A hilarious account of the 2011 National Poetry Slam competition that illuminates a raucous subculture of competitive versifying from the inside.
Part beatnik culturefest and part bowling league, poetry slams involve teams of bards declaiming three-minute individual or group poems in front of randomly chosen judges and an audience of cheering, booing and drinking poetry aficionados. Tanager, a poet, led her four-woman team from Boise, Idaho, to compete against 71 other teams at the 2011 National Poetry Slam in Boston. Her fizzy reportage brings to vivid life this unlikeliest of American sporting events, detailing the pre-slam jitters and practice sessions; the behind-the-scenes clash of egos and gossipy backstabbing; and the quagmire of soggy identity politics. It also covers the poets’ last-minute strategizing over which poems to recite in order to sway fickle judges and audiences; the exhilaration of victory and the demoralization of loss to lesser, trendier poets; and the oblivion of booze and dancing at the afterparty. (“I’ll never leave you again, Beer!” the author vows after a painful defeat.) Tanager’s loose-limbed narrative, unfolding in a series of brief feuilletons, has a breezy, chatty tone and sprinkles the episodes from the slam with lively excursions into the food, fashions and harmless flirtations swirling around it. She’s alive to the absurdities of the scene, rolling her eyes at poetic self-importance (her own included) and lampooning preachy issue poems (“An Open Letter to that Bad Person I Read About in a Magazine”). Yet she takes the art form seriously, limns the empty spot in the soul that drives poets to perfect their craft and expose it to the world, and celebrates hard-won moments of compelling expression. There’s not much poetry in the book, but Tanager compensates with prose that is, by turns, funny, vehement, self-deprecating and gorgeous. At daybreak in an airplane, for example, she writes, “a glorious and silent choreographed battle of gold and fuchsia, pulse and vibration, grows brighter and brighter, huge and symphonic below me.” Alas, the book’s awful title will put off some readers, but those who persevere will find a whip-smart, wise and entertaining read.
A beguiling play-by-play about a vibrant literary happening.