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July 17, 1998

'Slam Nation': Three Minutes to Show You Can Rhyme With Gusto

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    Pop culture pundits have proclaimed the existence of Woodstock Nation and hip-hop nation, so why not Slam Nation?

    There is certainly enough noisy poetic talent on display in Paul Devlin's documentary film "Slam Nation" to suggest that the competitive marathon poetry readings known as "slams" are more than a passing fad.

    If the emerging stars of this frenetically high-powered oral literary genre are unlikely to supplant the long-running legends of world literature in academic status, they have helped make poetry sexy again in a way it hasn't been since the heyday of the Beats. Their work, which is much better appreciated in performance than on the page, suggests the emergence of a vital parallel strain of poetic literature.

    Although "Slam Nation" devotes several minutes to the history of the movement, which began in Chicago in the mid-1980s, its main focus is a four-day national competition in Portland, Ore., at which teams from 27 cities compete for modest cash prizes. The spirit of the event is determinedly populist. Judges are chosen from the audience and grade the competitors Olympics-style, with numbers from 1 to 10. The members of the four-person slam teams compete both as individuals and as groups. There is a three-minute time limit on a poem, and anything that runs too long has its score shaved. Musical accompaniments are not allowed.

    Poetry slams take place "on a level playing field," the genre's champions proudly declare. That means, among other things, that academic credentials carry no weight. From the aggressive recitations on display in the film, the pool of talent competing in poetry slams seems similar to that found among standup comedians, if a bit more upscale. You have to enjoy strutting your stuff in public to make your mark in a slam.

    Much of the best poetry, like much of the best standup comedy, is verbally akin to stripping naked. The most brilliant verse in the world doesn't count for much at a slam unless it is delivered with gusto and showmanship. Because the poetry slams are so closely related to rap music, a good number of the rising stars of the genre are black, and their work is heavily indebted to the rhythms and defiant attitudes of hip-hop.

    One of the biggest stars of the movement is Saul Williams, a charismatic New Yorker whose poetry tends toward mind-twisting cosmic rumination with hallucinatory science-fiction scenarios that the poet delivers with an incantatory fervor. Williams belongs to the New York City team that also includes Jessica Care Moore, Mums the Schemer and Beau Sia, an Asian-American whose hilarious fantasy of suddenly gaining vast wealth and exerting infinite power will hit home with anyone who has ever daydreamed of omnipotence.

    If Williams has a challenger as the unofficial king of the genre, it is Taylor Mali, whose team, from Providence, R.I., ends up going head to head with the New York team. Mali is a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur whose best poem in the movie is a barbed critique of American speech patterns. In the poem, he humorously observes how the declarative modes of speech are increasingly giving way to the interrogative. His poem ends with a sharp challenge to Americans to express themselves with conviction.

    Can the kind of work featured in "Slam Nation" cross over into print? One book editor interviewed in the film is intrigued, although he is not sure. As for recordings, one record label, Mouth Almighty, already has a firm hold on the niche. If the phenomenon grows, and there's plenty of evidence here to suggest it might, "Slam Nation" could one day be viewed as the genre's answer to "Monterey Pop."



    Produced and directed by Paul Devlin; director of photography, John Anderson; edited by Devlin; music by Chris Parker. At the Film Forum.

    With: Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Beau Sia, Mums the Schemer, Taylor Mali, Daniel Ferri and Marc Smith.

    Running time: 91 minutes.

    This film is not rated.

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