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The Grand “Slam”: Poetry Doc Beats Odds

The Grand "Slam": Poetry Doc Beats Odds

The Grand "Slam": Poetry Doc Beats Odds

by Nick Poppy

Paul Devlin does not mince words when asked about the challenges his
film faces: “We do have a prejudice to fight,” he says. “It’s a
documentary on poetry.” To be fair, though, “SlamNation” is not a study
of Sylvia Plath or Emily Dickinson, and it doesn’t have much time to
discourse on the state of American letters. The new feature length
documentary produced, directed and edited by Devlin, takes viewers to
the 1996 National Poetry Slam in Portland, Oregon, where teams and
contestants rap and rhyme in competition for the title, the acclaim of
their fellow performers and a small cash pot. In the movie, we meet a
group of people who are frighteningly competitive and fiercely loyal,
talented and untalented, who wrestle with notions of community and
identity, selling out and keeping it real. Sound familiar to any
filmmakers out there?

Devlin’s struggles to make an engaging movie about poetry and poetry’s
attempts to achieve a broader appeal also echo documentary film’s own
attempts to reach a broader market. Both have had to contend with the
popular perception of being boring, static, tweedy, academic. And in
recent years, both have sought to reinvent themselves as lively, popular
forms appropriate for mainstream audiences. The director remembers how
“even friends of mine refused to watch it (“SlamNation”) because they
figured they’re going to be bored out of their minds.” But if he and the
poets featured in “SlamNation” have their way, poetry will rage, rage
against the dying of audience support. Devlin adds that when his friends
finally do watch the film, “they’re blown away, and they can’t believe
there’s so much energy in this event.”

A Gen-X coffeehouse contact sport, poetry slams pit verse versus
verse; those who compete call themselves adrenaline junkies of the
literary world, writers with skills, spoken word artists, or sometimes,
poets. They perform their pieces in front of an often rowdy crowd for
randomly selected judges, who give out scores from zero (for a poem
“that should never have been written”) to 10 (“causes simultaneous
orgasm throughout the house”). Sometimes style and substance meet and
forget who’s who, and sometimes there are flashes of transcendence.
Because of the competition aspect, poetry slams have a built-in
trajectory that was useful for the documentary. Devlin explains, “I
could start with a dramatic question — who was going to win the slam,
and end with the climax.”

The process by which “SlamNation” was made resembles the frenetic
workings of an improv artist. As Devlin recalls, he had just returned
from working at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and it was “spur of the
moment. I hopped on a plane, got there and hired cameramen, locally . .
. I sometimes would call people sight unseen and say, if you have a
camera, go to the venue and start shooting. . . . I didn’t have time to
prepare, so my strategy became, just cover everything, and figure out
what to do with it afterwards.” There was a lot to cover: the Grand Slam
lasted four nights, and each night four different venues hosted two
competitions apiece. To complicate matters, Devlin adds, “I always
insisted on at least two camera angles, and if possible three. And
sometimes we had up to six . . . Anybody who was in the audience who
happened to have a camera, I would get in touch with them and give them
my card. And then later I would get their footage. So I was getting
cameras from every which way.” Like a collagist, Devlin also had to
contend with half a dozen formats (Hi-8, S-VHS, Beta, Beta-SP and DV) of
various qualities.

All of this amounted to close to 100 hours of footage. As a test, Devlin
cut three poems from the finals. Satisfied with the results, he dove in.
“I logged every poem. Hundreds of them,” he says, his voice glazing
over. Drawing on his experience as an editor for network sporting
events, Devlin cut “SlamNation” in the manner of an athletic
competition, employing fast cuts and multiple camera angles to convey
the kinetic energy of the live experience. It took him a year to cut the
film; he purchased an AVID specifically to work on it, and eventually
on-lined to digital beta.

A devotee of the slam form and Nuyorican Cafe habitue, Devlin originally
set out to produce a television series featuring performances and
competitions. He met with some success – the 1995 pilot “Slammin'” had a
limited broadcast on PBS, and received some New York Emmy nominations –
but didn’t get any big bites. The reason for this, Devlin believes, is
that “TV is a very conservative medium. They’re not interested in taking
chances the way independent film is.” The documentary’s opening at Film
Forum is “a big boost,” and he hopes “SlamNation” will spur television’s
interest in the series.

The final product, he hopes, will also give a boost to performance
poetry. Devlin would like “to bring it to people who would never be
interested in this. Who you wouldn’t expect to be interested in this,
and who would be completely surprised that they would be interested in
poetry. So that’s a pretty broad audience.” He’s banking on some of the
same tactics as poetry slams to reel in audiences, noting “the element
of competition makes the event that much more compelling.” With respect
to the slams, Devlin adds, “a lot of poets are looking at this as a
vehicle to larger fame, and I think that may increase with the film.”
“SlamNation” will be joined soon by the narrative “Slam” (slated for an
October release), which won awards at Sundance and Cannes, and which
features some of the same performers.

Devlin financed “SlamNation” himself, using proceeds from freelance gigs
editing Olympics coverage for the networks. He’s not looking for big
profits from the movie, though. “If we break even with a documentary on
poetry, it’s spectacular.”

[“SlamNation” opens Friday, July 17 for a four week stand at New York’s
Film Forum. Several shows will be preceded by readings from featured

[Nick Poppy is a producer and writer living in Brooklyn.]

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