HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SLAM by Todd Swift
(Response to Maureen Gallagher's Article 'Is Slam Poetry the Last Response of the Failed Comedian?')
I'm married to an Irishwoman, and we’ve often visited Kinvara (and nearby Galway) where some of her family live. I even read at Kenny’s Bookstore on my honeymoon a few years back. So imagine my delight when I noticed there was an article in the Galway Advertiser, which mentions my name four times, written by a poet whose work I’ve read, Maureen Gallagher. Now imagine me losing my temper. Not too much, mind you, but a tad. You see, as I read this article, which pretty much kicks Slam poetry in the shins and then knocks it in the nose for good measure, it struck me that I wasn’t just a part of the argument- I was basically Exhibit A. Reading more closely, I found Ms Gallagher had lifted a series of statements I had made in a freewheeling interview with Galway poet Kevin Higgins on a London poetry site The Argotist Online, and plunked them down in her article, totally out of context. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if Ms Gallagher had mentioned the source for her material. As is, when you read what she says, it sounds like she’s getting it direct from the horse’s mouth, as if she has asked my opinion or interviewed me herself. Ms Gallagher has my e-mail address, so she certainly could have asked me for an opinion, if she wanted to. She didn’t. Instead, she has lifted a few phrases and sentences from this interview and put them forward to back her claim up, which is that slam poetry isn’t that great, at least not its Galway variety. Consider this quote from her article: ‘Todd Swift says the problem with Slam is that ‘it is a ghetto where little poetry leaks in’’. Says to whom? I said that to Kevin Higgins, not to her. I said the problem with ‘spoken word’ -a different genre - not Slam - was that it was a ghetto, and the context was that I was talking about the London/UK scene. Then, at the end of her article, Ms Gallagher says: ‘Should we all enrol in drama classes to polish up our act or should we instead heed the words of Todd Swift, the daddy of them all, the man who, after all, has been there, done that: Read good literature, he urges, rather than read to audiences. Slam is a sad tired art. My vote goes to Todd.’ I’ve quoted this at length to let the reader get a sense of the flavour, the tang, of this ‘bull moose’. I’m a Canadian, and I know my bull moose when I taste it. This is Prime Rib. While I’m very happy to be called the ‘daddy of them all,’ I’m not the father of slam poetry- that honour goes to one Mr Marc Kelly Smith, in Chicago. I was one of the first to bring slam to Canada. In fact, what Ms Gallagher fails to inform her readers is that I am, in fact, Big Daddy of another poetry movement called Fusion Poetry. Fusion Poetry is all about reading good poetry to audiences - to fusing (hence the word) the worlds of the stage and the page in poetry, and celebrating poets like Kevin Higgins, or Simon Armitage, or Sinéad Morrissey, who write and read brilliantly. There is no reason why good poets can’t be good readers or performers- and often, the best Slams involve just such poets. Especially in Ireland, where slam has yet to be taken over by the comedy crowd. I wish that, since Ms Gallagher knows how hard I have worked, over a decade and more, to publish Slam poets in major anthologies (such as Poetry Nation and Short Fuse), alongside more ‘serious’ traditional poets, she hadn’t chosen to publish a ‘new and selected’ Todd Swift in these pages, which gives a very one-sided account of my commitment to encouraging poetry in all its forms. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s averse to a good poem, wherever it happens to come from: website, page, or mouth. Some of the best can be found on www.nthposition.com, which is the site I edit. You’ll find some of Ms Gallagher’s poems there too. No, far from urging poets to stop reading live, I’d encourage them to do more of it. That’s why I’ve just edited a special Oxfam Poetry CD - featuring Kevin Higgins, and other Irish poets alongside more than 60 of the leading poets now writing (such as Wendy Cope and Andrew Motion) - to be launched this June, and called Life Lines. It’s all about rescuing the poem from the page, and giving the sound it makes back to the ear. Ms Gallagher is right about one thing, though. Slam poetry isn’t an excuse to hijack the podium and confess to a strong urge to caress velvet; nor should poetry be just one laugh after another. Still, poems can get humour, and much else of the world, in to them, without too much damage being done. As one daddy of them all (among many, some mummies), I’ve seen some nascent poetry scenes develop, and Slam events are often one of the ways emerging writers find their voice, and their audience. Slams do less harm than good- they certainly get more bums on seats, which every poet wants at a reading. In the long run, all poets, whether they be slick or Slam, need to learn what a sestina is, and how to craft a pantoum. But, take it from Big Daddy: the only tired art is one that stops being fun, at least some of the time.
Todd Swift is a Canadian poet. He lives in London, where he is a core tutor for The Poetry School. His latest collection of poems is Rue du Regard.