MICHAEL LAYNE HEATH Reviews
WORDS IN YOUR FACE: A Guided Tour Through 20 Years of The New York City Poetry Slam by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
(Soft Skull Press, 2008)
When it comes to the extreme delivery system of poetry called Slam, you find extreme opinions to match. On one side, you have those who consider slamming a necessary, overdue democratization of the form; yanking it out of Academia and positively transforming it like none since the Beats. Then there’s those whose mental picture of a slam consists of caffeinated gatherings of mad, shouty people whose offerings would be better served by a hiphop instrumental backing. Or not.
It is to the enormous credit of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, then, that her new history of New York City’s slam scene WORDS IN YOUR FACE gives equal time to both sides; all the more surprising are the critical appraisals of the present state of Slam by some of its most recognizable practitioners.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A longtime mainstay of NYC’s slam community, Aptowicz has constructed an objective yet passionate account of Slam's impact on New York’s long reknown status as a prime energy center for poets. The immediate effects of importing the Slam concept from its Chicago birthplace in the mid-80’s (legendarily midwived by working class poet advocate Marc Smith). The first blush and subsequent bluetouch-paper-lit media explosion Slam enjoyed in the mid-90’s, followed by the post-millennial, post-9/11 period of retrenching and restatement, which at this end finds Slam continuing to flourish in longstanding venues like the Urbana Slam (at the Bowery Poetry Club) and louderARTS.
And as this is, after all, spoken word-borne poetry we’re talking about, WORDS IN YOUR FACE is as much comprised of oral history as strict chronology. Aptowicz has done a most admirable job of getting NY Slam pathfinders, cheerleaders and exponents alike to talk candidly and honestly about about their experiences, and where they see it all headed in future.
WORDS IN YOUR FACE may not inspire the detractors to check out their local Slam night, but for its equally legion fans, it is a vital window into that world, and as such, a perfect update and companion to 1996’s masterful documentary SLAM NATION.
Michael Layne Heath is a veteran inspired-amateur journalist, poet and musician living in San Francisco. His most recent chapbook SACRED GROUNDS was published by Kendra Steiner Editions, San Antonio.