Sunday, April 26, 1998
It’s a Slam Jam, Ma’am,
and That Should Be Poetry, Hear?
by James Warren.
of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a poetry slam may conjure
a single image: Hillary heaving a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves
of Grass" across her bedroom at a ducking president.
It is, after
all, the book he purchased on Martha's Vineyard for a favorite former
White House intern. Whether Monica Lewinsky is more inclined to
Whitman Samplers than Walt Whitman remains unclear. But our first
lady last week confronted a Chicago-born literary genre, best associated
with smoky taverns, in the antiseptic setting of a junior high school
in one of the capital's poorer neighborhoods.
White House staging drummed most--but thankfully not all--of the
of an event that offers hope that not all is lost amid the disarray
of urban public education.
changed me a little bit," Russell Jackson, 14, attired in a
black-and-silver Oakland Raiders football jersey, would say later
about his encounter with poetry.
was angry, I'd pick up a pencil instead and write." By such
turns are lives changed.
A poetry slam
is the melding of performance art and competition into the act of
reading poetry aloud. The slam is said to have originated in Chicago,
with the fabled Green Mill lounge in Uptown its Cooperstown and
Marc Smith its best-known practitioner and impresario.
You get up,
read your poem and get judged by members of the audience on a scale
of 1 to 10. It's meant to be raucous and has been imbued with an
Of course, any
attempt at ruffling the mainstream dies quickly in the presence
of the aggressively soulless Secret Service. Poetry slams thrive
on the spontaneous and improvisational, which is exactly what our
keepers of public order climb mountains to squelch.
But this, after
all, is National Poetry Month, so somebody suggested that the first
lady show up with three distinguished current and former poets laureate
of the U.S.--Robert Pinsky, the incumbent, and predecessors Rita
Dove and Robert Hass--and check out a slam at the Johnson Junior
High School in the down-and-out Anacostia section.
Before the entourage's
arrival, lockers outside the designated classroom were checked,
the few press who surfaced were stuck way in the back of a large
rectangular room, and chairs were set up at spots for specific participants
in the dominantly black school wandered by, a few wondering what
all the goofy-looking white dudes in suits were up to. They were
told by the goofy-looking dudes to do a 180-degree turn as hallway
traffic was being redirected.
The first lady
was running late, and somehow the event's centerpiece--having her
walk in as a slam was under way--got scotched. That left the 10
pupils from Johnson and a competitor school somewhat antsy as they
heeded the calls of the Secret Service, not their individual muse.
says the man who resorts to violence is the man who is out of ideas,"
an adult practitioner of slam poetry, who goes by D.J. Renegade,
informed me during this lull.
writer Nancy Schwalb and Renegade were there because they are affiliated
with the WritersCorps, originally an endeavor of the National Endowment
for the Humanities and Americorps, the domestic Peace Corps created
by President Clinton.
For a pittance
they go to inner-city schools and help students explore literature,
in particular poetry. With the aid of the Humanities Council of
Washington, D.C., which has taken over the National Endowment for
the Arts' role, they've helped organize a four-school slam league
that is said to be a success.
is not necessarily seen as a viable career opportunity," said
Renegade, 35, who was raised in public housing in Pittsburgh. "But
this program helps change the kids' relationship to language and
literature. It motivates them to be more literate."
After the White
House caravan surfaced, the principal introduced the dignitaries,
who included the ramrod-stiff Julius Becton. He's a retired Army
general who symbolizes D.C.'s mess: Picked by a federal control
board to shape things up, he now is cutting and running, miffed
over a perceived lack of support and clearly having come up short.
If Becton, 71, at least could claim credit for some of the kids'
poetry he was to hear, perhaps he could sleep better.
First up was
Tyrone Freeman, 14, taking on the role of "sacrificial poet,"
or warmup act prior to the formal competition.
I am the best
there ever was. You
might not think I am. One minute you
see me. Then the next, I'm not there.
Bam!!! I'm gone again.
I am so perfect that when you
look at me, I make you proud of yourself.
I am so full of joy that
when I put up my
Christmas lights, they
embarrass the sun.
But I am still normal, so
normal that if I told you my name a thousand times,
you still wouldn't know who I am.
his Raiders shirt, was nervous like the rest, given the august audience.
His handiwork was a quick reminder of how quickly innocence is lost
in the big city.
Do you have
a clue what life is like today?
People are being abandoned and have no place to stay.
Do you have a clue that we're running out of time?
Life is short, and it's not a game.
Raping our women, calling them out of their name.
Selling drugs to our people, frying their brains.
Your baby's father left you. Now you're insane.
The judges held
up their cards, giving him a respectable, if not resounding, total
of 28. Others would fare better, like 14-year-old Willie Logan with
his homage to Duke Ellington.
his instrumental jazz,
It's a true blast from the past.
that botta-boom, botta-bing!
It reminds me of the movie, "Do the Right Thing."
He's a pianist, composer, and band leader.
But his rocking rhythms are better than Nero's. That's Peter's.
He's known from Europe to the U.S.
His wonder music is known as the best.
Now he's a wonderful memory.
His music is a true treasury.
Duke Ellington's in jazz history.
Is he the greatest? That's not a mystery.
from each school did their thing, with the judges occasionally razzed
for their scoring and the Johnson pupils winning. The first lady
then was moved to her second position, given a microphone and allowed
to declare quite accurately, "I heard a lot of different emotions
and experiences in your poetry." She spoke of celebrating American
poetry that night at a White House gathering where Pinsky, Dove
and Hass also would be. She asked each to recount their introduction
being 10 years old and drawing an Easter bunny with droopy ears
and writing a story. But she also tended to write in secret "and
in junior high I stopped altogether because it wasn't cool."
She read a lovely poem of hers, and Hass generously read one of
Renegade's ("Nights like this, I wet my lips with the sounds
of your name."). The pupils were impressed.
And, just like
that, the Secret Service began shuffling in the back, looking at
watches and whispering. It was time to split. But not before an
Associated Press reporter, stuck in the back, performed his own
he shouted, "have you received a new grand jury subpoena?"
A mother of
one pupil turned on a dime and, in a strike for civility, if not
poetry, called back to the fellow, "Shame on you! Take that
into your own neighborhood."
Flanked by poets Robert Pinsky (left) and Robert Hass, First Lady
Hillary Rodham Clinton attends a poetry slam for junior high school
pupils last week in Washington. Tribune photo by Pete Souza.
Pg. 2; ZONE: C; SUNDAY WATCH.
LENGTH: 1228 words
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