My Top Books of 2011: Words in Your Face by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Part of the reason why I decided to start writing book reviews is because I compiled a list of “My Top Books of 2011” on Facebook and it got eaten by the trolls of the internet. Twice. Clever commentary and all. However, I’d still really like the world (or, more accurately, my friends) to know which of the ~30 books I read in 2011 I liked best, and I don’t think there’s a more appropriate book to top off this list than Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s “Words in your Face,” a history of the New York slam scene.

I acquired this book in April of 2011 when I was lucky enough to book a poetry reading with Aptowicz and her partner, Shappy Seasholtz, at Columbia College. I was familiar with both of their works beforehand, but I had an opportunity to purchase their books from them in person. I asked Cristin which books were her favorite. Without hesitation, she handed me a copy of “Words in Your Face.” It wasn’t until a few months later, while I was on my way to New York to do my own poetry reading, that I cleared my queue of reading assignments and poetry books that finally got a chance to read it. This book came to me at exactly the right time — I’d finished school and was trying to do the whole “poet” thing for real. “Words in Your Face” is filled with advice, even including two bullet-pointed lists of different slam strategies, along with interviews with poets who have been successful both inside and out of academia and slam; it’s also infused with Aptowicz’s experience as a “third wave” New York poet, forging a new community as a young college student . Aptowciz details her experience starting the NYC-Urbana team, which won the National Poetry Slam in its first official year.

Through detailing the history of such places as the Nuyorican Cafe and people like Bob Holman and Saul Williams, among others, Aptowicz is able to explore the cultural position of slam poetry at differing points in history, starting just before the first poetry slam ever in the 80’s, and leading right up to the spawn of youth poetry festivals at the turn of the century. Further, this book will prove to be an important historical account of slam poetry, not just because it’s written by the co-founder of the NYC-Urbana Slam Team, but because of her unflinching criticisms of both contributions the slam poetry community, as well as its inherent flaws. Aptowicz is an unapologetic researcher, who includes pages upon pages of interviews, so that the book doesn’t just read as a memoir, but a thorough treatment of the history of slam, from the vantage point of New York City, which has taken home more titles at the National Poetry Slam than anywhere else (including my native Chicago, where the art form originated). Ultimately she proves that slam poetry has been an important force in forging a massive poetry community.

After finishing the book, it was obvious to me that I had found something really special. Although I was already a fan of Aptowicz’s poetry, she really has become a literary icon to me due to the amount of love and hard-work she invested into this fervent book. I really think most people wouldn’t have the guts to go through with a project like this, especially  if they didn’t procure any grants–the book is really a comprehensive history, and clearly took years to research and write. But her service to the art of poetry is evident, and I’m incredibly grateful for this book. I’m sure in decades to come we’ll see more expositions of “slam” history, but this one will likely stand the test of time and hold a significant place among them as being one of the first significant academic treatments of slam poetry.

I give this book a very enthusiastic ***** and recommend it to anyone interested (vaguely or passionately) in the developing art form and communities within contemporary poetry.

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