Poetry As A Contact Sport -- Rhythm And Rhyme In Your Face Can Be Beautiful And Bombastic, But It's Never Boring

It's called Slam Poetry, or Poetry Slam, depending on who's getting in your face with the explanation. If it sounds like a contact sport, so much the better. Sometimes it is.

"We're the WWA (World Wrestling Association) of poetry," says David Meinert, who along with poet Paul Grajnert runs a slam at The Emerald Diner on Queen Anne every Wednesday. "It can get pretty aggressive."

Local poet Xavier Cavazos, a regular at area readings, isn't sure he agrees. "Seattle audiences are too polite. On the East Coast, if they don't like your poems or the judges' call, they start throwing (things) at you. They're really mean."

This poetry ain't pretty. It can be beautiful, brutal, bombastic, barbaric, breakneck fast and even bad, but it's hardly ever boring. The point is that the players take it to the mat. Hard.

Slamming started in Chicago six years ago, the brainchild of ex-construction-worker-turned-poet Marc Smith, at the Green Mill, a 200-plus capacity beer joint. It's a confrontational contest. Poets read and are then judged - just like gymnasts at a meet - by pre-chosen audience members who mark numbers from one to 10 on small white cards. Some slams use decimal points. All of the poets try to one-up the previous performer.

Writer Hamish Todd, who under the auspices of the Seattle Writer's Guild begins a slam at Belltown's Crocodile Cafe this Saturday night, says ties are broken with instant poetry.

"The remaining contestants have to do four lines based on a prop. That's it. Slam busting!" The winner usually walks away with about $20, which is pretty good in poet pay.

The Slam is just the newest bump on Seattle's solid poetry scene. The city has long been receptive to the art. The Red Sky Poetry Theatre does readings at the Ditto Tavern every Sunday. A recent evening found the place packed, with at least 25 poets signed to do open-mike readings before featured artist Jim Maloney read.

Almost every Tuesday there's poetry read as part of the Surrealistic Magic Theatre, a mixed-media event held at The Weathered Wall nightclub downtown. When Robert Hunter recently played, the house sold out. For almost a year, on the third Wednesday of the month, Todd and the Guild have been doing a potpourri at the Crocodile called Primarily Prose. They'll be bringing Allen Ginsberg to town in April.

The Two Bells Tavern is planning on re-introducing its old Spoken Word program now that the tavern has expanded.

There are readings in Tacoma. There's even talk of establishing a slam in Bellevue. And that's in addition to the "normal" readings at normal places such as college campuses and bookstores.

Suddenly the "new" poetry is being marketed as an alternative entertainment form, and there are enough interested people - from young bohemians to the original children of Ferlinghetti - to make it work. Certainly there is no lack of poets, young or old.

"But this isn't just some sort of simple beatnik reading thing," emphasizes Todd. "It's become more eclectic than that. I've had a lot of discussion about this with Bob Holman, a k a the Plain White Rapper. He's been doing this in New York for several years, and the idea is to mix it up. We have a little music, a little theater, we even have a game show."

"It's performance poetry," adds Meinert. "It has a lot more to do with rock and rap attitudes. What we're doing is fresher, more exciting. It's faster and louder and more aggressive. It's harder."

And it's global. Poets are slamming in Sweden, France, Ireland and Germany. In the past year there have been stories about it in publications ranging from the New York Post and The New York Times to Smithsonian magazine. The Third International Slam held in Boston last October went on for four days. It's Todd's and Meinert's hope to have Seattle contenders in the next international competition.

"We were originally approached by the same person separately to do a slam," says Todd. "We didn't have a site, then they didn't have a site, then we both found sites. Technically, David's is the first, but we're better."

"Sure, right" responds Meinert, feigning a punch. "Actually, the main difference between our slams is that the Emerald Diner slam is an open mike; anyone can sign up. Hamish's slam is pre-chosen." Todd's Crocodile slam, around midnight on Saturday, will feature poets Igna Muscio, Mike Romoth and Cavazos.

"What we really want to do is build both of these for a year and then mesh and have a giant slam-off," says Meinert.

"One-on-one. We'll see where it goes from there."

----------------------------------------- SLAM SITES

Where to find poetry readings: -- The Emerald Diner Slam (open mike), Emerald Diner, 105 W. Mercer St. Every Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (284-4618). -- The Owl & Thistle (open mike), Post Alley between Marion and Columbia streets. Every Tuesday (621-7777). -- Poetry at the Globe Cafe, 1531 14th Ave. First and third Fridays of the month, 9 p.m. (329-7936). -- Primarily Prose (includes prose and music), The Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave. Third Wednesday of the month, 9 p.m. (937-8747). -- Crocodile Slam, The Crocodile Cafe, every Saturday, between bands, about midnight (937-8747). -- Radio Free Leroy (includes prose), Pioneer Square Saloon, 73 Yesler Way. First Monday of the month, 8 p.m. (628-6444). -- Red Sky Poetry Theatre (open mike), Ditto Tavern, 2303 Fifth Ave. Sundays at 7 p.m., and at 7:30 p.m. at The Weathered Wall, 1921 Fifth Ave., second Tuesday of the month (329-7936). -- Surrealistic Magic Theatre (includes prose and music), The Weathered Wall, first, third and fourth Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. (448-5688).