An incomplete history of Slam

What did Slam poets do with the Internet?By the end of the 1990s, the Slam movement had grown from a few pubs in a few big American cities to a widely dispersed phenomenon in Western culture. As a result, poets had to build their own lines of communication to sustain contact within the movement. The website you're reading now was the first of many written and maintained by poets to disperse knowledge of the poetry slam and to promote slam poetry. "An Incomplete History of Slam" was first published on the web in February 1995. Other sites followed suit within the next fewyears, proving that slam poets had an early, pro-active attitude to developthe web as a vehicle for their literature.

Nearly all such websites were (and are) built without the support of universities or publishers. (This websiteis typical, as it was originally launched on what was only the second privately-operated internet service provider in Chicago, most poets were not good programmers or graphical thinkers, the overall quality of most slam websites (as of year 2000, at least) remained humble. But a website's ability to build a poetry community was more important among slam poets than its "look-and-feel." Content and promotion power are the most important elements ofany slam poetry website.

Slam's evangelism is very much like that of the Beats'. Both poetrymovements took their own promotion seriously, and insinuated promotion into many things they did. A difference, however, is that Slam poets ride the "Information Superhighway" and use jet travel instead of jumping in a car to go "On the Road." The rise of connectedness among slam poets, and slam poetry's rapid ability to jump across national frontiers intact, was never before enjoyed and practiced so widely by any preceding movement of writers. E-mail and the web are thus a kind of cultural glue for the slam movement, binding so many dispersed people into shared experiences.

These ties that bind were borne of necessity due to slam's evolvingdependence upon organized competition. (Slam poetry as a style or aestheticbecame more and more derivative of the competition. Artists interestedin performance poetry on its own merits drifted away toward the end ofthe 1990s to pursue divergent aesthetic paths.) The number of citiessending poets to the annual National Poetry Slam grew from merely 3, at thevery first National event in San Francisco, to well over 30 by 1999, withcities dispatching poets, coaches, and other support people for individual and team contests. On the web, the slam movement began to take on the appearance of a commecial enterprise. Names were trademarked,and domain names were registered. It became a point of pride for citieshosting the National Slams to offer more sophisticated and complete websitesabout their events, improving each year upon the previous.

Listservs, or online discussion groups based on e-mail, were used by slam poets by 1997. The first listserv wasmanaged by the poetry slam captains of Roanoke, Virginia. The originallistserv was meant as a way to keep people in touch by collective e-mail, so poets and event producers could share on-going news and press releases about their local scenes, announce special events, and share discussions about the general development of poetry slams. It was also became a forum for the refinement of the national competition's rules, as a way for slam captains to confer between the annual Slam Summit meetings held in Chicagoeach spring.

The earliest listserv was unmoderated, and served as a kind ofjungle telegraph among poetry enthusiasts across North America. JulietteTorrez (then of New Mexico) became a frequent contributor to the list withher "Sofa Surf" newsletters. She also distributed her newsletters by directe-mail. Her zine-like columns carried a lot ofgossip and pertinent news of poetry festivals, particularly in the Americansouthwest. Torrez toured the USA and often reported first-hand from variousscenes when she wasn't cross-posting gossip and news sent directly to herfrom friends afield. As Torrez also traveled back and forth between the slam and poetry bout tribes, she furthered a lot of understanding between them through her reporting.

But the first listserv had an open subscription policy, so it was vulnerable to guerilla activity. Some poets would occasionally bomb the list with theircreative output. Beau Sia, of New York City, and others used the listserv to publish whole monologues and short stories, amounting sometimesto as much as 20 pages of written content per day. Many people were amusedby Sia's contributions, but others didn't want to download such volumes ofmaterial they didn't need to read, only so they could sift through them to find their essential news. People took sides over the appropriate use of the list and a modest flame war broke out over it.

Jason Pettus, of Chicago, used the list to criticize the Connecticut National Slams in 1997. This stirred up some factionalization within the slam movement, as Faith Vicinanza and her fellow producers of the Nationals appeared to have their hands full with producing the event besides coming to its defense online. Apologies ultimately were offered both ways, but a threshold had been crossed that signalled a certain loss of innocence. It seemed that the innate anarchic nature of slam poets, when brought into the online world, made the movement unstable. Rules of engagement perished in the slam poetry atmosphere as writers succumbed to the Internet's tendency to bring out debate.

As a practical matter, the key slam poetry listserv was moved to a system where subscribers had to be registered and approved beforethey could access it. Such a private slam listserv has been operated since 1998. Thus the people in charge of the listserv prevented much spurrious discussion and were able to encourage more productive use. But in doing so, they also closed the door to much free discussion and withdrew from the public's view. Slam poetry's premise of being free and open to the public was tainted as the listserv operators asserted a political authority over the movement by channeling discussion about itsdevelopment. While it was understood in private channels who maintained the discussion, the operators did not openly publish the names of those who admitted new subscribers to the listserv, nor what criteria would forbid a person's subscription. (This author did apply to the listserv in 1999 for the purpose of furthering this very website's content, but was denied membership.) The online anarchy was quelled, but a process of hegemony within the slam movement was revealed.

copyright (c) 2000 Kurt Heintz