It seems that academia has a very uncertain relationship to poetry slam. There is the appearance of a certain level of hostility between the two spheres, as poetry slam, and consequently much spoken work, promotes itself as being anti-academic and on the margins of the literati. Looking at anthologies from the "heyday" of spoken word and slam in the mid- to late-1990s, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café and Listen Up!, it becomes obvious that many, if not most, of the poets who have been promoted as "stars" of this movement do, in fact, have literary backgrounds and are educated in poetry and literature. It is something of a "stance" on the part of many of these artists to portray themselves as unschooled and from the streets. Miguel Algarin, himself, founder of the Nuyorican Poet's Café, teaches Shakespeare and Rutgers and did so even in the early days of the Nuyorican, when he was holding readings at his home. Zoe Anglesey's Listen Up!, includes a foreword by "Pulitizer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komynyakaa," which is touted on the cover. Anglesey's own introduction goes to great pains to place this work not within the literary canon of Harold Bloom (who has accused slam of "ruining art"), but very much within a modern "canon" that includes the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and the Beat Generation.
At a June, 2006 performance of "Louder Mondays" in Bar 13 in New York, this ambivalence was very apparent in one of the featured readers, 30-something white male poet who had just finished his MFA at The New School and announced to the audience that he wanted to "bring hip hop into the canon" as an alternative to "academic bullshit." A poet who teaches hip hop poetry to public school students, his work lacked any audible hip hop rhythms, although it did make reference to the rapper Old Dirty Bastard. Based on extensive conversations that I have had in panels and informally at the conferences, I suspect that many people in academia—particularly those who teach poetry and literature—are anxious to "critique" spoken word and particularly poetry slam.
At the slam I attended at the Nuyorican, much time was spent encouraging the audience to "show their love" for the performers, rather than expressing themselves about the work. Where audience expression was encouraged, it was to show their dissatisfaction with the judges for not giving high enough scores. (This despite the fact the no poet that night received lower than an 8.9 out of a full 10-point range.) How would the dynamic change if instead of being exhorted a dozen or more times to clap and "show your love," there was a call and response poem, a spontaneous live creation of poetry, or an exquisite corpse that went around the room--some kind of dynamic that would engage the audience in the creative process and make them feel more like a part of the art? As Comte L'Autremont said, "poetry must be made by all," an ethos that the Surrealists insisted on. This was not a facile call for everyone to simply pick up a pen and start writing out their innermost feelings or their bad day, the "I wrote this at the table" poem so common at open mics. It was a call for techniques that released the imagination to be shared with all, rather than remaining the provenance of trained artists and intellectuals. Where better than a packed room at the Nuyorican Poets Café to put a call like that into practice? How can practices like this, borrowed in many cases from literary and performance avant gardes such as Dada lead performers to rethink their own work and their approaches to their work, the emphasis of them on stage as the "stars" and solitary geniuses (and isn't that the modernist ideal that questioning the canon is supposed to lead us away from to begin with?), as well as engendering a creativity that helps the audience question the "givens" of the world around them. This is not merely a panacea, an easy fix, for performed poetry, but it is one element on which the current model of poetry slam can be critiqued against its own rhetoric.