Strictly process, strictly progress.
Slam has not been changed by the events of CUPSI; CUPSI has been changed by the events of CUPSI. Contrary to the bandwidth being consumed by the rest of the Slam world today following their protest and demands, everybody else still has the same amount of work to do that they did before last night. CUPSI’s isn’t the first event-changing slam protest and it won’t be the last. This all looks like a problem with Slam. I assure it is not.
Contrary to rumor, every problem in Slam does not boil down to a bad rule or a competitive defect in its philosophical DNA. Every problem Slam has ever had essentially boils down to a person or persons bringing something problematic to a pretty simple table. Slam, structurally speaking, has no skin in the game of the way people play the game (and even less its surrounding environs). It remains, as always, a tool. When people complain about Slam in the philosophical sense, I look at what slams they’ve interacted with and that usually tells me everything I need to know about where their criticism is coming from. Slam is not the problem. People are the problem.
For a long time people who were problems weren’t talked about or addressed at all in communal circles. We didn’t even have the language to define what was happening offstage 15 or 20 years ago, and going back 15 years only takes you halfway through Slam’s existence. Phrases like “rape culture” or “toxic masculinity” or “white fragility” were not the mot du jour in slam circles, or really anywhere else. And while the arts are always at the front line of change, they also, without fail, reflect the macrocosm of the world in which they exist. Considering the generational breadth of Slam over the last 31 years – three generations worth of voices, ideas, politics, and values – what happened at CUPSI (on more than one front) should surprise almost no one who sees Slam on a timeline longer than a few years.
Any earnest effort to rectify the silence, ignorance or wrongdoing of people who walk in Slam’s doors is to be applauded. And so I applaud the poets of CUPSI for standing up for their values and attempting to create a reality that reflects those values. I might have done one or two things differently, but I have no agency there. They were there, it is their fight, and that piece of Slam is their row to hoe. If they choose to stay in the machine of professional slams as we know it today, I wish them all the best of luck maintaining their peace of mind and the integrity of their art.
But there is a question that I hope those who participate now and beyond begin to unpack. You shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail for advances in making safer spaces where your art is the paramount value and reason for being there at all. What is it you are fighting for in such spaces? Respect is one thing, but what are you asking of a space when you remove all possibility of offense from it? Is it even what you signed up for?
I say make your demands even more concrete and, failing an institution’s ability to meet those demands, make your own spaces. I would venture to say that after 30 years of having not just the same fights in Slam, but tossing new ones on to the pile every couple of years, the participants should seriously consider it. If that seems like too much work that’s because it is. It’s going to cost you poems and buddies and gigs to build things like Slam. It costs money and time and health and reputation to build things like spaces (safe or otherwise, and there is room for both) and shows and competitions. Ask the people who have done it, particularly the ones who have done it and walked away with nothing resembling their worth at the end of even successful ventures. I can look into an organizer’s face and almost count how many poems or songs or paintings or books running a show has cost them. But that’s the deal. Someone has to be a steward to make the space exactly what the art requires to be its best self. Not MY best self; your best self may not cater to my best self, and conversely I shouldn’t come to your space demanding that it do so. I need to find, tweak or build a space that caters to my best self, and then I need to be about the business of presenting that best self as consistently as possible. And if that space cannot conform to my [honest and clear] needs, then I move on.
Slam is one space of many where poetry lives, and within Slam exists many types of spaces as well. If all you know is the brass ring of an annual competition, you are sorely missing out. When I got tired of the poetry at national competitions – never mind the politics or egos or paperwork – I called a friend and we started a new one, one that reflected the values, work ethic and artistic potential I wanted to see. No one at any other slam lost out by my doing that. The people for whom those environments and values remain important still have those things. They are not mutually exclusive experiences. I spent ten years trying to change national events from on and off the mic. I did what I could and then I moved on. There’s plenty of opportunity outside of what you’ve been told. Poetry is a rare instance in which the grass is likely to be actually greener on just about any other side. That’s how much opportunity exists in poetry. If you find it problematic and you don’t want to or can’t change it, move on.
Finally: I see a lot of Slam-centric issues being brought up since last night, things that have nothing to do with what happened at CUPSI. Half of these issues are raised by people who, as always, want to talk about the important sea changes that need to take place only after something happens and almost never in the 3-24 months prior to when an event takes place and some insight would be welcome. The other half of these are just pot shots. I refuse to get bogged down in either one of these discussions because they’re equally unproductive. I encourage the reader to do the same.