Wednesday, April 14, 2004

NOTE: This entry is for poetry slam geeks only.

This whole 5x3 idea that Taylor came up with for the National Poetry Slam - 5 teams, 3 POEMS per bout as opposed to 3x4, or the more recent 4x4 - isn't necessarily the death of Nationals as some have lamented. It is, however, a flawed band-aid that emphasizes the competition in a way that has the potential to divide local scenes more than the usual inanity inherent to the format. It is also indicative of PSI's failure to coalesce as a legitimate organization.

One of the bigger problems with this system is the fact that it was insitituted THIS year, completely untested beyond a last-second dry run between meetings a couple of weeks ago. Add to that the fact that now up to 80 teams can compete but it's still first-come, first-serve registration with minimal requirements* for certification. Instead of making room for new slam scenes for previously unrepresented areas, I bet many of those additional 16 slots will go to larger areas' B and C teams. Teams started by or made up of veteran carpetbagging poets that bounce around a particular region attempting to qualify for as many teams as possible.

As for the 3 POEMS distinction, it wouldn't be an issue if that translated to 3 POETS per team. Unfortunately, in their wishy-washy, John Kerry-like manner, they voted to amend Taylor's proposal to allow slammasters to decide locally whether to send 3, 4 or 5 poets. And there's nothing mandated that this be determined at the beginning of the season. In other words, if popular Joe Veteran comes in 4th or 5th place, that slam will likely send a 4- or 5-poet team. If unpopular Eddie Newbie takes that 4th or 5th spot, though, that slam has the option to claim broke and choose to send a minimal 3-poet team instead. Given PSI's spineless penchant for staying out of local issues, this is a senseless can of worms to have opened.

Also, in the 4- or 5-poet set up, while the focus has been on the ideal world of inclusion where teams kick 5-person group pieces, it's more likely that one or two poets never get a shot to read a single poem despite being an "official" member of the team. (As opposed to an alternate who knows only someone's death will get them on stage.) Again, this is left to the slammaster's discretion - or, in some scenes, the "coach" - and the potential for ugliness is high. Ironically, this came up in an...ahem!... heated discussion last week where a likely coach claimed he'd "probably" sub in the other two poets on the second night, presumably with whomever had a shot at indies from their first night's performance getting the encore slot. Once we started discussing situational variables, however, his position become predictably cloudier. Reminded of the 1998 Nuyorican's situation - when a team member was allowed to believe up to the last minute that he was going to Austin despite the majority of the team wanting to give him the boot for skipping all but one show and every rehearsal, not to mention the fact that he'd never been witnessed performing a poem anywhere near three minutes short! - the debate took an ugly and personal turn and devolved quickly from there. Not an isolated incident, I'd bet.

The final major issue I have with the 5x3 is, like most things PSI comes up with, it's all about the poets. Not the audience. Not the poetry. While it's been argued that structurally, the 5x3 offers a shorter show (by one poem), the convoluted format itself is not the least bit audience-friendly. Poet rotations are now an even bigger alphabet soup and arguably even less fair than before. More teams in a bout ensures an artificially-packed house, a huge concern considering the last few Nationals' issues with finding enough unaffiliated judges. (In Seattle, they had to transport people from one venue to another just to get 5 judges in each bout!) More teams in a bout emphasizes the scores and reinforces the tendency to play it safe in the choice of poems peformed as there's less of a margin for error than ever before. No significant parameters on registration to ensure regional diversity means even more of the same type of poetry that has come to stereotype...I mean, define poetry slams over the years.

All in all, I don't hate the idea as much as I think it's both short-sighted and incomplete. It's another half-step to making the Nationals more about the competition than the community. If that's the direction PSI wants to go, more power to them. They just need to work up the nerve to go full-steam ahead in that direction and stop pussy-footing their way around it.

Taylor's certainly got the willpower and self-confidence to pull it off. Can he actually DO it, though?

*One of the proposals I put forth last year was in lieu of an agreeable regional system - something they've been chewing on for 6 or 7 years now - PSI instead tighten up the certification process. Currently, it only takes 6 slams/year, an open to all format, and an average audience of 30 people/show. I proposed upping the audience to an average of 50/show - because, really, if you're only drawing 30-40 people, who are you reaching? - and requiring a minimum of 12 unique PSI members claiming the venue as their home. The unique members part was to force the B and C teams to justify their existence as more than backup plans for veterans. The proposal was eviscerated by the committee charged with coming up with a plan and the bland-aid that resulted was both disheartening and, in retrospect, the last straw.

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