Changing the Sigils
an interview with this year's Windy City Story Slam All-City Champ, Alex Bonner.
The biggest perk of winning the Windy City Story Slam All-City Championships (can you get a windier title than that?), says Alex Bonner, is that "next year me and Max [Glaessner, last year's Champ] get to stand up there with our belts and act ridiculous and no one else gets to."
The "belt" Bonner refers to is an oversized, red-white-and-blue boxing-champ style belt with the Chicago Skyline on it. Upon emerging triumphant from the Double Door, the newly crowned Champ proceeds to wear the belt all night, of course (wouldn't you?), while his friends lean against a The Wall painted wall and crack wise about him going into bars wearing nothing but and demanding top-shelf comped since he's "King of the City now and shit", with "Married With Children" blaring in the background.
In the weeks leading up to the competition, Bonner says, "I was just standing in my Grandmother's basement screaming at myself." His brother Brendon, sitting in the chair across from him, smiles and nods knowingly. "I'd go over and over it, making sure it wasn't confusing...take it apart, rewrite everything that didn't feel right until it felt better in my voice. Sometimes I was just punching the paper like 'Goddammit!'" he adds, laughing. To truly prepare for a Slam, of course, one needs the element that drives the Slam- an audience. So Bonner breathlessly practiced his stories ad naseum at friend's band shows and open mics across the city.
"Writing for a Slam is different from trying to get published in literary journals...it's a little bit more like how I would write a poem...it's putting your ideas into action...I try not to be just funny, or just snarky, or just showy. I try to make it more of a combination...I like to start out by joking around a lot and then get really really weird and serious, and then end with a joke". After having gone through that tension, the audience laughs harder, he says.
Pipe Cutters & Time Travelers
I first met Alex Bonner in a fiction class at Columbia College. His stories were a mix of mind-blowing, mystical science fiction and gritty, funny true stories involving tweaked-out pipecutters and time travelers.
As a kid, Bonner bounced around between North Carolina and Chicago; but, he says, "Chicago is home."
When asked how he feels about winning, he says, "Well, y'know, I've always wanted to be on winning team...I've lost many All-City Championships, y'know?" he laughs, "I didn't really know there was going to be a prize or anything, so the laurel wreath is nice...it means something, you know?" after all the hard work that comes with the territory of being a struggling writer, he says, to win something, "that means a little bit."
A Literary Mosh Pit
In typical egalitarian Slam fashion, the winner of the bout is chosen by audience approval; whoever screams the loudest. The "literary mosh pit" that is the Windy City Story Slam was created by boxer and Columbia grad/prof Bill Hillmann in 2007, after visiting Chicago's own Green Mill in Uptown, birthplace of the Poetry Slam. According to legend, Marc Smith (so what?) created the slam to get his drunk friends to listen to his poetry. Slam exploded the poetry scene in the 90s, turning the stereotypically droningly dull (or, more charitably, ethereal and moving but...quiet and polite) poetry read into a romping, stomping, roaring arena, launching poets like Saul Williams and Patricia Smith into the national spotlight and spawning several international competitions, many of them empowering voices that aren't typically listened to in stuffy, dusty academic forums; teenagers, outspoken queers, hip-hop artists; voices of the streets instead of the library.
Critics of the slam say that that slam poems can be low-brow, trite or unpolished; the language is simpler, more accessible, with more focus oftenput on the performance of the poem than the words.
The beauty and curse of the Slam is that if the audience doesn't like it, they'll boo you, making many artists better (though scaring others away), and if the audience loves it, they'll howl, lending the poetry read more of a rock-n-roll atmosphere. In this way, the audience is invited to interact with the reader. And the judges are picked randomly from the audience, which means that anyone's opinion is as valid as the next person's, whether they be Poetry Professor or Construction Worker. Scores ranging from 10 to negative infinity are added up and the winner gets something like a box of twinkies, and braggin' rights. Some artists have moved away from the competitiveness that Slam breeds recently, saying that art is not a contest. Still, the true spirit of slam lies not in the win or lose but in losing one's inhibitions and screaming your guts out to a merciless roman arena.
The Story Slam is a bit different but operates on the same basic philosophy, that "everyone's got a story". For one, there's the boxing theme, for another, the "judge" device is replaced by a simple "Applause-O-Meter" approach. A Story Slammer who is boring can be "cut" from the competition if the audience begins chanting "Blah Blah Blah!". Throughout the Finals performance, Hillmann often squatted at the side of the stage, sharpening what looked like two giant bowie knives.
I was getting nervous," Bonner jokes, "'cus Bill was up there with this bowie knife tappin' the back of my head." This, it should be noted, was at the end of the show, when Bill was flourishing the knives over the heads of each participant as the audience cheered for their favorite. Aside from a couple of chuckles and roars, the audience was pretty damn quiet while Bonner was in the midst of spinning his piece, sucked into the sphere of the story.
The Butcher is In
Indeed, the audience was unusually (for a slam) quiet throughout the final, with very little grumbling. Bonner says, "In early bouts you had to blablabla people offstage, or they'd just go on and on about nothing...but I dunno, I think the 'literary' crowd is a little different from...the poetry slams that spurned this a coupla years ago, that involved screaming and improv... they like to listen to the whole story and then come to a conclusion, and also this is not a rock show where you yell at the band, 'you're fulla garbage!' It's like I'm payin' 10 bucks to get in, why ruin the show? But that's not indicative of all [story] slams. A lot of the early ones took place at bars where no one knew what was going to happen. It was like a Roman arena, which is what it's all about, just regular people...in early bouts if you went over like 5 minutes 10 seconds you got kicked off the stage. But this is the finals, there's only five left, and the quality of the writing was really high, so Bill was more relaxed." And so was the audience.
The biggest groan came when the first slammer, Fernando Hernandez, went on way too long (describing) taking a piss onstage (shaking the piss from his dick, etc.), as Bill crept up on him, knives flashing, and scattered audience members blahed while others cheered in protest of the blahers (or support of the slammer, or both). The tale round the campfire had Hernandez claiming he made up the whole story, which mostly involved an angry drunk midget, on the spot, totally free-balled it, which I believe wholeheartedly. Regardless, Hernandez had an undeniable fire behind him, and he was the last to fall under Hillmann's gleaming knives to audience screams.
The other three readers, Nicolette Kittinger, Maggie Ritchie, and Alexis Thomas were weird, witty women, with gutsy pieces detailing working in a sex shop, being a narc, and other mystical wonderments.
This is the Truth!
The worst part of the slam was the opening acts. I missed most of the band, White Mystery, which sounded decent, but no one wanted to hear Hemingway's grandson, however nice he may have been or how interesting his book on his transgender daddy sounds, go up on stage for two long-ass interviews, and the opening readers were less than awesome (actually, I liked one of them, she had some crazy shit to say about wanting to watch children burn or something, but at that point I just wanted to get to the action really). In a competition where one is meant to take cues from the audience, I wouldn't recommend screaming "this is the truth!" when you start to bore them, especially if you have nothing memorable to say over the strains of Moonlight Sonata. Not to name names, since I know the sting of falling flat on my face in front of a crowd and I have an ounce of mercy in me, but "that made me question the entire event that they had that guy go up" as Richard Dugan said. Next year, we'd like to see the slammers hit the stage an hour or two earlier, please, three-people-reading-this-who-have-nothing-to-do-with-planning-anything-but-maybe-will-pass-this-along-to-relevant-parties-for-us-if-we-offer-them-a nice-tasty-Peace-Tea-reward. Thanks.
Bringing the Noise
Given the flawed nature of the "Applause-O-Meter" system, The Story Slam can become something of a popularity contest. "I didn't invite anyone to the first Slam, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without 'Friend Support'", Bonner says. Not so for the finals, he continues, "which I guess I shouldn't say because in America you're supposta try to hide that you're trying to gain support, it's that typical hypocrisy, like 'I didn't do this, The Friends did it'... I mean a lot of my friends are artists so I want to go see as much as I can, art shows, bands, plays...and hopefully if you have something that means a shitload to you people will come out..."
Bonner talks rapidly and energetically, sometimes gesticulating wildly or altering his voice to illustrate a point. It is difficult to get all his words down on paper fast enough. He often makes exaggerated statements, frequently referring to his views on what he jokingly terms "The Dark Side", and the need to create positivity in the world to combat it. He talks at length about his interest in Chaos Magic; that anything is possible, that you can make things happen by concentrating hard enough.
"I never thought I'd be performing at the Double Door. A lot of people don't get to do that in their lives. I decided that I would."
After working a series of mind-numbing jobs, Bonner tells me, he quit. He says he wanted to focus on his writing. "I realized I was not a cog, and I don't want to a cog in a big crazy machine, and nobody should be, it's the worst thing."
In 2009, Bonner co-founded (with Felix Pineiro) Bailout Pictures, an independent film company based in Chicago.
"With Bailout, we wanted to create a production company that could be an outlet for subversive films, as well as making some money, 'cus we gotta eat, too...But I do have a big belief in the need to work with small companies...I just wanna, I dunno, change the sigils that influence people...like you look out and see the giant McDonald's arches, you know, that control people, that take our identity... our generation is the first that can really see the tools of control and turn them on the oppressors and the machine...Bailout is our attempt to make something. Something of quality. Something other than...Transformers...'Buy our fine, heavy product with a serious radio and cupholders for your McDonald's and Pepsi Products and your 15 million dollar jetfighter!'"
Bailout produces a variety of commercial films. The company's mission statement reads, in part: "We want to create films...that are a little more dynamic and, dare we say, hip. However, if you have a certain look for your business, we will match it (even if it IS square)". No matter how Square the production, Bonner says, they always try to "mess with" the audience's conceptions. In a recent commercial for Fantasy Costumes, Robert Hines, dressed as a pimp, scolds the camera, "I coulda been a doctor in this you know."
Bonner notes that on TV, you don't often see African Americans portrayed as "slick, cool, intelligent", but typically, like Tracy Jordan, "crazy pants, not debonaire...even though I fucking love Tracy Jordan, but you know what I mean..."
"Even if we're shooting a commercial," he continues "we try to mess with them [the audience] a little bit", Bonner says, "get them to think about what they're buying, why they're buying it...we just try to mess with their reality a little bit...I mean it's not like I'm a genius or anything," he quickly clarifies, "I mean we're not geniuses, we're not Shakespeare, we're too TV. But we have an ideology, and a lot of people who are willing to work for free....we're just tryin' something, with some relative success....not just protesting, but making something.... we're just trying." And after all, sometimes that's all you can do. Try something.
Transformers: Robots in Disguise
Expanding on the Transformers metaphor, Bonner says "If anything, Bailout is more like Transformers the TV show than the movie, but I dunno if I wanna say that, but I like the idea that, 'maybe kids will buy these toys if there's a super-epic story attached to it'. And it's so dark. I mean the toys are fun but...so dark...it's this whole weird thing where adults wish they were inside the womb, like 'help me! I'm an American! I can't do anything by myself!"
The solution, as Bonner sees it, is to cultivate an intelligent and innovative approach to art, media, even advertising. And people are doing that, he says. "Colbert is the Voltaire of our time. He openly mocks his sponsors, 'Verizon Wireless: Now in Wylde Raspberry!"
When asked what his concept of reality is, Bonner laughs, "that's the problem, I'm driving myself slowly insane...like I really believe in Magick."
Bonner goes on to tell me about the 4th resonance, which has something to do with Einstein, and how maybe 99.9% of the phenonana act like it's supposed to, but there's that .1% of time that just can't be explained by science, and how that shook the world of philosophy, that you think therefore you are in dreams, after all, and even though you can't prove it, you can't disprove it either, so every law is possible... Scribbling furiously, it's hard to keep up with this dizzying array of theory. I had the idea to look it up for the article, but I'm pretty exhausted at this point.... you can do that, can't you? I mean, if you're really interested. Let me know what you find out...
In fact, there's been several drunken nights when Bonner, and others who think like him, have tried to explain to me about why they believe in magick, and willing things to happen, and how 2012 is going to be the time when the world does not end but a huge shift is coming, either in human energy, output, positivity, or something like alien visitation....I used to make fun of these postulations. Raised Catholic, I wasn't a big fan of bullshit posturing and the supernatural. But nowadays, I just wanna listen. Because, who really knows? Shit, if it gets you through the day and you're not stoning homosexuals over it, go forth and prosper.
So, I ask, what practical applications does Chaos Magick have? Well, he says, "there's that Vonnegut quote; we are who we pretend to be. So be careful who you pretend to be." And there you have it. If only more mainstream religions made that much sense.
But I hope chaos magicians won't be offended if I don't buy into actualization as magic. Because when Bonner says that he visualizes success and it happens, it reminds me of working at Borders and the Oprah-worshipers grasping for copies of the Secret from their sinking ships. I think you win a slam because you fucking practiced a shit-ton, not because you wanted it harder than anyone else.
But hell, maybe there is something magick, or at least unexplained, at work here; because just like the rest of us poor pathetic slobs who calls ourselves writers, no matter how bad, you, gentle reader, might think we suck, Bonner just has that special something, that drive, that itch, that fucking addiction. "I've always written" he says, "I've always been a writer. I had to let myself know I wasn't a musician."
"And I like adventures, and good times, and I have addiction problems" he jokes, when asked to describe himself, "I flirt with the dark side, I'm a liar..." (which, as far as I'm concerned, is total bullshit) "Well, there's good and bad addictions," he says, asked to elaborate, "Writing is a good addiction. Like I'm on a family vacation and I'm just like 'I just wanna write, leave me alone!' And smoking's not good for you, but I don't wanna be one of those fuckers who don't smoke, cause fuck those assholes" he laughs. Bonner says he tries to avoid the bad addictions- drugs he knows might fuck him up, video games. "If I spent half the time I spent on video games, I dunno, learning how to fix cars or some shit, I'd have a different life, but hey man, video games have influenced my writing and helped me connect with my generation. It's not a passing fad. There's a lot of vivid poetry and soul in video games."
I ask him if all this technology isn't making people farther apart and he says no, not if "these kids can build things with their lightning minds to bring positivity to humanity to the earth, instead of moving into darkness, contributing to money machines and oil wars."
So instead of bemoaning technology, we use it to our advantage. Like Bailout, making commercials, but making them a little bit edgier, hoping to work for the little guy and milk the big guy for what he's worth to make subversive films. Bonner also recently started a blog, the Buddha Lunchbox, gushing about the Olympics, poking fun at Hollywood, and paying tribute to Our Corporate Overlords.
2012: The Next Revolution?
" It would be great" he continues, "if these kids could make some lightning fast computers and we were all flying around in super awesome spaceships... just to prove humans are worth a shit cuz our parents dropped the ball. They shot everyone who asked those questions; King, Lennon. We've been told for years and years and years that we're better than tribes, that humans have a rightful ownership over the earth and other people, a right to kill people, because it's cool. How can I describe it?When I go outside I see people enjoying their lives...taking their pills to be happy and darting in all these different directions searching for purpose and meaning or some shit... and that's capitalism's concession prize, okay so you might hate your life but look you can have all these creature comforts like TVs ,sofas...I dunno, I mean there's gotta be a balance between crappy hippy dirty and suit clean big fast shiny, can't we just like combine the two? It would be great if on 2012 everyone just quit their jobs and focused on changing the world to the positive."
I ask Bonner if he believes this is possible, and he laughs and says, yes, "The Dark Side can't always win".