. For those who find the genre pretentious or absurd, this film will, of course, be a harder sell. But SlamNation is more than a film about poetry, it is an exploration of the tension between "art" and competition.
Like, not guilty, man.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Paul Devlin, Marc Smith, and Taylor Mali
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