Writing: Of Poetry Slams and Deathmatches

vitriol, writing, writing contest, flame wars, bad attitude, literary snobs

Dodge quickly. Creative Commons: queereka.com

Back in the good ole days, I used to attend poetry slams. A slam then was two people being pitted against each other, where they would read the poem, the audience would cheer and the one with the most cheers would advance to the next round. I eventually stopped going to them for the following reasons:

  • the slam had little to do with the merit of the poem
  • people brought their friends who would just cheer for their friends: my friends refused to come to poetry events
  • a bad poem read with upward inflections at the end of every line would wow the crowd
  • writing is hard; everyone should be applauded just for going to the effort to do it well

While slams did give every Tomasina, Dick or writer to read their works, the slams weren’t always great. I hear they’re better now but I haven’t visited one in a long time. The part I always disliked about a slam and which drove me away, was that a very good poet, who might not be experienced at reading well, would be raked and scraped over the coals by the nasty, mad dog crowd.

Years later, I presume those slams go on but we now have a dearth of social media so there are websites and webzines and all sorts of places to showcase your work. One such magazine, Broken Pencil, has fiction, poetry and nonfiction. It’s trendy, it’s Canadian and it’s trying to generate more page views. One way of doing this is to make sure part of your site isn’t static, that it’s ever changing, and the best way to do this is to get viewers with new content. Broken Pencil is sponsoring a Deathmatch on their site where two stories and their authors are pitted against each other. The audience weighs in with comments and can vote once per hour. The winner goes on to be pitted against another writer. There is a $20 fee to enter this contest, thus generating money for the magazine. The editors choose the top eight stories to be torn apart in the Deathmatch.

A noble enough endeavor and magazines have tried various ways to fundraise for a while. I was familiar with Broken Pencil but not the Deathmatch. A friend has a friend in the contest so I popped in to read both stories, make a comment and vote. It turns out you can vote once an hour. What stunned me was the level of some of the commenters. Presumably a lot of these people are the literati but the language  and juvenile attitude left me wondering. After all, we’re talking literary, right?  Broken Pencil touts themselves as indie and audacious. One newspaper reported that “This is definitely not a contest for sensitive writer types. If you can’t handle the thought of your short story being smacked down by online voters, then you’ll want to stay well clear of this one. Think Literary Survivor. On an island. Surrounded by a sea of sharks.”
– Jennifer Moss, The Vancouver Sun

Hmm, a Literary Survivor show; it almost seems an oxymoron. In Broken Pencil’s own words:

Since 2008, Broken Pencil: the magazine of zine culture and the independent arts, has been running one of the world’s most audacious short story contests. In the Deathmatch short story contest, the top eight entrants as selected by Broken Pencil are pitted against each other two by two. The winning story is decided by Broken Pencil readers themselves, through a vote on the official magazine website. Each week, two stories will be pitted against each other in the online arena, where anyone and everyone can read them and vote on which one deserves to reign supreme. The authors will be in constant communication with their audience through a blog which they can use to hype up their own story, or trash-talk their opponent’s writing.

Trash -talk? Really? That’s what we come to, obnoxious reality TV shows and pumped up melodrama for the sake of feeding the hyenas in the coliseum? Is the lowest common denominator really the way to go? I once did a poetry slam in a fake boxing ring, but there were judges and we didn’t verbally bludgeon the other entrants. Here are some samples of Canada’s great(?) writing minds voicing their comments, or at their friends’ and enemies’ comments.

  • Samantha, you absolutely suck at writing.
  • She means her bowels. His words move her bowels.
  • Claire didn’t complain when your piece of shit story was winning.
  • didn’t sammie have slanty enough eyes to get into U of T
  • Turd smear.

There is more and there is more that is intelligent and thoughtful, talking about what works or doesn’t in each story. There are a couple of literary trolls, full of themselves and big on seeing their words constantly on the page. They can of course ruin it for everyone. Sure it’s a contest, even slam style, and not everyone wins, but mud flinging and puerile attitudes doesn’t make me think literary. It’s not cutting edge; it’s overdone. Reading some of the Deathmatch comments has convinced me that like those poetry slams of old, I won’t be entering any time soon. It’s a neat idea but it’s too bad some people think it has to be like reality TV. Broken Pencil deserves some kudos for trying something new and as this creature evolves, it will either crawl from the chrysalis beautiful and dynamic, or roll in in the filth, a distorted and deformed thing. If you plan to enter this contest in the future then there are only two types of spines to have: either change yours for one of steel or rip it out.


Filed under art, Culture, entertainment, Publishing, Writing

3 responses to “Writing: Of Poetry Slams and Deathmatches

  1. Thanks for sharing this post. Very nice job. Writing can be very relaxing.

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  2. To be honest, I didn’t really know that people still wrote poetry on a professional level until I met a friend who came to my country as a performer in Def Poetry Jam. The most mainstream way of getting your poetry out there is to write songs. The public seem to absorb new songs very easily. Poetry, less so.

    • colleenanderson

      Few do in a professional way that you can live off of the proceedings. It’s more supplemental or pays for the postage, but I’d have to say 99% don’t make a living off of poetry. And you’re right, songwriting is the best way to make money with poetry, and screenwriting for fiction. 🙂

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