I wanna hear a poem about revolution
about fists raised high and hips
twisting in a rumble like a rhumba
I wanna follow the footsteps of Che
and hear the truth about the day
the CIA killed Lumumba
-from Steve Coleman, “I Wanna Hear a Poem”
I’m waiting just offstage, two hours after the plane landed, trying to catch my figurative breath, about to give what I hope will be the show of my life to a room full of total strangers.
“Jim Coppoc is, well, Dangerous.” the program director alludes to my Facebook name, which has somehow become securely attached to me in real life as well. She pushes her reading glasses into place, and beams down at the front row. The front row beams back.
“He’s, um…” she looks down at me, as if there’s a question she forgot to ask, then back to the audience. She lifts a paper from the podium.
“Coppoc has published several books of poetry and nonfiction, his plays are being produced in multiple cities as we speak, and…” she drifts off into boilerplate she got from a book cover somewhere.
Bookstore owners. Grad students. Library administrators. Conference organizers. It seems like nobody is quite sure how to introduce a creature like me at readings. They know that half the audience is there for my spoken word roots, but they’ve been trained to believe that “slam” is an insult to the serious and literary minded. So instead, they gloss over the most important parts of me, offer up a list of books and awards, and get off stage as quickly as they’re able.
But I am slam. And so are you.
See, poetry is a process, not a static art. It grows. It evolves. But it never loses the most basic parts of its own DNA—the core pieces that animate and give it life.
Poetry is the Ur genre. It existed before fiction, before nonfiction, before drama, before anything else we think of as literature. All other genres spring from it. Poetry is in the chants and ululations around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. It’s in the griots and shamans and monks and cantors and clergy and medicine people. It’s in our bones—the natural music of bodies in motion and at rest. It took a long time for us to forget that, and if slam and hiphop and charismatic religion are any indicators, the truth is that this most basic, primal aspect of poetry has never really left us.
The earliest laws were written as poetry. The earliest histories and religious texts too. For millennia, even poetry and music were indistinguishable. A ballad is a ballad is a ballad, no matter what the delivery. A psalm is a psalm with or without a lyre. A villanelle is just a villanella that goes undanced.
The list goes on, but I think the point is clear. This truth might be hidden now, but all the priests and troubadours and minstrels in our collective history knew, without a doubt, that poetry and music are just two dialects of the deeper language of the human spirit.
In the mid 1980s, a construction worker from Chicago named Marc Smith took a good look at the contemporary poetry scene, and realized that all of us could stand to be reminded of this. In a flash of genius, he added a silly game show format with live judging to an open mic, Slam poetry was born, history was made, and a movement was begun.
And once begun, Slam grew like a contagion. People get one taste of poets who write for a real human audience—poets trained by the random and arbitrary nature of the contest not to take themselves too seriously—and they want more. After the first couple years, slam spread like wildfire. Ann Arbor. New York. San Francisco. All the big cities and college towns of the United States and then abroad. It found its way into schools and libraries, coffee shops and theaters, street corners and music venues. It found its way into our culture, and made a home there for itself that it’s unlikely to be dislodged from anytime soon.
If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve been touched by slam. Maybe you’ve read poets like Patricia Smith (a 4-time national champion), or maybe you’ve read one of the many hundreds of young poets in Cave Canem and elsewhere who’ve been mentored by her. Maybe you’ve picked up a book published by a trendy press like Write Bloody (founded by a slammer), or maybe your college poetry professor, like me, likes to sneak away on Tuesday nights to refill his tank at the local slam and draw inspiration to bring back to the classroom.
Poets write in community, and when the community is on fire with something this transformative—something that reaches this far back in our collective poetic unconscious to the deepest roots we have—it’s bound to touch all of us eventually.
I do have books, and I do have awards. I’ve been very fortunate so far. Some of that is talent, some of it is luck, and some of it is just hard work and good networking. But the core of who I am as a poet has nothing to do with the number of lines on my CV. Who I am and who I want to be as a poet is the thing that Marc Smith was trying to touch almost three decades ago. I am Slam.
To those who might be reading this blog because I’m coming to your town, and you’ve been tasked with introducing me—if you want the introduction to be both honest and meaningful, consider leading with that.