Poetry for Southern California
By Carlye Archibeque
Andy Hall was born in Los Angeles, but lived in San Diego, Enid Oklahoma, and upstate New York before moving to Las Vegas. He has earned an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing while also becoming involved in poetry slams. He was on the Flagstaff, AZ poetry slam team in 2002 and also the Las Vegas Slam team in 2003, and continues to pursue more academic accolades as every minute passes. He currently teaches freshman composition and world literature at UNLV.
With both slam team membership and a newly acquired MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles, Hall is the odd man out in a poetry community normally polarized by the strangely republican idea that you can be either a page based-academic-sonnet-writing poet, or a stage-based-memorizing-urban-word-slinging poet.
Carlye Archibeque: When did you begin to write poetry?
Andy Hall: I started writing song lyrics at age 15 in hopes that I would be a lead singer of a punk band some day. I ended up writing lots of folk songs, but I couldn't play guitar that well so I eventually gave it up. I have bad coordination.
CA: Did you find slam poetry or academic poetry first?
AH: I started reading at open mics in Las Vegas around 1992 when I was 19 years old. I was recovering from a bout of depression and drug use. I was exposed to slam in 1994 when the Lollapalooza tour kicked off in Las Vegas. They had some touring slam poets and held a competition to get on the big stage, but I was not interested in it then. I found it pretentious and irreverent towards art. I started taking classes with Claudia Keelan, a well-known poet at UNLV. She had just gotten hired there after her 2nd book The Secularist had won the Cleveland State University Poetry prize. I took her workshops and even audited her class later on repeating the process. I started to get into slams in Flagstaff, Arizona in the fall of 2000 while working on my first Masters. I was becoming more interested in performance poetry, and I always liked to entertain, so slams were a natural progression for me.
CA: What do you like about slam poetry? What do you dislike about it?
AH: I like the energy of it, and the democracy. It is an open mike reading on speed. I like the fact that a high school student can school a college professor. I dislike the over competitive nature it fosters in some poets. Also that it can and often does lead to cliché poems.
CA: What do you like and dislike most about academic poetry?
AH: There is something about reading silently, or reading something well crafted that is always nurturing. I dislike the word academic poetry or literary poetry since it implies something stern and rigid, but the need for literacy and literary writing is never more apparent than in my own personal life.
CA: What led you to study for your MFA at Antoich?
AH: Desperation (laughs). Seriously, I need the kick in the pants that an academic setting provides. Deadlines, goals, carrot and stick. Without academia, I'd sit in front of the TV all day and drool.
CA: For you, are slam and page/academic poetry kissing cousins or feuding neighbors? Can they co-exist?
AH: Well, I am kind of both. I mean, I can badmouth both, but to what end? In the end... it's all art. Slam poetry is a return to the oral tradition, but a good slam poem must be well written or composed. I think slam poetry is closer to theatre than poetry in the academic sense, but all the genres of writing intersect and mesh at some point.
CA: What dead academic poet would you like to see slam?
AH: Emily Dickinson and Whitman are naturals. Shakespeare would be a blast. Browning, Arnold, Keats, Stein.
CA: What do you look for in a slam poet? In a page poet? Where do the two intersect for you, if they even do?
AH: I tend to be biased towards humor in both realms. I love humor. I also like dramatic power in writing and performance. Emotion, well delivered.
CA: Some people (like me) would say that slam damages all that poetry intends: reflection, thoughtfulness, transcendence...what do you say to that?
AH: That would probably be because you haven't been exposed to slam poets who embody those qualities. But they are out there. I would recommend reading Patricia Smith, Gary Glazner and Bob Holman to name a few. Perhaps getting Poetry Slam (Manic D Press), which is edited by Glazner, might expose you to some of the poets who are writing quality poetry, page or stage. Also, The Spoken Word Revolution which was edited by Marc Smith, and contains essays and poems by Thomas Lux, Billy Collins and other "academics" and "slammers".
CA: Some might say that slam competitions don't reward the best work but the best performance? Is that true for you?
AH: Yes, except when I win. (Wink! Wink!)
CA: Who are some of your favorite slam poets? Page poets?
AH: In slam, I like Lucy Anderton, although she is a fine page poet too. I like Corbet Dean, the cop poet from Phoenix. I love Bill Campana, although he also works well on Page, but no one outside of slam or Phoenix has heard of him. I like Beau Sia too, especially his book that parodies Jewel. I like the hip hop poets too in slam, but I am not really an expert on that. I like Jeremy Richards, Hal Sirowicz and Morris Stegosaurus as well. On page I like Billy Collins, and I like the prose poems of Baudelaire. I am also currently into David Lerner, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Diane Di Prima is amazing!
CA: What living slammer would you like to see get an MFA in poetry?
AH: I think all of them should. I mean... my MFA experience has been so positive. Too bad we can't buy food with our good looks.
CA: If you were trying to explain the differences to someone who knew nothing about poetry, how would you describe the two camps?
AH: That Slammers tend to be more like punk rockers, and the academics are more like classic rockers. I don't know. I am not that big into analogies.
CA: If you went to slam heaven, who would make up your ideal slam team?
AH: Yikes! I would hope everyone would get along in Heaven. I'd like to see Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed have a go at it. I rephrased the question. Who would I want to see slam? Maybe have Wonder Woman take on Batman in a haiku death match?
CA: Where in the world do you think a guy like you with the heart of a slammer and the degree of a page poet will end up?
AH: God knows! But I can't stop slamming. And I can't stop paging either. Hopefully with a good job and a nice dog and a wife who puts up with my potty mouth.
CA: You did your last residency at Antioch with Chris Abani. How do you like him as a teacher? What are some of the best things you learned from him?
AH: Chris helps you find your aesthetic center. He doesn't try to make you write like him. He will find what you are trying to do and help you do it. I simply learned what was working and what wasn't and why, but it's pretty hard to explain it. It is very subjective on most levels.
CA: What's currently on your personal reading list?
AH: I posted a memo on my web log the other day asking for suggestions from fellow poet bloggers and I got tons, but most importantly are The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism which will take me a year, the new Harry Potter book, and The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck which I am reading because I am insane and need self help and more.
CA: Do you think studying poetry in an academic setting improved your work and/or your understanding of poetry and what it should be?
AH: Absolutely, and I would recommend it to anyone. There is nothing like being immersed in it, and Antioch in particular is a very nurturing environment. There is no competitiveness or egos (unlike the slam). Perhaps I am idealizing it too much, but it has been a godsend for me.