Slam poetry is a form of competitive performance poetry in which participants offer works no longer than three minutes and are judged by randomly picked audience members. The winners then progress to higher rounds with new pieces, and the poet with the highest score in the finals wins a cash prize. The format was pioneered in Chicago in the mid-1980s, and first appeared in Seattle in 1992. In honor of Seattle's first hosting of a national slam competition from July 31 to August 5, 2001, poet and HistoryLink assistant editor Alyssa Burrows reviews the history of a format which has re-energized the poetry scene and made poetry -- for a broader and younger audience -- actually interesting.
How Did This All Get Started?
In 1984, a construction worker named Marc Smith was hosting poetry readings in a jazz club in Chicago called the Get Me High Lounge. Marc made up a gimmick to bring life to his open mike format. His idea was to match poets' public performances against each other as if in a fight. In 1986, Smith approached Dave Jemilo, the owner of the Green Mill, a Chicago jazz club and former haunt of Al Capone, and promoted his idea to host a weekly poetry competition on the club's slow Sunday nights. It was here on July 25, 1986, that the Uptown Poetry Slam was born.
Marc honed his idea and selected the terminology he used from baseball and bridge. The poets competed and were judged, Olympics style, on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the highest. Audience participation was highlighted, with encouragement given for the audience to yell, clap, hoot, and holler at poets and poems they liked, and to boo and heckle the ones they didn't. The judges were just people picked randomly from the audience. His idea was for the poets to consider the audience as well as his or her personal vision, and to remind them of their responsibility to communicate effectively. The readings seemed to humanize the poetry and take it out of its heretofore hallowed academic settings to become something that was owned by everyone -- even the drunk and disenfranchised. It also turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun to go to, on a Sunday night in Chicago to boot.
Birth of the Seattle Slam
Fast forward to Seattle in the fall of 1992. The Seattle Poetry Slam was founded by Paul Grajnert from Chicago and local music promoter David Meinert. At the time, Dave was booking acts for the Weathered Wall (what is now ISPY) and for Phil and Adrian, the managers at the Emerald Diner. The Emerald Diner was a neighborhood bar on Mercer in Queen Anne. (It is now a sports bar called Ozzie's.) Paul talked to Dave about hosting a Slam and Dave thought it was a great idea. He was turned off by the poetry scene in Seattle at the time and was happy to create a venue where "drunks could read poetry, poets could get drunk, and the crowd could give them all hell."
Paul and Dave took turns taking money at the door and MCing the show. Dave recalls: "Phil and Adrian kept us in drinks -- we were happy. The Emerald Diner was dark, intimate and full of old drunks and non-English speaking cooks who made for great judges."
In the early days the Slam encroached on the regulars' Wednesday nights. Some loved it and came for the poetry and the ones who didn't just stopped coming on Wednesday nights. Wednesday became by far the busiest weeknight for the Emerald Diner. Dave Caserio, a slam regular since 1993, remembers walking in and not seeing anywhere to sit except next to "scary Patrick Lincoln," a regular and a rather large fellow with a long bushy beard and hair he often topped with a Rastafarian beret. The management understandably loved the popularity of the Slam and was grateful for the extra liquor sales. Even some of the waitstaff joined in and performed.
Patrick Lincoln, in the forward to his chapbook, Butcher's Poetry, wrote his take on the Emerald Diner Slam scene:
"They let anyone with three dollars into the slam -- The first night I walked in I knew I was neck deep in something hot and sweet -- It was a different kind of poetry. I understood what the poets were talking about. There were people there that did not appear to have rigid rods inserted in their rectums! And they laughed and drank beer and looked like they were having a good time. At a poetry reading!"
In late 1994, the owners sold the Diner. Thomas Hard, a slam regular since 1993, remembers the night the new owner came to see the slam. The room was abuzz and tense, since everyone knew he was coming that night. Turns out he saw half the show and said "Nope! Not gonna have this here!"
On to Pioneer Square to Get Down to Some Drinking
Dave Meinert was working at the OK Hotel in Pioneer Square, so he got the management there to agree to host the Slam. In January 1995, the Seattle Slam had a new home. They started in the lower level of the venue on the bar side of the room, and as the crowd got bigger again after a slight drop off from the venue change, the Slam moved into the back ballroom. Paul moved back to Chicago and Dave got a bit sick of the scene and dropped out. Jack Gould, a slam regular, became the new host.
The Slam Gets Organized
Slam regulars, the hard core regulars who came almost every week, had a meeting in late 1996 to talk about ways to promote the slam, bring in more people, and create a better show for the audience. All was going well, but audience attendance had begun to slip again. Paula Friedrich, Michael Hood, Patrick Lincoln, Thomas Hubbard, Todd Davis, Clarice Keegan, David Caserio, and Brian Robinson were the first members to convene in what became an organizational board they named the "Seattle Poetry Slam." Bob Redmond and Allison Durazzi joined a short time later.
Another reason for creating this board was to figure out ways to fund the Seattle Slam team members on their way to the Slam Nationals every year to pay for airfare and hotel. Before 1996, the Slam team members had to come up with this money themselves. In 1996, for the first time the Seattle Slam had a slot to perform in Bumbershoot's Literary Program as a tie-in for the National Slam that was being held in Portland, Oregon, that year. The Slam has been part of the Literary Stage at Bumbershoot ever since.
The first ever National Slam competition was held in San Francisco in 1990, and a different city has hosted the Nationals every year since. Each Slam, if they so choose, can send a team of four people to the Nationals where they compete with teams from all over the North America, and beginning in 1993, Europe. An individual winner is also chosen.
Slammaster (or in This Politically Correct City -- Executive Director) Changes
Brian Robinson took over the hosting of the Slam in October 1996. After Brian went off to graduate school in drama at Yale, the board did a few auditions for a new MC. Bob Redmond, the current director for 11th Hour Productions, a Seattle non-profit spoken word and poetry organization, hosted the slam with Wendi Loomis for a short time before she got a traveling job with Poetry Alive! and Allison Durazzi took over as host in October of 1997.
The Seattle Slam board became a non-profit organization in 1998 umbrellaed under Allied Arts of Seattle. The board wanted to be able to raise money for Slam Team travel and get on with the business of being able to pay poets without paying taxes. The door cover has been $3.00 since the beginning, and this money goes to pay the slam winner, the featured performer, and the musician or band that plays during the break.
They also use this money to tip their bartenders, as they want to remain in good standing with their host venues. The Seattle Slam has always maintained good relationships with their bartenders, and they plan to keep it that way.
When the management of the OK Hotel asked the Slam to switch from Wednesdays to Tuesdays, a search for a new venue got under way. The Slam had been on Wednesday nights since its incarnation in Seattle, and many regulars had switched their work schedules to free up Wednesday nights. There was also another poetry show run by Gabrielle Bouliane on Tuesday nights whose audience they didn't want to steal or compete with.
Bar Hopping in Pioneer Square
On September 1, 1999, the Seattle slam moved to Rupert's in Pioneer Square. The sound technician for Rupert's, Julian Gibson, helped Allison negotiate the move. Rupert's had a long, cavernous downstairs room with a stage that worked well for the Slam and could hold a large audience. Regular attendance was about 80 people. All the Slam regulars and organizers were very happy at Rupert's, but on Tuesday, January 18, 2000, Allison got a call saying Rupert's was closing unexpectedly -- immediately. This meant she had 24 hours to find a new venue.
Allison and Paula Friedrichs were "devastated" and went down to Pioneer Square to scout (read: beg) for venues. All of the Rupert's staff were at the Central Tavern and they flagged Allison and Paula down to buy them drinks. Paula said "No, no ... We have to find a new venue -- we've got 100 people coming down tomorrow and no place for them to go." So a ex-Rupert's worker named Paul walked Allison over to Tina Bueuche, the owner and manager of Dutch Ned's. Tina offered the space for the next night. After two weeks, the Slam being at Dutch Ned's became a temporary one-month thing, but when that month was up, Tina invited them to stay. Todd Davis got some lumber donated and built a riser for a stage. Tina was phenomenally supportive and donated money for the Slam prizes. She liked the poetryand the people and the staff liked working the event.
Natural Disasters and the Slam's Current Home
The Sit & Spin, Seattle's only bar/venue/restaurant/laundromat on 4th Avenue, used to host a literary night on Wednesdays. When that shut down, nothing filled the open night.
The February, 2001 Ash Wednesday earthquake damaged Dutch Ned's building and a structural engineer advised Tina to shut down. With a few phone calls and a willing management, the Slam slid into the Sit & Spin's spacious back room. The first show there took place on March 7, 2001. It had a very nice atmosphere and a helpful and kind staff. Jen Giudu, the bartender there, even made up a drink called the "Seattle Poetry Slammer," and if that wasn't enough, she came up with a "Purple Prose Punch."
February 2001 was also when the Seattle Slam joined with 11th Hour Productions under their non-profit organization. They realized they were pretty much doing the same thing in the same town and decided to join forces. Also, 11th Hour Productions has been a non-profit long enough to qualify for NEA funding.
As of 2005, Seattle Slam Master is Daemond Arrindell and the slam has a new host, Denise Jolly. The long-running slam is currently held every Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Mirabeau Room, located at 529 Queen Anne Avenue N, which is Dave Meinert's venue. Thus the Seattle Poetry Slam has come full circle.