SlamNation – A Division Between Old And New

By Ezra Stead

SlamNation, USA, 1998

Directed by Paul Devlin

Poet Taylor Mali is arguably the star of Paul Devlin's SlamNation.

“Across North America, spoken word artists are competing in performance poetry contests called SLAMS … ”

For those uninitiated, this is the first explanation of just what Paul Devlin’s 1998 film SlamNation is about. This information comes in the form of an intertitle only after we have caught a few brief glimpses of three of the documentary’s “stars”: iconoclastic firebrand Beau Sia, Slam founder Marc Smith, and supreme strategist and competitor Taylor Mali. The film was shot at the 1996 National Poetry Slam, and premiered two years later at the Sundance Film Festival. With this year’s documentary Louder Than A Bomb (opening in New York May 18) set to introduce a new generation to the art form via its depiction of the Chicago Youth Slam scene, I felt it was a good time to revisit the start of it all, a film that stands as the definitive documentary account of this rapidly growing and changing mode of expression.

SlamNationIn an opening sequence that sets the tone for the quick-paced, kinetic editing style of the rest of the film, further explanatory intertitles are juxtaposed against shots of various members of the Slam community defending (Taos, New Mexico poet and MC Nave compares Slam to the oral tradition of ancient Greek poets like Sophocles and Aeschylus) or criticizing Slam (New York poet, musician and actor Saul Williams: “At first, I didn’t like it; some contrived convention to get people to listen to poetry, I guess”). Cut between these moments, Devlin explains the main event with another intertitle: “Over 120 poets from 27 teams gather for the National Poetry Slam, held in a different city each year.”

Before this opening preface is concluded, however, we are briefly introduced to one of the star teams as they are being selected at New York’s Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe. New York is perhaps the most interesting and variegated team at the 1996 National Poetry Slam, held in Portland, Oregon. In particular, our attention is drawn to New York’s star performer, Saul Williams, who is described by one unidentified female judge as “like a vagina orgasm” because of his deft wordplay in poems like “Untimely Meditations.” We later see further evidence that Saul is probably the most talented poet and performer in the Slam, and that he represents (along with teammates Beau Sia, MuMs Da Schemer, and Jessica Care Moore) a new era in Slam, which began as a more down-to-earth, working-class artistic endeavor. Saul retains the urban, working-class roots of Slam in the form of Hip-Hop, while transcending all earthly roots with his Zen mysticism; a perfect example of this is his poem, “Ohm” (which, along with “Untimely Meditations,” can be found in his 1997 book, The Seventh Octave), which opens, “Through meditation, I program my heart to beat breakbeats and hum bass lines on exhalation.” Throughout his work, and even when speaking casually, Williams radiates profundity, as though he is constantly channeling higher forces. Saul Williams is one of SlamNation's other major stars.

Devlin ends this preface with beauty shots of Portland and segues nicely into the film’s first “chapter” (“PRELIMINARY ROUNDS – DAY 1”) by beginning with a bout between New York, Seattle, Washington and Mesa, Arizona. These stats are shown as they would be in a sports film, which SlamNation is, in a way – a sports documentary for people who don’t necessarily like sports. In fact, the legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg once said, as quoted in Gary Mex Glazner’s 2000 compilation book, Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry, Slam “cultivates the field of poetry in every direction and is a healthy mental sport.”

The film itself is structured like a Slam: high-energy, eclectic and disorganized in the amicable manner of the average Slam MC. New York’s Bob Holman typifies this manner in the “spiel” sequence, in which the official rules of a Slam are read by various MCs: no props, musical accompaniment or animal acts; under three minutes in length; poems must be written by the poet performing them; however, group pieces, written and performed by more than one member of a team, are “not only allowed, but encouraged.”

The poems are then given scores ranging from zero, “a poem that never should have been written,” to ten, “a poem that causes simultaneous orgasms throughout the house,” according to Holman. The high and low scores are discarded, leaving a maximum of thirty points available to any one performance. This last part is not properly explained until much later in the film; Devlin, like a Slam MC, is content to leave the relatively unimportant details by the wayside in favor of keeping the show moving. He opts instead to add the competitive edge that has helped to make the Slam so popular by showing Boston Slam Master Mike Brown announcing the cash prizes.

At this first bout, the scores are low all around. Devlin judiciously shows one of Beau Sia’s weaker performances in order to illustrate the concept of score creep, a common phenomenon by which scores tend to rise as the show progresses; similarly, we see much stronger performances by Sia later in the film. But here we briskly move on to another central character, Providence, Rhode Island’s Taylor Mali, and his attendant central conflict. In fact, Mali is shown in various conflicts throughout the film, but the most important one – between Taylor and Berwyn, Illinois’s Daniel Ferri – is established here and developed in two more parts throughout the rest of the film.

The Providence team is effectively introduced by team member Bill MacMillan, intercut with samples of their work; MacMillan describes himself as “serious [and] introspective”; Sean Shea, he says, “tries to win a Poetry Slam with poetry, but we love him anyway”; Corey Cokes, a smooth, jazz-influenced performer, has a “rhythmic edge”; while Mali wins with “humor,” as well as theatrics and, above all, strategy. In the second bout, we see Mali’s ability to offend and anger people in his poem, “I Could Be A Poet,” which ridicules the styles of other well-known performance poets; Mali defends himself: “If you don’t have a sense of humor, then get off the stage!” He is the epitome of New Slam: cocky, competitive and more than willing to break with established traditions and conventions for his own gain.

On the other hand, the Boston team represents Old Slam: more traditional, down-to-earth poems from a classical blue-collar American experience. Patricia Smith – individual Slam winner in 1990, ’92, ’93 and ’95 – is clearly their star performer, but the film focuses a bit more on Brian Comiskey, a roofer by trade. Comiskey is Marc Smith’s spiritual heir, with poems about things that regular people experience in everyday life. Boston’s Jack McCarthy, the oldest poet in the Slam, is another good example of this, and Devlin’s cutting to audience reactions during “Careful What You Ask For,” McCarthy’s poem about the death of his infant son, is very touching and effective.

Throughout SlamNation, Devlin toys with audience expectations, beginning with his film-opening exposition of the New York team, which leads one to believe they will emerge as champions at the end. A microcosm of this device’s use in the entire film is Devlin’s handling of the Boston vs. Austin vs. Cleveland bout: we are introduced to Boston in depth, while Austin remains relatively unknown to us; ultimately, it is Boston that wins the bout. Devlin’s focus on Boston in this sequence also serves to foreshadow their future conflict with New York, a team whose style is very different from Austin’s.

Jessica Care Moore, a brazen erotic poet who has won five consecutive nights at the Apollo, introduces the topic of publishing Slam poetry with her struggle to publish her book, The Words Don’t Fit In My Mouth, through traditional channels. Her tribulations reflect the film’s consistent theme of new ways clashing with the old, and it is here that we first experience the documentary’s extraordinary power to foreshadow real life: Jessica founded her publishing house, Moore Black Press, only shortly after SlamNation was filmed, publishing Saul Williams’s first book, The Seventh Octave, second only to her own.

Marc Smith is the creator of the Poetry Slam movement, and still an active and captivating performer in his own right. The film’s second chapter ends with a further exploration of its central theme of Old vs. New: we see Taylor Mali in his second conflict of the film, with “Slam Pappy” Marc Smith, who teases Mali about dressing up for the camera. “He’s got a problem with anyone wearing a tie,” says Mali. In this sequence illustrating the love/hate relationship between Mali and Smith, we again see the foreshadowing of real life events: in 2004, Smith officially stepped down as president of Poetry Slam, Inc., giving the title to Mali.

This is followed by a sequence cleverly edited to the rhythm of a poem by Cleveland’s Ebani Edwards, in which the poets speak about their occupations outside of Slam. Devlin employs this technique throughout the film, cutting footage together to approximate the rhythm of a poet’s cadence and diction, just as concert films such as Mel Stuart’s WattStax (1972) cut footage to the music being performed. This contributes to the film’s kinetic energy and gives the viewer a feeling of the next best thing to actually being there.

In the film’s third chapter, “SEMIFINALS – DAY 3,” we are treated to the second part of Mali’s old conflict with Dan Ferri, which occurred at a previous Nationals. Mali sums up the source of their disagreement when he says, “Dan slams for poetry; I slam for money.” He hastens to add, “No, that’s not true,” but Devlin cuts away before he can explain himself further, making this a very telling moment for the “character” of Taylor Mali.

In the briefly explained conflict between Marc Smith and Bob Holman, we see further explication of the Old vs. the New. Holman’s contention, which Beau Sia reiterates later in the film, is that the Slam is everything that goes on there, not just what coincides with Smith’s original intentions. Smith has resisted the commercial exploitation of Slam over the years, but he recognizes that in order for it to grow and remain vital, it must continue to change.

The film’s final chapter, “LAST DAY – DAY 4,” begins with the Slam Masters meeting, which Smith describes as a “real democracy.” In this scene, we are witness to Mali in conflict with a third “character” in the film, Austin’s Danny Solis. Once again, it boils down to Old vs. New, with Solis fighting for the tradition of community in Slam, while Mali’s stated philosophy is “find the loopholes and exploit them.”

We are now finally made privy to part three of Taylor Mali vs. Dan Ferri, in Mali’s explanation of Providence’s controversial group piece, “A Letter For All Seasons” (also the source of Mali and Solis’s conflict). The piece began as a letter Mali was writing to Ferri at the height of their disagreement. Ultimately, Providence wins, and we see Mali in another telling moment, hogging the trophy (a pair of boxing gloves atop a stack of books) from his teammates, cheering and posing. Devlin wisely cuts in a voice-over from Marc Smith to underscore the moment: “Maybe these moments that you’ve seen are just about someone’s ego, but hopefully what you’ve seen is about you as much as the poets.”

Appropriately, Smith, who started the Slam, ends the film by saying, “By the way, I’m Marc Smith.” The audience, led by Patricia Smith (no relation), yell back, “So what!” Marc chuckles and says, “Okay,” once again showing his willingness to be personally overlooked for the greater good of the Slam, which Dan Ferri says is “like having a child; you never know where it’ll go.” Smith agrees with this sentiment in Mark Eleveld’s 2003 book, The Spoken Word Revolution (Slam, Hip-Hop & the Poetry of a New Generation): “As any good father does, I worry about Slam … I also regret that many Slam poets care more about building a career than they do about developing … communities.” This regret is personified in Beau Sia’s final comment in the film: “It’s my time! I’ll wreck you!” But it is Saul Williams who ultimately has the last word, blending together the ancient tradition of oral poetry from which Slam comes with the modern, urban style of today’s rappers and Slam poets in a line from his song “Twice The First Time”: “Not until you’ve listened to Rakim on a rocky mountaintop have you heard Hip-Hop; extract the urban element that created it and let an open wide countryside illustrate it.”

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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