Bruce Neal was an active participant in performance poetry in the early 1990s.
He encouraged its growth and was a frequent figure in featured readings and open mics of the time. He was also a young advocate of taking chances with a literary form that was gravitating toward a distilled identity. With slam's earliest formative days behind it, the movement was less concerned with variety and more concerned with purifying itself as a form. Neal chose exactly this time to experiment and diversify his own output. As such, he enjoyed a love/hate relationship with the slam poets of the day.
Neal experimented by amplifying his performance and theatrical tactics above the norm for conventional drama and performance poetry. His charismatic nature resonated well with some contemporary slam poets. In turn, such charismaticism would become a stronger note in the chorus of slam poetry voices from Chicago. However, his performance approach also distanced him from some of the first generation of slam poets, who still had a significant presence in the local movement at the time. The first generation poets often preferred a more earnest approach to their writing and performances. Neal, in contrast, often embarked on darker, nihilistic poems. Thus, while he felt his audience was squarely among slam afficionados, Neal was often the object of a kind of backlash against what could be called goth' or punk aesthetics in the day.
But others admired Neal for his adventure and charisma that tested the audience's comfort and/or expecatations. The net outfall from this was a complected slam poetry movement in Chicago, wherein: a few artists calculatedly and self-consciously employed a higher charismatic performance, as Neal did; others unconsciously adopted a greater charismatic element in their work, imitating Neal's effects but not fully aware of their extension; some consciously reacted against such charismaticism altogether, so their performance poetry remained less dramatic. Artists often settle on their own balance of dramatic and written tactics per their individual tastes. But in general, the creative and critical merits of these choices remain open to consideration as of this writing.
In the time since the videos shown here, however, it became rather clear with time that the last option -- to use less charisma -- was not where slam audiences and judges ordinarily preferred to go. And, as repeated performances demonstrated, poets who emulated the charismatic tactics without consciously assessing and applying them, often devolved themselves into histrionic acts. Such poets rendered cliché slam performances, and thus diminished their own reputation and possibly the slam movement's as well. From the time of Utopian September (1992) and forward, slam became steadily more characterized by higher degrees of charismaticism in performance. The critical discussion then became less about whether or not charisma was employed, but rather how effectively it served the arts of performance and poetry. Bruce Neal was one of the earliest people in Chicago to prompt this conversation on poetry.
- Kurt Heintz, 2012