NATHAN LOGAN Reviews
Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York Poetry Slam by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
(Soft Skull Press, Brooklyn, 2008)
Poetry slam. Slam poetry. Spoken word. Whatever you call it, it has been a part of the poetry landscape in the United States since 1986. It used to be that the poetry slam was only in a couple of large cities: Chicago (where it was founded by Marc Smith) and New York City (where it was helmed by Bob Holman). Today, the poetry slam can be found in cities and small towns across the United States. Events like the National Poetry Slam and shows like Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry have brought poetry into the limelight. In her ambitious book, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz acts as historian and tour guide through one of the major centers of the poetry slam: New York City.
O’Keefe Aptowicz divides the tour into four parts. The first part documents life before the poetry slam. She acknowledges that “every step forward we as artists take is only possible because of the sacrifices and risks taken by artists of previous generations” and notes The Harlem Renaissance, The Beats, and hip-hop as all being influential (9). Also included in the first section is an interview with Bob Holman and an overview of the first National Poetry Slam.
The next three parts of the book are divided by “waves” within the poetry slam scene in New York City. The first wave includes slammers like Maggie Estep, Reg E. Gaines, and Regie Cabico. When the slam arrived in New York City, it soon became a pop-culture sensation. O’Keefe Aptowicz indicates that 1994 was the first huge year for slam. MTV had Spoken Word Unplugged and the Nuyorican Poets Café, the first home to slam in New York City, had published an anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, that would become influential to the next wave of slam poets.
O’Keefe Aptowicz puts the second wave at 1996-2001. It is from this wave that the “stars” of the poetry slam emerged. Saul Williams, Beau Sia, and Taylor Mali, arguably the most notable slam poets outside of New York City, came out of this era. The large event that defined this wave was the documentary Slamnation. It was also during this time that New York City established what would be, to the current day, the major slam venues for the city: The Nuyorican Poets Café, NYC-Urbana, and louderARTS.
The third wave (2001-2007) became defined by the events of September 11, 2001, which put to end a lot of feuds that had been brewing in the city (particularly around Bob Holman) and also by the introduction of Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. It is also in this last section that O’Keefe Aptowicz asks some interesting questions about the future of the slam; she asks John S. Hall if “good poets have been lead astray by slam?” (299) She also questions him on having poetry slams in high school to get students interested in poetry. The question of having slam poets in the canon was also discussed. These are questions that can and should be contemplated outside the realm of New York City. Also, O’Keefe Aptowicz talks about Urban Word, which provides writing-based workshops and educational scholarships to underprivileged youth in New York City.
O’Keefe Aptowicz has put a wealth of information in Words in Your Face. First and foremost, she provides a history to this movement in New York City that is just as rich as any other poetry movement in the United States. There are many interviews with people involved in the slam as well as critics of the slam. Drama is abundant. There are also tidbits about terminology used in the slam poetry community. O’Keefe Aptowicz should be congratulated for this rich collection. Anyone interested in poetry, of any kind, should give this book a good read.
Nathan Logan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Crossroads of America. He is a MFA candidate at Minnesota State University Moorhead. His poetry and reviews have appeared in The Laundry Room, Lost at Sea, North Central Review, Robot Melon, and The Subterranean Review.