Open Nike

Poetry - Helena Echlin on how the ethos of performance poetry sold out to big business

The scene is the Get Me High Lounge, a run-down little joint in Chicago, and the year is 1985. There's winter slush on the floor and graffiti on the walls, but the crowd don't seem to mind. They are mesmerised by the poets reading, or rather performing, their work: as aggressive as punk rock, as in-your-face as encounter theatre, as rhythmic as rap. After each poem, the audience applaud furiously. Although they don't know it, they are witnessing the birth of a new art form, the poetry slam. This is poetry that is as much about the stage as about the page, poetry that belongs not in a salon but in a saloon.

Invented by the poet Marc Smith to make poetry more crowd-pleasing, the slam now has a set formula. Groups of entrants have three minutes on stage to recite a poem. A randomly selected audience member judges the poets on a 1-10 scale, and rounds continue until only one poet is left standing. From Chicago, slam spread rapidly to New York, Boston and San Francisco. Smith organised the first National Poetry Slam in 1990 and there are now hundreds of slams across the US every week.

Slam is, in fact, so popular that its stars can command a larger audience than will fit in regular bars or cafes. They can perform on Def Poetry Jam, a creation of the cable TV channel HBO (and now a Broadway show). They can get agencies to represent them, such as New York's Global Talent Associates, and they can earn sizeable fees for performances. These days, a successful slam poet is more likely to live in a fashionable loft than in a garret.

Although there are no restrictions on what you can recite, a slam style has evolved (run-on sentences, emphatic repetition and blunt vernacular) and so has a typical slam subject matter. Bittersweet confession is popular and so is bitter social commentary. This is partly because the slam poet has to keep one eye on his scorecard, and it's easier to whip up an audience with words like "revolution".

Another reason that slam poetry is often savage is because the slam is democratic. Because anyone can step up to the mike, the under-represented get to have their say, and they are often angry. A disproportionate number of slammers are from ethnic minorities. And it's no coincidence that the hottest place to slam in New York, the Nuyorican Cafe, is a nonprofit organisation whose mission is to give the marginalised (blacks, Latinos) a platform.

It didn't take advertisers long to notice the commercial potential of slammers. Slam had a following in the youth market that many brands hoped to corner. Never mind that slammer values are usually in direct opposition to those of corporate America. Nike was the first to decide that a megabrand could make use of the open mike. In 1998, Nike asked a number of spoken-word poets to compose paeans to prominent female athletes, to be used in ads shown during the Winter Olympics.

At least one poet, Martin Espada, reacted with horror. Nike was lambasted in his open letter to its advertising agency: "I will not associate myself with a company that engages in the well-documented exploitation of workers in sweatshops."

In fact, Nike could have been a Fair Trade coffee company and it would still have been wrong, by slam standards, to write its ad copy. As Marc Smith put it: "No group or individual or outside organisation should be allowed to exploit the Slam Family . . . Success for one should translate into success for all."

But some could not resist selling out. Twenty-five professional poets responded to Nike's request, and poems by two of them became part of the four-commercial Olympic campaign. Nike inspired other brands. This year alone, Nissan employed "Sypher1", a spoken-word poet, to travel across the country in a customised Nissan Altima, spreading what the press release describes as "her positive message" (buy Nissan, presumably). And Pontiac unveiled the Vibe, designed for hip young things, with slammers singing its praises.

Ironically, the form that sought to undermine the status quo is now being co-opted by it. Most likely, the poetry slam will go the way of rock music, another American art form energised by ethnic subcultures. It will splinter into struggling indie artists and a hand- ful of mainstream stars - those who write protest poetry and those who write poetry for Pepsi.

Helena Echlin is a novelist living in San Francisco