Students piled into Goodrich Hall on Saturday evening to listen to Chicago-native Alvin Lau perform his slam poetry. According to his MySpace profile, Lau is “a two-time national champion and the highest-ranked Asian American slam poet in the world.” At one point he was also “the number-one ranked PokÃƒÂ©mon card player in the world.” Lau’s work has received many awards and has been featured on National Public Radio and two seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. His liberal-minded poetry explores more controversial topics and speaks on social justice issues. Lau wrote, for example, both an angry response poem to Tiger Woods’s quote, “I’m glad my parents were rich, because they stressed education and family,” as well as a reply to the English-only bill proposed in Arizona.
From his short but controversial haiku to his verses on racial inequality, Lau’s slam style inspired audience reactions that ran the gamut from indignation to general praise. Lau also beatboxed the French nursery melody “FrÃƒÂ¨re Jacques” and “pop-locked” to the words of his poem “For the Breakdancers.” Before the performance, I sat down with Lau to discuss the particulars of the slam poet’s process.
How do you feel about the commercial aspect of slam poetry? Does this affect the art?
The first thing I tell people who want to get into slam is that it’s bulls—-. Slam is a gimmick to fill the seats in the audience. The most important thing, you write good poetry and you perform it well. That’s all that really matters. People will reward you for that. I do agree, there’s a lot of commercialization in slam poetry. I got asked to do a commercial to Miller Chill, but I couldn’t do that – I do work for Amnesty International. It’s really cool that people can thrive off their art form, but they need to remember that poetry can save people’s lives. There are a lot of programs in Chicago for kids in the streets. I literally know a guy that was a gang-banger, who literally has killed someone, and he has stopped banging because he does poetry for a living. It can change people’s lives. Why squander that to do a commercial and earn 5K?
Do you think that poetry is a better vehicle to talk about more controversial issues? Do you keep this in mind when you sit down to write?
I definitely always have to keep the audience in mind when I’m writing. Some artists say, “Oh no, I just write poetry and people listen to them.” For me, when I look at art, I want it take me places that it’s never been. I know some artists who will come up here and say, “You know, I wrote my poem about Facebook today.” That’s cool, but you’re not challenging yourself. I don’t think you can have art without risk. Otherwise, you’re just giving people what they want to hear.
Where does your creative energy come from?
One of the big things that I really feel about this generation of artists, especially writers, is that it is the most illiterate generation I’ve ever met. A lot of people use slam poetry as an excuse to not read poetry. I pride myself in the fact that I read a lot. I spend a lot of time absorbing material. I probably read one hundred times more than I write. I pretty much just write anything that interests me. Some of my poems come from a frustration, like the poem about John McCain. Others come from heartbreak or a loss.
When you’re performing, do you take into consideration how the audience is reacting to your more liberal-minded poems?
Yeah, no doubt. For example, the poem about my sister [and another woman] getting married, if I only went to audiences that I knew would accept me – why would I read it anywhere? To me, I definitely want to go places that aren’t necessarily going to feel the same way as me. Now, obviously, it is a business and when I’m in Utah, I don’t read those kind of poems.
How did you get into slam poetry?
Basically, I saw a show. I saw a poet, Dennis Kim, who works on the West Coast now. When he read poetry, it wasn’t like watching someone recite words. It was like watching someone praying on stage. It was almost like a religious experience. I just decided one day – I need to do that for the rest of my life. If he can touch me so hard in one day – if I can recreate that for one person, then that will be worth it.