Why eight questions? Because I had more than five and less than ten! Actually, there are more than eight because of grouping the questions by subject but – and you probably don’t care about any explanation I provide.

Moving on!

I was fortunate to be part of a little indexing project for the Performance Poetry Preservation Project (P4) over the summer and because I had so much fun listening to a wide variety of slam poetry, I reached out to the project coordinator, Wess Mongo Jolley, to dig a little deeper into this amazing world of lyrical gymnastics and hard-hitting social commentary.MongoPic


Maniacal Geek (MG): If someone wasn’t familiar with slam poetry, how would you describe it to them?
Wess Mongo Jolley (WMJ): I guess I’d be tempted to start with the way you so often hear it described:  It’s a poetry competition in which performers are rated by random members of the audience on their three-minute poems, usually for a token prize, but mostly for the love of poetry and language and community.  But from my point of view, the poetry slam is so much more than that.  I believe that the poetry slam is one of the most powerful and enduring expressions of the popular culture, and of the important social issues of the day.  The slam uniquely manifests the critical issues that are being faced by the community that produces it.  For that reason, the slam of 2015 is very different from the slam of 2005.  And the slam of Austin, Texas is very different from the slam of Berkeley, California or New York City.  What we have in the slam is nothing less than a preserved, and passionately expressed distillation of what being human means, across an incredible array of the cultural landscape.
The other point I’d want to make is that I think the slam is as much about community as it is about poetry, and it’s definitely about both of those things to a much greater degree than it is about competition, which is really just window dressing.  I think Marc Smith, who invented the slam, really came up with the whole competition aspect just to create some drama and excitement and get people’s butts in seats and get them to listen to poetry.  But what came out of it, after more than 25 years, is as much a social movement as an artistic one.
MG: What’s your origin story? How did Wess Mongo Jolley become a poet and a preservationist of slam poetry?

WMJ: My background is actually in theater.  I began my interest in poetry in high school, and was even in a poetry performance troupe that predates the slam, but really shared a lot of its sensibility.  From high school I went on to study theater in college, but needed to pay my tuition, so I took a job in the library, working for the Records Management department.  That was in 1979.  Over the years my work eclipsed my studies, and I ended up dropping out to work for the Records Management department full-time.  Now, here I am 35 years later, getting ready to retire from a long career in Records and Information Management in Higher Education, but still desperately in love with poetry and performance!  I hope my background in academia and libraries will serve me well as I move into a more focused phase of my life where preserving the history of the poetry slam movement can take center stage.

Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz performs

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz performs

MG: Based on the rhythm and the sound of slam poetry, I feel like it’s a direct descendant of the Beats. Agree? Disagree? Reasons for the yay or nay?
WMJ: Oh, absolutely!  I don’t think the Beats were the only parents of the slam, by any means, but they were definitely one of the most influential.  Certainly there were a lot of modernist and post-modernist movements that focused on the sound of the spoken word.  But I am an unabashed lover of the Beats, and especially [Allen] Ginsberg, and I think you can easily trace a performance aesthetic from Ginsberg directly to the Slam movement.  All the elements are there:  The passionate social justice voice, the focus on personal experience, and in Ginsberg himself, the rhythms, the repetition, the breath, and the long line.  Some of those early recordings of Howl really feel like what you hear on a modern slam stage.  Howl really had such a huge impact, culturally, that it simply had to seep into the early poetry slam culture.
MG: The Performance Poetry Preservation Project (P4) is mostly audio, do you think a visual experience is also necessary to enjoy slam poetry or should the poet be able to create the visual regardless?
WMJ: Actually, we expect to have just as much video as audio in the long-term, but we’re building out the audio archive first, since it is a bit easier to process, index, store, and deliver.  We are still very committed to video as well.  We’re kind of proving our concept and refining our processes on the audio, before we move to the more challenging task of preserving the video.
I don’t think that the visual element is absolutely necessary to enjoying slam poetry (or any poetry, for that matter).  But there is certainly a richness in the representation of the poet’s full intent that you can only get with video; especially if your goal is to capture the actual live performance event.  We know, however, that as a cultural phenomenon, slam extends beyond the three hours you spend once a week in a performance venue.  The poets that perform at slams also create audio and video recordings in studios, and on home equipment.  They also write books and chapbooks, and we’re committed to capturing and preserving the full spectrum of creative output this community produces.

As an aside, I’d note that the selected delivery mechanism is an important part of the creative process for poets.  It’s not just incidental.  If a poet expects to be delivery their work to their audience in print, in audio, in video, or on stage (or any combination of those), it will likely influence how they write and create.  So you can’t really separate the poem from the way it is presented.  It’s part of a gestalt that has to be experienced in a unified way.

Genevieve Van Cleve performs

Genevieve Van Cleve performs

MG: How much do you feel a live audience adds to the performance vs pre-recorded or edited recordings?
WMJ: This is where I think the community aspect of slam shines, and shows why it is so much more than just a literary movement.  Slams are events, and the energy and sensibilities of the community experiencing the poetry becomes as much a part of that event as the poet and their performance.  Anybody that’s been on the scene for a while can tell you they’ve seen the same poem performed in a setting where it rocked, and a setting where it flopped.  The slam is always an ongoing conversation between those behind the mic and those in front of it.  And that conversation is what has built this community into such a rocking movement.
In my podcast, I always preferred the live venue recordings to the studio pieces, simply because I love that element of “conversation”, which you can’t get in any other way.  But it is also always interesting to hear how a poet presents the same work in a more controlled environment.  It teaches you something about their intent with the work that is somehow a bit less colored by the vagaries of the individual performance space and event.
MG: Is there a particular poem you feel is essential for people to read or listen to in order to understand the necessity of poetry as an art form?
WMJ: Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of being that presumptuous!  Poetry is such an individual journey, and such a potentially varied one, that to suggest a single poem, or even a single poet, as a preferred entry point would be a bit of a disservice.  People don’t usually get interested in poetry in the abstract, and then go looking for an entry point.  They usually find a poem or a poet that excites them, and that becomes an entry point.  Their interest and their passion spiders out from there.  For me, those entry points were Carl Sandburg and Allen Ginsberg, and of course, Walt Whitman.  But that journey truly can begin almost anywhere, and lead almost anywhere.  There is so much beautiful work out there, waiting to be discovered.  It’s kind of like standing on a beach and deciding where to jump in.  Pretty much anywhere is fine!
MG: How important is poetry as a creative process? What skills do we develop from writing poetry?
WMJ: I had to think about this question for a bit, and I think I guess I don’t view poetry as a means to any end other than itself.  Certainly, if I was answering this question about the value of exposing youth to poetry, I’d want to point out how important facility with language is for any student.  But to me, the creative process, and the enjoyment of creative works, is less utilitarian, and more spiritual and joyful.  We (or at least I) don’t come to poetry for any other reason than pure beauty, and because it  connects us to what is brilliant and meaningful and celebratory about being human.

And since that is a completely airy-fairy answer, let me add this:  Slam in particular serves another vitally important function.  Poets are on the forefront of social change.  They always have been, and always will be, because poets are “the great articulators”.  Poets give voice to the full range of human experience.  One of my favorite roles of the poet is the speaker on behalf of the voiceless.  And slam poets have a rich tradition of both envisioning and demanding a better world.  That makes poetry one of the oldest, and most valued, of professions.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

MG: Who’s your favorite poet (living or dead)? What work did they do that spoke to you personally?
WMJ: Allen Ginsberg is now, and I suspect will always be, my favorite poet.  I feel like his work opened a door for me, both poetically, and in what it means to be a human being.  I really don’t know what my life would have been like if I hadn’t discovered his work, and it still rocks me to this day.  Howl, of course, was the gateway drug to his work, but for pure poetic nourishment, I periodically go back to Kaddish, and immerse myself in it.  I’ve been known to go find a quiet spot out in the woods and read it aloud to myself, just to be reminded how good poetry can be.
But I don’t want to leave this question without shouting out some of my favorite slammers.  There are so many, that I don’t want to start naming names, because I couldn’t stop.  But check out my podcast Performance Poetry, and scroll the poets index.  Look for the ones that I’ve released a lot, and you can be sure you’re seeing the poets I think have been most influential in the scene, and whose work speaks to me personally in the strongest way.  I’ll be bringing the show to a close in January, but the entire catalog of 600 poets, and 1600 poems, will be eventually migrated into P4.
Please check out Mongo’s podcast as well as P4 and, as always, come back to the Maniacal Geek for more!

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