The first thing to notice about this performance, which comes from the final stage of the 2000 National Poetry Slam in Providence, RI, is how loud the audience can be BEFORE the poem starts. You can hear someone yell out “I love you Taylor” before I begin; but that’s tame! Sometimes that good-natured hooting and hollering can last almost 30 seconds, and if you’re not prepared for it you can lose your focus.
The second thing I notice is how short my hair is. I really do look like a Republican! The quirky laugh that I give to the lawyer twice is something I have stopped doing over the years because I think it’s distracting. Notice that when I take the mic off the stand, which I always do at the exact same moment, the sound quality becomes appreciably worse. I wonder why I didn’t hear that and move it closer to my mouth?
Lastly, of course, a pirated version of this exact performance has been on YouTube and received close to 4 million hits. Consequently, whenever I begin this poem today, depending on the venue, the audience is filled with people who either clap in excited anticipation or roll their eyes and groan, “Not THIS old poem again!”
The first thing I notice about this performance from 1996—when I was 31 years old—is that I move way too much. All that bouncing and flouncing and giggling around! Some might be explained away by greater internal stores of youthful energy, but what I recognize is someone who is trying to hide his jitters with excessive movement. Notice how I never stand with my body fully facing the audience; always I am at an angle. That’s a nervous habit that I have pointed out in hundreds of students since then, so it’s refreshing to see that I was guilty of the same back then.
As for the poem, which was already six years old by then, it was the first of a series of “parody poems” I have written that got me into a lot of trouble. I mock poets in general and specific poets in particular to throw them off their game, to make them worry about other things besides the best poem to send up in the slam. Notice how when I say, “I know what I’m talking about and you should too,” I thump my chest and make some gestures with my hand and the audience laughs for no apparent reason. What you need to know is that Bill MacMillan, my teammate that year, had done a wonderful poem that was entirely in a kind of sign language. My little maneuver probably got me a couple extra dimes from the judges because they thought, “This guy isn’t afraid to use his poetry to jab other poets!”
Lastly, I specifically remember screaming at a camera in the front row on the side. I had no idea who was filming or for what purpose. In my head I thought, “This will make great footage for someone somewhere even though I will never see it.” Turns out I was only half right.
I never got to see Saul Williams perform during the preliminary bouts leading up to the finals, so watching this video was a glimpse into a past I never knew. There are wonderful lines and plays on words here, and Saul works with sound so well. There is a sense of humor, too, which is so important in spoken word. The crowd is small from the sound of it, but they are into it.
It's interesting to note that the piece is too long by "modern" slam standards. The poem itself clocks in at about 3:25, which would have merited a full point deduction under the current rules, but probably didn't hurt Saul back when judges were merely advised that they "could deduct points if the poem went over the time limit." Historically, with such vague instructions, judges NEVER penalized long poems! That's essentially why the rule was changed and time penalties became automatic.
Like many great slam poems, "The Wussy Boy Manifesto" is steeped in self-righteous indignation, which is the highest scoring emotion in slam. Poems that essentially say, "How DARE you judge me for who I am!" provide the perfect vehicle for the perfect mix of pride, anger, and (as we have here) a little humor. Actually there's more than just a little humor here; BPE stays clear of anything dark or controversial (except for his colorful language) and keeps this very light. Some might say too light, but I enjoy it for what it is. Had the crowd been bigger he might have had a tougher time with what seemed to me like a "false ending" at 2:01 ("I am Wussy Boy. Hear me roar."), but poems were generally so much longer back then that I guess no one would have expected a poem to end after only two minutes. Lastly, notice and appreciate the quality of the video and audio! This definitely isn't Mums the Schemer shooting Saul Williams from the front row with one camera!
Taylor Mali is ON FIRE in at the finals of the National Poetry Slam in Portland Oregon. I enjoy the utter self-confidence, sharp intelligence, and almost evangelical energy he brings to the stage – perhaps the best-ever performance of this popular piece. I’m also impressed by Taylor’s clever technique of showing, not telling through devastating caricature. His final illustration by example of the importance of language is utterly convincing.
This poem climaxed my film SlamNation. Many more great ones by Taylor and others on the way.