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Reading poetry aloud is fraught with risks: the arrows of derision—or worse, the slings of silence; the exposure of truths usually kept muffled, like cartoon thought-balloons. And the risk of developing a case of chronic “poetry voice,” as Silvana Straw calls it.
Familiar to habitués of campus readings, writers’ workshops, and kindred venues, “poetry voice” is characterized by phrases, sentences, whole stanzas emerging not as declarations, but as an endless series of flat-affect inquiries? punctuated by invisible question marks? the reader conveys with rising tones?
“Low content, high diction,” says Straw, who has gained note as part of D.C.’s burgeoning poetry-slam scene. “The poetry voice is the outcome of too many workshops and MFA programs. At a slam you hear all kinds of voices, including the “slam voice,’ which is loud, dramatic, and self-righteous—and just as obnoxious as the poetry voice.”
Poetry voice has no place at a poetry slam, which sets the Beat consciousness, with its eschewal of middle-class values, in the sawdust of the Roman arena. Scorning the genteel and somber interrogatory tradition, the slam ethic recasts poetry as contact sport, with winners and losers and bruised hilarity and no blood, no foul. In appropriately grunged-out settings like current slam hot spot 15 Minutes, which opens its microphones to all comers on Monday nights and also hosts monthly competitions where the winner gets $50, slammers haul their hearts and souls out of notebooks and off foolscap and hurl them, hoping to elicit shock or shame or laughter or all of those and more, at audiences that howl like troops of carnivorous Allen Ginsbergs. Each gladiator gets a few minutes or a few poems to win over the crowd, after which an MC runs a clap test to pick a victor. The overall effect suggests a hootenanny moderated by Pontius Pilate, invigorating and malevolent.
Straw came to slam via studies in writing and language and extracurricular experiences in theater at American University that led her into what ex-Fug and protoslammer Ed Sanders has dubbed “perfpo,” in which poetry’s intense focus is amped up by injecting it with the adrenalin of live theater. Inspired by such teachers as Ann Darr, as well as the works of Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, and performance-poetry godmother Laurie Anderson, Straw set out to write for readers but also always for listeners. With several fellow Washington writers of the early ’80s, she formed Sabotage Poets, one element of a samizdat stratum active during years when D.C.’s perfpo scene was even more underground than it is now.
Since graduation, Straw has toiled in the vineyards of Grant Land, administrating charitable donations. Her foundation day jobs have supported a résumé’s worth of artistic coups counted in the form of nominations, awards, publications, and a long list of appearances as featured reader and slammer. Slugging her way to the 1993 D.C. slam championship in a series of hard-fought skirmishes at 15 Minutes, she captained a quartet of her D.C. peers to the finals of a national competition held in September in San Francisco. The $2,000 first prize went to the reigning champs, a team from Boston.
“In the end the word wins out, but you have to be a damned good performer. Boston killed us,” Straw says. “They definitely won. I cried myself to sleep like I was back in seventh grade. But that is what happens at a slam—you feel this great love for all poets and this great desire to kill them all.”
In performance at a 15 Minutes free-for-all session held shortly before the nationals to raise funds for the slam team’s trip, Straw works the microphone masterfully, displaying an intuitive sense of how amplification interacts with the vocal cords. She is a one-woman menagerie of growls, purrs, chirps, hisses, barks, and trumpeting roars, unabashedly funny and sexy and angry and lyrical as she mines a base-hopping mil-brat childhood and her years in suburban Virginia exile, reading pieces like “the wednesday walk,” “Miscegenation,” “The Night I Split Open,” and “Barbwire Barbie,” a polymorphously perverse dream sequence that has become Straw’s limelight challenge to listeners and fellow slammers:
I am hermetically sealed.
No ears, no pores,
no mouth, no access.
I do not open.
What can’t go in, can’t come out.
Ken doesn’t mind ’cause he has no penis,
and we are all-American.
…No barbies allowed in my house, so I go to Eva’s
where Barbie will do anything—
like strip for Ken in the trailer.
Slumber parties with Eva and Nickey
always boil down to Ken and Barbie doing it.
As we bang Barbie and Ken against each other,
it is their stiffness that makes us laugh,
like dead bodies we can manipulate,
pull apart, a real live peep show.
Oh Barbie you’re so fine,
you’re so fine you’re on my mind,
hey Barbie, yeah, hey Barbie.
The audience whoops at all the right carnal twists and dirty-girl lilts, but at poem’s end, when the poet awakens with a string at her back and Barbie turns into a real woman with oily skin, sweat marks, hairy legs, and flat feet instead of the doll’s hoochie-coochie arched insteps, the silence thunders.
“Barbie crawls into my bed,” Straw intones as the amplifiers hum behind her. “She’s a Big Girl, my size, she pulls the string, and I speak for her.”
Silvana Straw, D.C. slam team member Jeff McDaniel, 15 Minutes slam master of ceremonies Art Schuhart, and Chicago-based National Poetry Slam founder Mark Smith appear Nov. 18 at the District of Columbia Arts Center.