Poetry Slam

On Sunday night I went to a poetry slam at the local hip coffee show downtown, the Backspace. I believe it was my first ever poetry slam, unless I attended one in college that has completely escaped my memory. It was definitely not my first time at the Backspace, though: the first time I went there with a friend and the guy she was dating at the time, who had a tattooed face and believed (yes, genuinely believed) himself to be an alien. It was a very Portland experience, to say the least. 

Sunday night also felt like the quintessential Portland experience. No wonder there’s a TV show documenting this kind of culture and dress and attitude. I always miss it when I’m gone: the alternative hairstyles, the black-framed glasses, the secondhand T-shirts that are so soft from having been washed so may times.

It’s fun to do things for the first time, though. I enjoyed the poetry very much. The Amherst Writer’s and Artist’s Method made me feel weird about the whole “voting” for the better poem (an awkwardness that to his credit the MC acknowledged), but it’s a slam, so I guess having a winner is point. I liked the guy with the vaguely British-sounding accent, whose last poem ended with the line “Sometimes I wish my face was your bicycle seat.” I also liked the very first guy, whose poem was about streets and asphalt, comparing them to warm-blooded creatures, and called street lamps “gargoyles.”

I liked the MC's Valentine's Day T-shirt.

The poetry slam made me think about poetry as a combination of both literature and performance. When a particular piece was well-received by the audience, it wasn’t just about how well-written the work was, it was also very important how well read and performed it was. Some people recited theirs by memory, but this didn’t seem to be the defining quality of what made the performance exceptional or not, as the two finalists (the British guy and a girl who made me think of an Anime character, with a super cute haircut and black-framed glasses) both read theirs, from either long thin white slips of paper or a red hardcover journal respectively.

It was this “performance” aspect of it that made me feel nervous about the potential scenario of me ever reading work in public. I still think of myself as a relatively shy person (despite having two jobs that involve speaking in front of large groups of people a lot of the time!), have definitely never participated in theater. I don’t know. I definitely like the idea of SHARING pieces.

The appreciative audience

I haven’t been to that many performances in my lifetime. When I think about truly exceptional performers I have seen, the first person who comes to mind is Tori Amos. That woman really knows how to put on a show for her fans, which makes sense—she’s been performing since she was 9, for goodness’ sake! She has all these little moments: flipping the bird during “Father Lucifer,” the crotch grab in “Precious Things,” the piano slapping in “Take to the Sky” that fans like me come to both expect and look forward to. She is truly a seasoned and well-honed professional performer in every sense of the word.

Apart from the poetry slam things have been pretty fine. I am very tired right now. On Sunday night I was up until 2AM re-reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s truly excellent novel Never Let Me Go, and I still haven’t been able to catch up on my sleep. It was totally worth it, though. What a great book. I definitely appreciated it a lot more this time around than when I first read it, back in 2005. I was very moved by how poetry and painting was used by the teachers as the way to prove that the cloned students had “souls.” It made me think of that ineffable, inexplicable quality of art, and how it is often discussed in the context of being “good” for us, in the sense of it being good for our souls, as somehow being something that proves we are “human” (whatever THAT means!).

I was so moved by the image of the plastic bag caught in the barbed wire at the end, I very nearly cried. I kept re-reading that passage over and over again. There’s just something so sad about how that image is connected to what one of the other characters said earlier, about how they’re modeled “on trash,” cloned from the dregs of society. There was also something just so eerily prophetic about the headmistress’s comment, about how the image she gets from the song “Never Let me Go” is of a little girl facing the new world that was emerging, an efficient but cruel world, and asking the old world not to let her go. It makes me think about technology and the rise of social media. Like my sister said in a recent conversation, ” i want to be like george orwell and go back to the time of the shire with little brooks and rivers.” But until then, I guess we have blogs to update, emails to answer. At least we have art and poetry. But like another one of the teacher characters says near the novel’s end, if the students had known 100% clearly from the very beginning their purpose in life (to provide organs and just die), none of them would have bothered with the painting or the writing, because “it would have seemed pointless.” But then this is refuted when the male character, Tommy, continues drawing his weird cartoon animals despite knowing that they’re not going to help him escape from his situation. So. I wonder what this book is ultimately saying about poetry and art and its relationship to the human soul. Is it hopeful? Defeatist? Resigned? Does writing poems and performing them at a poetry slam help us cope with all the brutal ugly things in life, or is it a petty distraction, an escapist illusion, a bougy fantasy?

This book was just tragic in general, but extremely bloody well-written.

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