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Today’s Sunday Poet, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, is a star in New York City’s slam poetry scene. The author of six books, she’s performed everywhere from Joe’s Pub to the Sydney Opera House. While many slam poets have struggled to earn respect from academia and granting institutions, Aptowicz has received both a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and an Amy Clampitt Residency.
Literary critic Harold Bloom once called the slam poetry movement “the death of art.” Slam poetry is a bit like the step child of the poetry world–its merits are often under-appreciated because it looks and behaves so differently from everything else in the poetry family.
Slam poetry has more in common with Hip Hop, stand-up comedy, and Homer’s Odyssey than it does Emily Dickinson, for it emerges from an oral tradition that places more emphasis on performance, humor, and storytelling than nuances of poetic language or form.
My first real exposure to slam poetry came this summer when I attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival for the first time. This biennial event, which brings poets, teachers, and students together, treats its poets like rock stars and is the largest poetry festival in the country. During the four-day event, I watched first-hand as writers like Kurtis Lamkin, Taylor Mali, and Rachel McKibbens galvanized audiences with their performance-based poetry. High school students and teachers seemed especially enamored by the form. And how could they not be mesmerized when McKibbens talked about the heartbreak of losing a 19-year-old friend to an overdose or Lamkin told the story of how poetry saved him from a life of crime and street gangs? It was exciting to see those restless boys in the back row so engaged with poetry. If there’s one thing that slam poetry definitely is not, it’s boring.
I also noticed a refreshing difference in how audiences respond to performance-based poetry versus a traditional reading. The aura of silence and formality quickly dropped away, and the audience behaved more like they were at a tent revival than at a poetry reading.
To judge slam poetry by the same standards as a Shakespearean sonnet or a villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop misses the point. Slam poets like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz understand that verbal storytelling is its own specialized art form — one that relies heavily on both humor and timing, as well as the ability to connect emotionally with audiences. At the Dodge Festival, Taylor Mali explained that he has no issue with revising a poem based on public response. If a line falls flat again and again, he changes it. Not many traditional poets have the opportunity to interact and respond to their audiences to such a degree (nor would many poets want to).
The first Poetry Slam held in NYC happened in the late 1980s, and as Aptowicz told the Best American Poetry blog, the scene has changed a lot:
My book, [Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam,] is actually broken down into three distinct Waves, described as “times when the attention paid to the slam surged or waned, when certain styles of poetry were favored or discouraged, when certain factions within the community got along or were at one another’s throats.” Additionally, the opportunities and projects that the slam attracted, and the type of people who might make up the audience have all wildly vacillated over slam’s long history.
One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something — a style, a project, a poet — will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new. Having been in slam for nearly a decade myself, this is the thing that keeps me coming back: what is going to hit next? who is the voice that I never saw coming? what poem is going to break my heart tonight?”
If Aptowicz’s most recent book, Everything is Everything, doesn’t at least make you chuckle, then you need to get out more. This is a collection that tackles such subjects as crack-addicted squirrels, the Loch Ness Monster, and badger-dogs (a.k.a. dachshunds). In her poem “Every Winter, People Think My Boyfriend is Elvis Costello,” she ponders, “Would Elvis Costello really be wearing an Elvis Costello t-shirt?” Excellent question.
I was thrilled when Aptowitcz gave me permission to share these two “holiday” poems with you. (I put “holiday” in quotes because these poems are so much more than mere seasonal spangle). “At the Holiday Christmas Party” and “Season’s Greetings” both appear in Everything is Everything. I’ve included a video and a text version of “Season’s Greetings,” but I encourage you to watch the video version first, because it will give you a better sense of the poet’s style, tone, and sense of humor. After all, these are poems that were written to be spoken.
I like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz because she makes me laugh, but it’s a laughter tinged with poignancy. Aptowicz never forgets that to be human is to be imperfect. Life is hard, funny, and strange, and never more so than at the holidays.
At the Office Holiday Party
I can now confirm that I am not just fatter
than everyone I work with, but I’m also fatter
than all their spouses. Even the heavily bearded
bear in accounting has a little otter-like boyfriend.
When my co-workers brightly introduce me
as “the funny one in the office,” their spouses
give them a look which translates to, Well, duh,
then they both wait for me to say something funny.
A gaggle of models comes shrieking into the bar
to further punctuate why I sometimes hate living
in this city. They glitter, a shiny gang of scissors.
I don’t know how to look like I’m not struggling.
Sometimes on the subway back to Queens,
I can tell who’s staying on past the Lexington stop
because I have bought their shoes before at Payless.
They are shoes that fool absolutely no one.
Everyone wore their special holiday party outfits.
It wasn’t until I arrived at the bar that I realized
my special holiday party outfit was exactly the same
as the outfits worn by the restaurant’s busboys.
While I’m standing in line for the bathroom,
another patron asks if I’m there to clean it.
Can’t see the video in your email? Click here to watch the video on the Gwarlingo website).
Sometimes I don’t want to do any work at all,
not even the easy stuff, like decide what I want
to eat for lunch. I found out last night someone
I wished abject loneliness upon is now lonely
and I don’t even want to think about how that
makes me feel. Now, that’s lazy, because maybe
it could make me feel powerful or vindicated,
but I’m thinking probably not. My partner & I
were doing the annual holiday cards last night,
and I kept saying, Who are we forgetting?
Who would really be cheered up by getting
a holiday card from us who’s not already
on our list? And my partner says, Um, no one.
I don’t think our holiday cards make that much
difference to anyone anyway. And I tell him,
Well, if that’s how you feel, why are we even
doing holiday cards at all? And we fought
about the joy our holiday cards did or did not
bring into the lives of our friends and family,
but make no mistake: at no time did we ever
stop doing our annual holiday cards:
me, drawing the cartoon versions of us wearing
santa hats or reindeer antlers, and him digging up
inside jokes to put in our talk bubbles, embossing
the back of the envelopes with our dachshund stamp,
the dog we consider an emblem of our relationship
because it works so hard, yet looks so ridiculous.
About Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of five books of poetry—Dear Future Boyfriend (2000), Hot Teen Slut (2001), Working Class Represent (2004), Oh, Terrible Youth (2007) and Everything is Everything (2010)—all currently available from Write Bloody Publishing.
She is also author of the nonfiction book, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, which Billy Collins wrote “leaves no doubt that the slam poetry scene has achieved legitimacy and taken its rightful place on the map of contemporary literature.”
Aptowicz is the founder and host of the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam venue, a three-time National Poetry Slam championship venue. Jo Reed of Art Works (the official podcast of the National Endowment for the Arts) said, “Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is something of a legend in NYC’s slam poetry scene. She is lively, thoughtful, and approachable looking to engage the audience with her work and deeply committed to the community that art in general and slam poetry in particular can create.”
Cristin has been invited to perform and lecture internationally and nationally, including residencies with or performances at the Sydney Opera House (Sydney, Australia), the Gasworks Art Complex (Melbourne, Australia), Joe’s Pub (at NYC’s Public Theatre), the Largo Theatre (Los Angeles) and over 100 universities and colleges. Additionally, her poetry has appeared in PANK, Rattle, Gulf Coast, Conduit, La Petite Zine, decomP, Thrush, The Other Journal, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Umbrella and kill author, among others.
She is currently finishing work on two manuscripts: her sixth book of poetry, The Year of No Mistakes, which will be released by Write Bloody Publishing in 2013; and her new nonfiction book, Curiosity: The Life and Times of Thomas Dent Mütter, a biography about the founder of Philadelphia’s (in)famous Mütter Museum, a museum of medical oddities.
Her recent awards include the ArtsEdge Writer-In-Residency at the University of Pennsylvania (2010-2011), a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry (2011) and the Amy Clampitt Residency (2013).
For more information, please visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and watch a selection of performances on Cristin’s YouTube channel. The NEA also has a podcast about slam poetry featuring Aptowicz here.
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“At the Holiday Christmas Party” and “Season’s Greetings”” © Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. All Rights Reserved. Both poems appear in Everything is Everything and were published with permission from the author. “At the Office Holiday” party was first published in Rattle. You can listen to an audio version of the poem on the Rattle website.