Five random judges are chosen from the audience. The poets, some poor, some unknown, some with rock star followings take the stage. They have three minutes each to tell their story, to make a point, to shout, to dance, to do whatever they feel like doing. The highest scorers go through to the next round and the battle continues until there is one poet standing.
Slam poetry is more like a prize fight than a suburban book club -“ with gab-gifted protagonists from gritty urban centres fighting it out with words instead of fists.
Because the slam poetry is so political it provides a lot of room for a lot of voices that previously did not exist in the mainstream politically, celebrity slammer Staceyann Chin says.
Voices like mine – I’m a lesbian, I’m an immigrant, I’m a woman, I dress strangely and I have an accent – all those things where you wouldn’t necessarily see me as a role model, or certainly not as a figure people would look up to and pay attention to. And certainly not someone who people want to ask for an autograph.
The poetry is a representation of diversity and a representation of otherness, and it’s an affirmation of weird identities, and it’s a place that affirms we are all different and we are all very much the same. We are very different across the world, be it Australia or South Africa or Copenhagen or Calcutta or Trinidad or New York City. But you peel off what forms the cover of skin, and pull away what that might encompass, the pound of flesh around the heart, and we’re so similar underneath.
For the record, Chin’s voice is beautiful, and so are the things she says. Whether talking about the Brooklyn neighbourhood she calls home or her childhood in Jamaica, every word counts. Her voice and her poetry have led her around the world and on stage for the Tony Award-winning Def Poetry Jam. They have also led her into the unlikely career of full-time poet.
People now see poetry as an option, as a career. Kids in Chicago, kids in San Diego, kids in Minnesota, DJs, everyone is like, -˜oh, I want to be a poet’, she says.
With the awards and the sell-out poetry club nights in New York City comes fame, but celebrity for celebrity’s sake does not hold much interest for Chin.
There were the Temptations at one point, then there were the Beatles. Each generation comes with its own peculiarities of celebrity and what we deem as celebrity, she says.
Now we’ve got Survivor celebrities, where whoever can eat the most roaches and swim through the dirtiest water wins a million dollars and gets to be on TV. Celebrity is such a fickle word, I laugh and joke about it. But I’m not particularly moved by it – I didn’t grow up with the idea of celebrity in Jamaica. I make fun of myself because I’m well aware that being 105 pounds and having an exotic accent and wearing my hair kind of wild and all that stuff. All that stuff affords me a level of being lusted after in a number of ways. But my waistline will thicken with the years, my hair will grow – it won’t be as poufy and black and full. And my breasts will fall down when Victoria’s Secret can no longer hold them up. I can’t take myself so seriously.
What I work towards more than anything else is leaving a legacy of work behind that will provide a roadmap for young writers, 50 years, 100 years from now when I can no longer speak the way I speak, so they can hear me.
Chin is coming to Australia twice in the next month, to perform in the Sydney Festival and then as part of the Mardi Gras and Midsumma Festivals. And she has a message for women readers.
I want you to put in the article that I’m single. All applications are welcome, encouraged even. Send photos. Go to (staceyannchin.com) and proposition me. I’m in a very fun mood because I haven’t been single in years. I’m single now, and I’m having a good time, and I’m like, I can go anywhere I want to without checking with anyone. I can sleep anywhere I want to without checking with anyone.
I think if there is such a thing as a rock star poet you should be single. Maybe later on when I become a serious and brooding and introspective poet then I’ll find some supportive quietly encouraging partner constantly shadowing my every move. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
-” Slam poet Staceyann Chin will perform as part of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam at the Metro and Riverside theatres during the Sydney Festival from 12 – 17 January. Book at (www.sydneyfestival.org.au) or at the venues. Staceyann will join Doria Roberts for the Slam Rock Femmes Fatale during Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival (www.midsumma.org.au) before coming to Sydney’s Mardi Gras (www.mardigras.org.au) on 17 February.