Cover Story: Within the Bounds

Poetry slams put limits on a limitless form of expression

Jun 28, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden


Poetry seems to be a literary genre without limits, but poetry slams change the rules by putting up some boundaries. Poetry slams began in the 1980s when Chicago poet Marc Smith came up with the idea of a poetry competition to entertain regulars at a local bar. To get audiences involved, judges were chosen at random from the crowd to score the poems.

In 1998, director Marc Levin brought the poetry slam to a broader audience with his film, Slam. Lisa Storie, owner of Sitwell's, says a year after the movie was released, her Clifton coffeehouse saw an increase in the attendance of its monthly poetry slam. Sitwell's has hosted poetry slams since 1998 on the final Wednesday of each month. Storie sees a different kind of popularity emerging in slam poetry now.

"There is an eclectic group and more variety," she says.

Andrew Milam, Sitwell's slam master, agrees that there is a wide range of people who participate, but mainly high school and college students. They bring their original poems, which range from rhyming love poetry to wavy beat poetry, and perform in front of the judges.

Without using props, costumes or music, poets must perform their work within three minutes, with a 10-second grace period. After that grace period has lapsed, poets lose points. Traditionally, poetry slams are limited to three rounds.

Locally, poetry slams are less common than the traditional open mic poetry readings. Sitwell's and The Greenwich are the only monthly slams. Kofi, a local poet and self-declared Cincinnati slam master, would like to see a resurgence of poetry slams in the Tristate.

During the last weekend of June, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) presents LINES, a series of events hosted by the Alliance of African American Artists Foundation. On Friday and Saturday evenings, programs will be dedicated to literature, including a poetry slam each night. Kofi will watch the evenings' events closely. He hopes the LINES poetry slam gives new life to this type of literary competition in Greater Cincinnati.

Kofi, whose name means "born on a Friday," has a long history with the genre of poetry. According to his mother, he began composing at age 3. "I really, truly love the expression," he says. "It really does give people a voice and gives them an opportunity to be heard."

Two years ago, Kofi taught at Taft High School. He has also worked with classes at the Arts Consortium and ArtWorks and performed with 144,000 and Hip Hype Empire. He just published a book of poems, Art of Words: Life, Love and Revolution.

Kofi likes to see himself as a griot, an oral historian who uses poems to tell the history of people. His primary reputation as a "spoken artist" is in performance theater. Poetry slams would seem like a good fit for Kofi, which might be the reason he has arranged underground slams in Cincinnati and has served as consultant for slams in Columbus, Ohio, and New York City.

Kofi says poetry slams are a challenge. "You're forced to place your art into some perimeters, and it is judged by the audience." But he would like to make slams more difficult by adding more criteria. "Slam poetry is a type of poetry — it must be performable," he says.

During LINES, he will be trying to teach a new generation about literature and getting them involved in community events like poetry slams. Rather than art for art's sake, he sees "art for the sake of change." Programs like LINES show people who are inspiring art "what type of art their life is inspiring." More than anything, he sees the CAC as reaching out to the community with the presentation of LINES. "(My involvement) is my outreach to their outreach," Kofi says. He hopes poetry slams can find some stability in Cincinnati.

Poetry slams may set boundaries on a once limitless genre, but they also challenge traditional ideas about writing. And wasn't that the whole point of poetry to begin with?

LINES takes place at the Contemporary Arts Center Thursday through Sunday; poetry slams will be held on Friday and Saturday evenings.