Sunday, August 14, 2011

proposed additions to the poetry slam MC spiel

This post may only be relevant to a few people, but I figured it'd be good to make it public.  After a long discussion, a few of us in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene proposed a few changes to the standard host/MC spiel that happens at every slam.  Usually, the spiel just talks about the rules and philosophy of slam-- how scoring works, how the audience is encouraged to participate, how much time each poet has, where slam comes from, etc.  Some of us, however, want to add a two things:

1. A note about maintaining a physically safe space in the audience.  Cynthia French forwarded me a link to another event organizer's (Rich Villar) thoughts on this, and I think it's something we can apply too.  Wording can change, but something like this:

"We are committed to maintaining physically safe spaces for all people attending these public programs. All participants are expected to maintain appropriate public decorum and respect all other individuals—and their persons—within the spaces we occupy.  While we recognize and support every individual's capacity for change, anyone choosing not to follow this code by practicing threats, intimidation, unwanted advances, or unwanted physical contact on another individual will be asked to leave."

2. A more explicit call for audience empowerment with regards to policing what happens on stage.  We already ask the audience to verbally respond to what they like or don't like, through snaps, cheering, hissing, etc.  This would just be about emphasizing that a little more, and making sure it's clear that this applies not only to the poetry being performed, but to the hosts' behavior and any other public behavior happening.  Again, the wording can change, but here's what I'm thinking:

"Performers are not censored here, and are free to talk about any subject matter in whatever way they want to talk about it.  At the same time, the audience is not censored either.  So even though only five of you have a scoring paddle, you're all judges.  If you hear something beautiful or thought-provoking, feel free to respond, with snaps, with verbalizations, whatever... as long as it's sincere, respectful and doesn't drown out the poem.  And if you hear something that offends you, whether it's a poet using racist, sexist or homophobic language, or the host talking to someone in the audience in an inappropriate way, or even another audience member screaming offensive things at the judges, it's up to you to let them know how you feel."

Both of these additions are really about holding slam to higher standards.  We are not just an arts scene.  We are not just a social circle.  We are supposed to be on the leading edge of the intersections of art, community and social justice.  That doesn't mean that we should all be writing political poems; it means that the very structure of slam is infused with these principles-- anyone can be an artist, anyone can appreciate art and anyone can criticize art.  These spaces that we create should reflect those democratic principles.  A slam should absolutely challenge the audience, and sometimes make them uncomfortable; but it should never make anyone feel unsafe.  I don't see that as a "fine line."

And while this discussion has been slam-focused, I think it's worthwhile for the hosts and organizers of other events like open mics and community readings to think about this stuff too.  We do a version of this spiel at the Canvas, the teen arts center that I help coordinate, and it seems to work pretty well.

But there's a lot to still figure out.  Particularly with that first point, how will it be enforced?  Who will field any possible complaints-- the slammasters?  The hosts?  The audience?  If someone is going to be "asked to leave," who is responsible for asking?  I'd assume the slammasters, but maybe I'm missing something.  Maybe there's another line in there to be added about protocol.  Feel free to post any thoughts or ideas in the comments section here.


Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria said...

i think we should try these new suggestions. i am against censoring the poems or poets, but creating a safe welcoming (if possible)would be a step in the right direction. In addition, i know most of the talk has been about the slam scene, what about the community scene? i for once would like to see more slam poets attend community events and see community poems attend/participate in slams. its something perhaps we might want to discuss.


Khary said...

Don't like number one. Number two's great.

Ruby Levine said...

I'm not a poet, but as an attendee of slams, I recall hearing some poems that made me really uncomfortable and I would have appreciated encouragement to call that out. I guess the concern I have with this is that it can devolve into a shouting match among audience members pretty fast. Also, I'm not sure how I would have called out the poets. Booing seems too simplistic, yelling "sexist" (the issue at the time) is simplistic and a flashpoint, and "your poem reinforces the idea that women owe you their hearts and bodies, which undergirds rape culture" seems too take a little too long. (For the record, I once handled the situation by sitting through it, once by walking out in the middle of the poem.)

tl;dr: great idea, I have a hard time thinking about how I would apply it in practice.