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an interview with
Brett Axel
june 2003

Why is it called "Slam" poetry?

Actually, it isn't.  Its called performance poetry and it predates slam by quite a long time.  A poetry slam is a performance poetry competition.

Brett what is the biggest difference between "Slam" poetry and just "poetry"?

Since this is a question that can't be answered (see above) I'll answer a different question:

A poem that scores well in a slam needs to be very accessible and easy to understand, like a pop song.  People need to like it and understand it right away without having to think about it.  A poem that satisfies poetry readers may be a little more difficult.  A reader might have to go over it again, put some effort into it (that is, think about it).  Its up to you if you'd prefer poems you'll like at first and most likely grow out of, or have to reach for and hopefully grow into.

I resisted slam at first for that very reason.  I like the printed word, I like finely crafted poetry that challenges my mind and touches my heart.  Hearing Regie Cabico slam won me over.  I'd already read his work in print and loved it.  It is a special challenge to write work that works both on page and on stage, but it can be done and some writers, like Regie Cabico do it all the time.  That's what I try to do.

How long have you been "Slamming?"

The summer of 1997 I came into New York City and slammed a few times.  I did better at the Nuyorican (winning once and coming in second once)  than I did at Urbana, there, I came in third once and another time didn't even make it into the second round.

Who are your favorite poets and writers?

I love so many writers answering that could take all day.  My favorite novel is The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger but I've read his other work and wasn't really impressed.  My favorite Plays are Waiting For Gadot by Samuel Beckett and The Masses Are Asses by Pedro Pietri, but the playwright that I think I like most overall is Edward Albee.  None fiction, I think William Safire would be my favorite.  Songwriters, Dar Williams, Ani Difranco, and Traci Chapman.  Screen writers, I'm a big Ivan Reitman fan, I also love Kevin Smith.  IN comics I love Tom Tomorrow.

Poetry is going to be harder.  No longer with us, Lorine Neidecker and T S Eliot would have to top my list.  I think the greatest single book of poetry I've ever read is Mules of Love by Ellen Bass.  Summer of Black Widows by Sherman Alexie and Selected Poems by Antler would be right on top of my list too.  Most of my favorite spoken word CDs are by John S Hall, but Angela Pelluso's CD is up there too.  In slam, Roger Bonair-Agard, Taylor Mali, Cass King, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowics, Lisa Martinvic, Kate Makai, Matt Mason, Al Letson, Clebo Rainey, and Amalia Ortiz I think would top my list, but I might be forgetting a dozen others.  In print, but not with their own books yet: Amy Ouzoonian, Corey-Ellen Nadel, Kyrce Swenson, and Miriam Axel-Lute (who is also my cousin).

That is the short short version.

Do you think T.S. Eliot or Walt Whitman would have been well received in the Slam Poetry world?

That's funny because I actually do T S Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock in the voice on Ren from Ren and Stimpy, as a performance poem.  I'd say yes, even if they don't score really well, they'd be respected and appreciated.  I think of folks like Cristina Springer, Jack McCarthy and Sarah Holbrook who write so finely that sometimes judges don't score them as high as they should, I mean, as high as they would have if they'd had a half an hour to mull the poem over first, but people remember their wonderful work long after they forget what scores they got.

Now you travel the world doing these Slam events...tell the truth...do most people suck at Slam Poetry?

I don't like to say that anyone sucks.  You don't know how far along they are yet though.  Every great poet was a good poet before that and a bad poet before that and maybe even an awful poet before that.  I'd hate to be judged by my first five years of poems.  With some support and nurturing, you don't know where someone's writing will end up.

Have you ever heard of Roger Bonair-Agard?

Yes, he is one of the very best.  I included him in an anthology I edited the year before he won slam nationals.

Do you think you could beat Roger Bonair-Agard in an online interview slam off?

I don't know what an online interview slam off is, but in slam, anything can happen.

Winning the slam doesn't make you a better poet than losing though.  This is important.  Everyone says it but few really believe it.  The thing is, poetry is judged on a curve and what
end up on top is the most mediocre. A poem that always wins has to be pretty innocuous, pretty easy to get and catchy for everyone.  If slam were music ABBA would rain supreme and Mozart would do very poorly.  It is nice to win, and I win sometimes, but I don't slam to win.  I slam because there's an audience full of people actually paying attention to poetry.  And many of them aren't people who would normally read poetry.

Do you write Love Slams?

I write what I am inspired to write.  I don't try to direct or restrict that.  I haven't, so far, written anything romantic that I liked enough to share, but there is no reason I couldn't.

When you create your work do you recite it out loud?

Yes, even when it isn't a performance poem.  I find I edit better when I can hear it, and if, when I'm reading it aloud I keep tripping over the same spot, chances are that spot needs to be written better.

Do you work with music playing?

No.  I find any other noise very distracting.

Do you think these questions are dumb?

No.  I mean, other than this one.

What do you think of writeThis?

I don't know what that is.

Tell the truth this time...what do you think of writeThis?

I still don't know what that is.

You were born in America but do you consider yourself an American?

I'm an American under the occupation of the Europeans, they've
made an awful mess of our country but there is always a chance
that Crazy Horse will rise and take our land back.  If that happens,
you better believe we are going to deport a lot of decedents of
invaders starting with George W Bush.

Do you have groupies?

Yes, a few, but they only love me when they don't know me.  I keep going out with them, since I'm dying to be loved like that, but as soon as they know me they are over me.  That's right about the time I'm in love with them too (about two weeks or the third time we have sex, whichever comes first).  If someone would both love me and know me I don't know what I'd do.

Is it masculine to perform Slam Poetry or is it kind of a sissy thing to do?

I don't think it is either.  Corbet Dean is no sissy.  I am, but I don't think my work is especially sissy.  I read with Chuck Palahniuk in Seattle.  He was a real sissy but his book, Fight Club was pretty

What are the dark nasty secrets of the Slam Poetry world?

Slam is new enough that a universal standard doesn't really exist, which in a lot of ways is worse then it being awful, because it is so unpredictable.  In one community it'd be cut throat, or self indulgent or egomaniacal another loving and supportive and kind.  When these communities cross paths they just don't understand each other.  It becomes a dog eat kitten world.

There's a lot of gossip and back biting in any performance field, but I think it is worse in poetry because money doesn't come along with fame so it is harder for people to see it for what it is.

New people depend on people who already know you to get an idea who you are.  It gives your friends a lot of power to hurt you or support you and hopefully, in high school, you learned this and make sure you have good friends.  Now imagine for every person who knows you there are 100 who think they know you and talk about you as if they do.  Imagine that some of them see you as a rival to defeat on their own way to success.

Before slam, poets didn't cross communities nearly as much as they do now.  There's a lot of good things about that, but the big bad thing is hurtful, cruel gossip.

The dark nasty secret of writers is that almost all of us started out as big fat liars.  Every little kid who is getting in trouble for making up lies is a future writer.  At some point most of them learn to apply their active imaginations to the page.  They don't always learn to confine it there though.
The dark nasty secret of poets is that almost all of us are insecure fuck ups.  If we could get along with other artists we'd be in a more lucrative creative field.  If we could deal with criticism we'd make a more popular art.  Put these nasty secrets together and there's more divisiveness and dishonesty than sincerity and honesty in a room full of poets.  Not only that, but sincerity and honesty is either looked at as a trick or a terrible threat.

I get really upset when people are stupid enough to believe some of the bullshit that gets said about me, yet, I end up getting sucked into some line of bullshit about someone else too and end up feeling really stupid when I find out it wasn't true.

People will forgive you when you fuck them over.  You say you are sorry and you move on and stay friends and they don't share what happened with the world.  What people won't forgive you for is when you let them fuck you over.  They are so afraid that you are now going to tell everyone and ruin their lives that they come up with a cover story and just trash you as fast as they can.  And then you have to live with it.  You can't even try to set people straight because they'll hate you more for denying it.  And it does become hateful fast.

Dealing with it is a lot harder for me because I have Tourettes Syndrome, a medical condition that gets worse if I'm faced with animosity or stress.  When someone gets confrontational with me my ticks get worse, I have trouble speaking, I jerk and flail and people don't think I've got a medical condition, they think I'm very upset, or they think I'm threatening.  Things escalate very quickly, I end up in a hospital and it never looks good for me.

Who is doing who, who paid off judges to win?

The person to ask about that would be Jason Pettus: www.ilovejason.com He published a slam gossip rag called The Tattler and usually has the scoop, especially on who might be sleeping with who.

Who is your nemesis?

You are really trying to get me in trouble aren't you?

At first, the only rivals I had were people that wanted to sleep with the person I was sleeping with and the shit talk was limited to things that were directed at her.  She heard so much of it that for a while she didn't know what to believe and we actually ended up getting into big fights. Eventually she got on the receiving end of some gossip and figured it out.  Even then I wasn't known enough to be gossiped about farther away than our communities.  If you aren't known by people who don't actually know you, you are flying under the radar.

The first time I got any real shit was in 1999 when a poet from Australia that I set up a show for unexpectedly canceled a few days before the event. I tried to find out what the problem was and how I could fix it rather than disappointing everyone I'd gotten hyped up. What I found out was that at her show in Austin, another poet had told her that my show would be a waste of time.  I hardly knew that poet other than having come in first at a slam that he came in second at, and publishing the poetry of one of his friends in a little zine I was doing at the time, and taking one of his poems for an anthology I was editing (that hadn't come out yet).  Really, I hardly noticed the guy.

It turns out that the whole time I'm trying to work things out on the phone with her he's there too, trying to keep things from getting worked out.  She ends up crying and he ends up on the phone yelling at me for making her cry.  It was a nightmare. She ended up coming and doing the show after I'd sent out a notice that it was canceled so half the crowd wasn't there and the press wasn't there.  The guy who started all the trouble came too so it was really tense for me, and she hasn't spoken to me since.  I think the two of them were flirting with each other but I don't know for sure.  I should have said something about that in the diatribe I went off on earlier about gossip.  I think a lot of this shit comes from people trying to sleep with each other.

A couple of years later I managed to be on the tour from hell. One of my touring partners had this knack for getting upset with me and not telling me what her problem was.  It was very frustrating because she was quick to tell our hosts what an awful person I was and everywhere we went new tensions were created.  I gave it my best shot and had to give up.  I think the last thing I said to her was that if we don't talk this out she has to go home.  That only made her madder and for a month we were in England doing the same gigs but not being partners.  It was brutal.  Casualties to that situation were a poet in Syracuse, another in Bristol England and one is San Antonio (who I'm pretty sure was also interested in her sexually or romantically or both).

The tour from hell didn't end there.  A few months later I'm on tour with another poet who (and I don't know this at the time) has been subjected to a shitload of gossip about how awful I am to touring partners.  She doesn't talk either, but damn if she doesn't drink.  If I thought the last touring partner was bad, this one is over the top.  At an outdoor festival show in Harvard Square, I'm doing the reading by myself with people like Billy Barnum there and the other poets are in the House of Blues getting drunk instead.  Not only that, but they were mad at me for getting paid and not collecting their reading fee money for them.  And madder still that I should say you only get the reading fee is you
read.  Half way into that tour I replaced my touring partners with new poets and finished things fairly uneventfully. There were casualties though.  A couple in central Mass that haven't had me back since, my girlfriend at the time, I still don't know how much she was a victim of the bullshit or a cause of it.

At Slam Nationals that year, in Seattle, I had a little run in with a poet who had been told by that touring partner that I was taking credit for getting him his book deal.  In that case we were able to resolve things really quickly because he was so straight forward about it.  People don't usually say, "I heard this" and that's just what he did.  We were never friends but we ended up not being enemies and that's good.

A couple of days later there was a poet from Worchester Massachusetts, and I really don't know all of the details of this since I never got a straight answer from him, but as much as I understand he wanted to read at the Native American showcase and got the idea that I didn't let him.  I was an organizer of that event before and after, but I wasn't that year and I had nothing to do with it, but he started screaming at me on the street and that was really bad for my medical condition.  I had to get away from it as fast as I could or have a seizure.  After we were home I e-mailed him trying to resolve it.  I told him that because of my medical condition I can't put myself in a situation where there is likely to be stress, and I had a featured reading at his home venue a few months later.  He said not to worry about that, that he had already had my featured reading canceled.  He also said that he's later learned that I had nothing to do with his being excluded from the Native American Slam, but that it was wrong of me to not stand there and take his abuse because he was angry and that made it okay.  There was a girl I liked in Syracuse but we managed two dates before that came up and at least played a part in our not having a third date.  To be honest, she'd heard other gossip about me as well, when she was in California.  Actually, that I was a womanizer, which I thought was cool.  My image of a womanizer is a Tony Curtis or Dean Martin type, suave, cool, sexy --- everything I'm not.  I was really sad at the time but it never would have worked.  She was way too easily taken in by gossip.  Too bad though, she had a lot of talent.  As far away as Vancouver BC Canada I'd had a version of that story thrown back at me.  He himself did the closest thing to an apology I expect I'll get, coming up to me after a slam in Westfield Mass and telling me he liked a poem I'd done.

Let's see, I'm sure there are more: I haven't ever read in Memphis and most likely never will because the guy that runs the poetry scene there has the idea that I'm a bad person.  We've never met and I've tried to get to the bottom of it without success.  Who knows what bit of bullshit gossip became his reality. At the next slam in Minneapolis some woman violently hit the flyers I was handing out as she walked by.  God only knows what she was thinking or why.

In Boston, I had the members of a local band throw things at me and disrupt my reading so badly that I hardly got through one poem and ended up spending most of the night on the verge of a seizure.  That was pretty much over girls too.  The members of the band wanting to fuck someone who I've fucked, or they think I've fucked, or they think would fuck me if I wanted or some shit like that.  One of those girls isn't my friend anymore and that is a big part of why.

Most recently, the person who runs the Ithaca slam just blocked me from competing in the grand slam.  I was the front runner and most likely would have been on the team had I been given the chance.  I complained to PSI and after a cursory look let them get away with it.  You can be sure there will be hell to pay for that one.

I claimed disability discrimination and got mobbed with people I don't know e-mailing me and posting messages on my live journal telling me it wasn't because of my disability, but because of some bit of gossip or some other bit of gossip.  That's the thing. Gossip doesn't just effect what people think, it effects how people treat you.  It is really harmful and it infects people like rows of dominoes.  One person can fuck up your relations with dozens in a community and even spread out into others, usually not for something you did, but for something they did and want to cover for.

Are you  going to write a tell-all book about your time in the Slam Poetry Industry?

I hadn't planned to but that's a thought.  Maybe I should.

Do you consider yourself a 'poet'? A 'writer'? An 'entertainer'?


Have you been drunk when doing a 'slam'?

I don't drink.

Have you been sober when doing a 'slam'?

Always, I don't drink.
Have you lied in this interview?

No, but I've left out things that wouldn't make me look good, which is almost the same thing.

Do you have any sort of ritual or superstitious behaviors you must perform before actually doing your show? Like eat the same thing, or clap three times and spit once to the left and rub your throat or something like that?

No.  I like to get to a reading several hours early, see if there are posters up with my name on them, with my picture, saying something about me and what, and walk around the area too, handing out flyers, seeing if anyone knew about the show, meet the first poets to get there and talk with them.  I don't think it is superstitious, but it does give me a feel for what my audience will be like and what pieces I should do.  I don't always get to do that, and I don't feel bad when I don't, but I don't think I have as good a show.

President Bush....good or evil?

Like any puppet, G W Bush is whatever the hand up his ass is.  In this case, his dad's so yeah, there's some evil there.  I mean, there's no proof he was the gunman on the grassy knoll, but he was in Dallas at the time, and he was working for the CIA at the time...

What is your opinion on Transhumanism?

I like to play with blocks.

Who was more influential on humanity Kant or Descartes?

Descartes, even though it wasn't true.  If it was, everyone who doesn't think isn't, and we all know that isn't true.

Who do you think would win these fights?:

Superman -vs- Incredible Hulk?
Batman -vs- Punisher?
Robin -vs- Spiderman?
Justice League -vs- X-Men?
Joker -vs- Kingpin?
Penguin -vs- Green Goblin?

I'd rather see them sit down and talk out their differences, work together for the common good.  Imagine how much they could acomplish with all of the energy they spent attacking each other?

Dates or names of your books?

Dates, hell, we don't even have an agreement on title, cover art, blurb, or content.  Every few months I submit a new vamping and every time it gets shot down and I'm told to try again.  My next book, most likely titled, Rules, is most likely a year away.

But you can link up my past books.  www.alibris.com has everything that's out of print.

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