All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s

By Daniel Kane | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE
Bob Holman, the Poetry Project,
and the Nuyorican Poets Café
“I Learned That Poetry Could Be about
Community Here”

A POETRY SLAM INVOLVES A GROUP OF POETS READING THEIR WORK TO AN AUDI ence—members of this audience then score the poet’s poem and performance, and the winner receives some kind of symbolic or cash prize.1 In his introduction to Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Cafe, Cafe founder Miguel Algarín writes that slams in the early 1990s at the Nuyorican started with

our host, Bob Holman, reading his Disclaimer: “We disdain / competition and
its ally war / and are fighting for our lives / and the spinning / of poetry’s co-
coon of action / in your dailiness. We refuse / to meld the contradictions but /
will always walk the razor / for your love. ‘The best poet / always loses.’” Judges,
who have been selected whimsically from the audience, are introduced with
such “qualifications” as being born in Brooklyn or having never been to a Slam
before. These judges will rate the poem from zero (“a poem that should never
have been written”)—to ten (“mutual simultaneous orgasm”) using the “Dewey
decimal rating system” to avoid ties and “the dreaded Sudden-Death Haiku
Improv overtime round.” Here we are in the realm of literate humor, with no
discerning of “high” and “low,” all in the service of bringing a new audience
to poetry via a form of entertainment meant to tune up fresh ears to a use of
language as art that has been considered dead by many.2

To end this study with a brief discussion of the role the Poetry Project has played in influencing the so-called spoken word or poetry slam movement is, in a sense, to ask for trouble. Generally speaking, the audience at a Poetry Project reading is composed mainly of middle-class white intellectuals. Con-

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