A Postcard from Babel: Life on the Outskirts of the MFA/PSI Conflict

Featured image: Tower of Babel by Hendrick van Cleve courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via public domain.


The death of poetry among the common readership has been well documented in contemporary literary criticism. In the late 1980s, Joseph Epstein decried the death of poetry as academic writing departments further absorbed it, reducing it, he argued, to a cyclical pattern of “poets writing for poets.” Dana Gioia re-chiseled the epitaph for poetry in the 1990s with his essay “Can Poetry Matter,” stating, “Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.” More recently, Chad Habauch used poetry as a cautionary tale for fiction writers, warning that if they are not careful to change their format and focus they could be relegated to the dusty corners of English departments as a celebrated but rarely read phenomenon of cultural distinction.

However, the folly of these well-intentioned critics has been the very academic insularity that they railed against. While they bickered about the best way to bury it, poetry became a living, breathing thing again, a wholly different spectacle that could tap into the sensibilities of average individuals. In 1984, a construction worker by the name of Marc Smith began performing poetry aloud with a backdrop of experimental cabaret acts in a blue-collar Chicago barroom. Two years later, Smith took his poetic flair and format on the road and the Uptown Poetry Slam was born. While the way in which Smith’s format initially evolved has been up for debate, the slam competition as we know it today descends directly from his rules and variations.

The story of the movement’s genesis is told at the beginning of every sanctioned poetry slam in America as a sort of oral history of how the people’s part of poetry came into being. Today, Poetry Slam, Inc., the governing body for slam and the organizing arm of the Individual World Poetry Slam, Women of the World Poetry Slam, and National Poetry Slam, has a roster which includes hundreds of venues, most of them coffee shops and bars akin to the original Chicago barroom, in cities across the country. Poets in these groups come from every walk of life, every possible background, but many have little or no higher literary education.

It’s odd that this was where I found myself as a young writer. I had been well taught. Graduating from a magnet high school that specialized in the arts, I was accepted to and attended several summer workshops as a high school student. Then, in college, I began to move away from my formal training. Early in my freshman year, in the boozy angst of a late teenage poet, I followed laughter up the stairs of what was then The Red Tub in West Columbia. A man with a clipboard asked me if I wrote poetry and if I would like to share. I immediately said yes and accepted his offer. My performance was met with applause and accolades, short critiques, and slaps on the back. People introduced themselves, and they were kind even in their criticisms of my writing and performance. This was so different from my composition courses. I had often felt nameless in the classroom, and the work had taken on an air of fabrication. Spoken word felt genuine by comparison. These new poets wanted to talk about the work—my work—and I wanted to talk about theirs. I was hooked. At my highest point, I was attending three or four open mics a week and no less than one slam a month.

The spoken-word community has been my home for nearly a decade and the majority of my adult life. I travelled with the Columbia Slam Team to Birmingham in 2006, winging around the edges of their prize-winning season at the Southern Fried as a member of the B team. I was also on Columbia teams in 2008, 2010, and 2011, and I coached several aspiring middle and high school poets, including an award-winning youth team in 2013. However, my contributions to slam have slowed in the last year as I’ve tried to navigate the changing environment.

I’ve known for a few years that I had gone as far as I could in the southeastern slam community, but I continued to participate, hoping that the ethos would begin to adjust, to start sliding back to center. Slam was never without its faults. It often catered to sensationalism and feel-good stories. It disdained the canon outside of a few bits of passing Shakespeare or Modernism, and held up alliteration, rhyme, and light metaphor as its best techniques. There was increasing pressure to drop my allusions, pick up a popular cause, and limit my vocabulary to keep crowds interested at a time in my life when I was looking to explore the more minute anxieties of the past as a way to mediate my own. By the time I left, the slam scene had become even more highly politicized in areas where someone like me had little pull, and little interest. Lexicons had begun to shrink, places once full of quiet contemplation had flooded with shouting anger as the economics and social situations of the South made martyrs of us all. Spoken word was no longer genuine in my eyes. Abuse and prejudice had become the flavors of the year and I couldn’t stomach them. While I still fit in with many of the poets, the audiences were no longer on my side. I was adrift again, and had nowhere to turn but the sharp, pale shoulder of the very institution that had driven me to the PSI in the first place. I had to go back to the academy.

I remember the first time someone in academia insulted my work. It will be, I think, one of the last things to roll through my misfiring neurons should I succumb to some catastrophic accident. As a freshman, I received an honorable mention in a poetry contest hosted by the University of South Carolina, the university I attended. The poems selected were read aloud during the awards ceremony. A distinguished professor of the university was conducting the reading, and having felt no need to practice the words of lesser creatures, he stumbled over the flow and alliteration of my poem, ending it suddenly with a trailing “…or whatever” before moving on to the next. The slight was devastating, there was uncomfortable laughter, but nobody said anything against him. This was simply how they treated the poetry of undergraduates, of those whose names they did not recognize. I seethed in silent hatred for the man for years until he finally left the university, a legendary figure in the department. I continued trying to find my way, but it was never easy. I did not take advice from my writing professors readily. They did not, I argued to myself, understand my process and had little desire to work within its confines the way my beloved high school instructors had done. I was supposed to be there to learn from them, but I was too independent to take everything they provided as necessary to my personal growth. My own stubborn nature made it easy for many professors to discount me without realizing the profound impact of their tutelage. I remember and use many techniques I learned from them but required time and scrutiny to pick and choose those that were actually helpful. I had always hoped that with time would come respect.

Though I circulated primarily in the open mics and slams, I continued to try and produce more academic work. In my third undergraduate year, I had the opportunity to sit down with an editor from BOA Editions who was a guest speaker at the Columbia Poets Summit. He ignored the writing I had feverishly pressed into his lap and spent our whole session playfully teasing me about my earrings. I slammed the book shut on his hand and shared with him a few choice ideas about why his wife might have left him before departing myself. I would never attend another Poets Summit. I had become disillusioned. I could not find like minds in my professors and saw a malaise similar to my own infecting and weakening the resolve of even the strongest of my peers to continue to write on their own terms. In my last year as an undergraduate, my favorite writing professor, in one of his momentary upsets, called me to his office, filled my arms with maps, journals, and contest entry forms, offered me some money in both his trembling hands and pleaded, desperately, with me to leave the university. Go on the road. Write. “We have everything to lose in this place, and very little to gain,” he told me. I declined the offer, but his influence was strong on me, and I took the advice to heart. I finished my degree in a different field and wrote off academia. Last I heard, he had done the same.

Now, as I approach my 30s, I have a wall of my home lined with trophies and medals from my time in the slam community, recordings and YouTube hits, but few publications to speak of. Having my work printed seems to be the last opportunity to have it seen by those who might appreciate it. I am less than a year into my return to publishing, which has brought me back into close proximity with the university and its denizens. Few large publishing houses outside of the sphere of academic programs and their backers publish poetry anymore, and of those that do, almost none will publish an emerging poet with no affiliations. Still, I was confident that this return would be easier; slam has been creeping into academia over the years. A few highly successful slam poets have found their way into tenured positions at liberal universities, and performance is finding its way into the critical discourses of the English departments.

My hope has always been that the quality of my work will speak for itself, and in that regard I have made some friends in the upper echelons of my local writing program, though I have found myself almost universally disliked or disregarded by the local MFA student population, who have cited my lack of degree credentials and my prismatic complexion as viable reasons to dismiss me in passing. The message transmitted by these students has been very clear: “You are not one of us.” My graduate degrees are in education. I make my living teaching English and print journalism in rural school districts. Even the subject of my career is a place to pull punches, as I discovered at a recent reading for a journal in which I had a piece published. I asked a young female MFA student what district she would be teaching in after overhearing her future plans. She told me, very quickly, that she had secured a job in a private school. “They do not let MFAs teach English in public schools,” she said with high-pitched twists in her voice, the subtext being “because we are better than you.” I wished her all the best in the profession. I suspect, with that attitude, that she’ll need it. A few MFA students who know my background have asked me what the difference really is between the slam and academic poetry communities. None of those I’ve spoken to have ever been to a slam competition, and they quickly find an exit when I tell them, candidly, that the differences are almost entirely socioeconomic.

It is hard to connect with individuals whose lives seem so fundamentally different from my own, but having been entrenched in a supportive poetry community for so long I am struggling to work in isolation. I inhabit a Babel where my skills do not translate clearly from one setting to the next, and no one is able to understand my desire to build my reputation in either space—the distance between them is just too vast. My former slam companions misread my efforts as a belief that I have become “better than them.” In many ways, I see their point. I no longer found the intellectualism that I desired in the slam community, and slam lacked the space for me to expand the way that I wished to. In academic circles, even those professors and editors that I have befriended seem reticent to give me any tangible assistance in my efforts. I imagine that this is because I am an outsider, not a part of the MFA program’s machinery. Their obligations are to their students, and to that end they must shut out anyone else. The competition is too steep to give aid to those that they cannot put their own name on. The logic of both sides is sound, but the realization is painful. Like most writers who find themselves drawn to the PSI, I cannot afford an expensive degree in creative writing. The debt of trying would be crippling for my young family, and those who receive their degrees and any amount of fame tend to remain in the university, a place that I have no desire to be, as more prominent cogs in the machinery of the writing program, taking over the offices of their own former professors or being installed to teach in other schools. The life of the writer-professor would be a life wasted on me. Still, I long to know other writers, to trade ideas and engage in impromptu workshops, to occupy the familiar space of the life I loved but with a bigger bookshelf that can better tolerate my devices and experimental verse.  I’m not certain that there is a modest middle ground.

So the question then becomes, where do I go? What becomes of writers on the fringe of the PSI who are unwelcome in academia? Can we make it without the consent of the university or the support of the spoken-word community? I don’t know the answer yet, but if I can, I’m willing to find out.

Featured image: Tower of Babel by Hendrick van Cleve courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via public domain. 

Marlena Impisi

Marlena Impisi is a poet and educator with nine years of performance and competition experience in the southeastern region of the PSI. She is currently learning the ropes of the publishing world.  Her work recently appeared in the 2014 edition of Fall Lines.

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