KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Poetry Slam Scene edited by Susan McAllister, Don McIver, Mikaela Renz, and Daniel S. Solis
(University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2008)
When the book A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Poetry Slam Scene crossed my desk, I had recently gone to see the Mayhem Poets (http://www.mayhempoets.com/) and was reminded of the power of the poetry coming out of the Spoken Word movement. I went on a field trip with first year college students, and the Mayhem Poets mesmerized my students, as well as the colleagues who went to see the group—that’s a 40 year age span!
The Mayhem Poets were not part of the Albuquerque Poetry Slam Scene, but the book is no less interesting. In August 2005, the Poetry Slam team from Albuquerque took top honors in the national competition, and this book traces the fifteen years that led up to this accomplishment. Different participants wrote essays that approach the building of the Slam movement in Albuquerque from a variety of angles, over 70 essays in all.
The essayists also include some poems, some of which work better on the page than others. Colleen Gorman’s “Jesus was a Mutt” weaves New Agey paganism (“His story repeats itself infinitely. / Mother Earth manifests herself as Changing Woman”) with interesting ideas about Jesus: “Jesus was a mutt/ Half Deity, Half Skin, / Skinny” (93); Gorman creates some striking connections between the two. Phil West offers interesting insights about parents of toddlers: “You’re trying to connect the dots and call SpongeBob educational television. He’s learned to name Bob before he’s learned to name Mom, Dad, himself” (page 87).
However, reading Spoken Word poems on the page occasionally reminds us that these poems were written to be performed, not read. To that end, the publisher includes a CD, with poems and radio spots. And even though listening on a CD is a paler shade of involvement than being at a live performance, it’s generous of the publisher to make the attempt.
The book also includes pictures, copies of the performance schedules, and a whole host of interviews and essays with people who are usually not heard from, like the volunteers who help run an event. It’s one of the more comprehensive books on the subject that I’ve ever seen. I first picked up this book hoping for a blueprint, something that would answer the question of how one creates a literary festival. Instead, the effect is more of a kaleidoscopic one, a set of shifting images, each one approaching the question from a slightly different view.
This book reminds us that community can be created in the most unlikely places, and that reminder is one of the more important elements of the book. We live in an age of reduced funding and reduced support in so many ways. It’s wonderful to remember what can come together for people who share a vision.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Assistant Chair of the General Education department. Her website, which has connections to the blogs that she keeps, is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.