By Richard Bernstein
I can tell you exactly when my relationship with poetry began, but I donít presume to know exactly why. It was the afternoon of March 12, 1965. My grandmother had just given me a small yellow book entitled 100 Greatest Poems for my 8th birthday. I remember that it began with Chaucer and ended with Dylan Thomas. I read that book over and over until my 9th birthday, at which time she gave me a second book of poems. This birthday ritual continued until I graduated from college. All I know is that from the moment I received that first book I was hooked. I have been reading, writing, studying, or teaching poetry almost every day since.
Begun in 1984 in Chicago by Marc Kelly Smith, a construction worker who was looking for a constructive way to channel the creative energy of urban youth, the poetry slam has since grown into an international movement. Smith took the traditional open microphone poetry reading and turned it into a venue for the art of competitive performance poetry. Poets perform their original work without props, costumes, or music and are then judged by members of the audience on a scale of 0-10. Scores are based on the quality of the poem as well as the performance. Poets usually advance through two or three rounds based on their scores. Itís known in some circles as the ďOlympic sport of the soul.Ē That might sound like a lot to live up to, but at its best, a poetry slam often exceeds the expectations of the audience. Itís not uncommon to find audiences cheering the poets, booing the judges (all in the tongue-in-cheek spirit of fun, of course), snapping their fingers in appreciation of a good line, belly-laughing, or even weeping. Today, poetry slams are found on college campuses, in high school auditoriums, in libraries, bars and restaurants, civic centers, town squares, art galleries, and virtually anywhere people gather for the purpose of fostering community, sharing visions, and forging identity through the art of spoken-word poetry.