National Poetry Slam 2006 is happening this week here in Austin. I've been a slam fan since 1998 when it was last in Austin. I even went to Nationals in '99 and '00 just as a fan. After that lack of money and vacation precluded further trips and I fell away from slam aside from watching Def Poetry on HBO.
I was cancelled from work last night so I went to see a couple bouts. Even though they were free last night (and will be tonight), there wasn't much of an audience. In fact, 15 minutes before the start of the 7 PM bout, I was the only audience member not connected to a team or working on crew. In other words, an automatic judge. They rounded up four more and we got started.
The idea of "judging" poetry is admittedly kinda odd. I recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on Slam Poetry to get a sense of the whys and wherefores.
I'll post more about individual poets and teams later, but this post is mainly to record what a demanding asshole of a judge I am apparently. Throughout the evening I was almost always the lowest scorer, and since the high and low scores are thrown out, all I did was set the low-end point. I'll admit I'm demanding. Having been to three Nationals before, my expectations are high. Yelling continously, painfully bad confessionals, and political speeches that just list terrible US military actions do not impress me. In fact, they kinda piss me off because it's been done and by far better poets.
Scoring ranges from 0.0 to 10.0 with 0.0 being, I don't know running off stage after one line I guess, to 10.0 being a perfect poem. PERFECT. I don't tend to give below a 5 unless the poet messes up badly. Basically a 5 for memorizing and performing it. Everything above that is quality of the text and performance. My scores average around 7.2. I've given a 10 before, twice I think. Both times the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I recall twitching with energy. Last night I have a lot of scores in the 6s and 7s; highest score of the night from me was an 8.8.
At one point after a loud, "emotional" poem that I found cliche and derivative, an audience member saw my score (you hold them up high), turned to me and said, "What do you want?!" To which I responded, "I know it when I hear it," which was really a joke reference to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about obscenity in relation to pornography, "I know it when I see it."
What I really wanted to say was I want innovation, flow, truth, beauty, to laugh or get goosebumps. I want my pulse to race. I want tears in my eyes. I want to hear something I've never heard before. I want poetry, not a directionless rant, a catalog of ills, a demonstration of singing skill, an artless plea for tolerance, or a humorless brag. I want to hear/see/feel great poems.
People who haven't ever seen to a slam before tend to be easily impressed; especially when they politically agree with the poets (there are few to no right-wing slammers) or empathize with a poets sad personal history. I was like that too once upon a time. Now, I've seen far too many great performers to be impressed with just energy, volume, and hand gestures.
So, I'll continue to be a judge (I tend to get picked by the bout managers when there aren't that many neutral audience members), suffer the "boo"s of the audience (picking on judges is allowed and expected), and glare at other judges who give four 10s in one night (whatthefuck?!).