The Class Slam
And I end the semester on a very high note, for two of my classes finish tomorrow with the third round – the final round – of a class slam.
I have taught two sections of 2nd year composition this semester – in which students write expository, argumentative essays about literature. We have read and talked and read and talked and drafted, revised, revised, edited and polished, edited and polished, and proofed, proofed, proofed our way through 4 critical essays about various stories and a novel.
But I wanted to end the semester with something fun and relatively speaking, easy. Or at least, so fun that my students would think it’s easy (but actually, it’s not).
First, I sent them out into the world at large, searching for spoken-word events or slams. They were required to attend at least one event and write a review. They returned to the classroom, many of them, in a state of shock and hilarity. Far too many of them had no idea that poetry could be performance – that poetry could kick your ass – that poetry could make your brain steam, your heart pound, your feet stamp, and your voice call out in response to the poet and the poem – hooting and hollering. Far too many of them thought poetry was an old man in a stiff white shirt, reading in a monotone voice from a dusty book, sucking the life out of the words and never, ever making you feel anything at all.
But they went to poetry events and slams at bars and taverns, cafes and pizza parlors, and came back excited, enthralled, invigorated. That was the easy part - I lulled them in.
Then we began to investigate what Billy Collins calls “poems in the air” and “poems on the page” and talk about the differences. We read and we listened. We talked about the meaning of the poem and how its form on the page hindered or helped craft that meaning, and how its sound in the air did the same. They had to write two critical papers about poetry – and discuss the differences between poems on the page and poems in the air and explain why those differences matter – or why they don’t. No one complained - they wanted to discuss and write about poetry (even the ones that groaned when I said we would be writing about poetry).
Then I delivered the sucker punch. I told them: you must write poetry.
Their jaws dropped. But, but, they stammered, we aren’t creative writers.
Oh really? I said. Too bad, because you must write poetry. And not only that, you must compete in a class slam.
What? What? They shouted. But Ms. G – that’s not fair – we’re not creative writers.
Too bad, I said. Do it anyway.
They relented, hanging their heads low, mumbling in their seats. Fine, we’ll do it. But what do we write about? How does it work? What are the rules?
You write about anything you want.
Are you sure? ANYTHING????
You're writing poetry - that's art and I don't censor art.
What about the rules for the slam?
There are no rules.
How can there be no rules?
Ok, there’s two rules: 1. the poems cannot be longer than 3 minutes. 2) the judges must judge on content and performance.
So what's the criteria for that? What basis do they judge the content and the performance? Will you give us a rubric?
There isn’t any criterion. There is no rubric.
There is no criterion, no rubric. Judges decide based on whatever they like, whatever they don’t like. And then they score your poem however they feel like.
That’s ridiculous, they said.
Yes, I said. It is.
We formed groups. Each student wrote three poems and brought those poems to their group. And each group selected three poems (one for each round) to enter in the slam. On Monday, we had the first two rounds of the slam. Groups performed their poems. Judges rated the poems on the Olympic scale of 1 – 10. The audience applauded the poems and the poets, then applauded or booed the judges as they revealed the scores. The numbers were tallied, and the four highest-scoring groups (out of five) moved into the second round. After the second round, the three highest-scoring groups moved into the final round – that’s tomorrow.
I heard some terrific poems. Some were wise, some were sexy, some were sarcastic, some were about love and angst, some about social change. One was about chocolate cake. Some were about sex. Some were about war, strife, terror, and politics. Some had nothing to do with anything but were just plain fun. One of my quietest, softest-spoken students suddenly became a spoken-word star. One student who has struggled all semester with essay writing suddenly became the best writer in the room. And all I heard on Monday when our two rounds were finished was how much fun everyone had. Students didn't want to leave class - I had to kick them out. They wanted to talk about the poems, tease each other, clap each other on the backs. One student visited me in my office today to tell me that even though he has struggled with the course and knows he is failing (he will take the course again over the summer), he feels he accomplished something. "I can't write an essay very easily," he told me, "but I know I can write poetry now."
Victory is mine!