As every gleeful literary gossip was reminded during last month's ascot-flinging dustup between the New Yorker, the Poetry Foundation, and the New York Times Book Review, poets love to talk shit about one another. Ever since the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus told his colleague Emil that he had "jaws that usually gape like the open cunt of a pissing mule" (depending on your translation), lines have been drawn, territory has been staked out, and pot shots have been lobbed between poetic "communities" (Frank O'Hara on Robert Lowell: "What's so wonderful about a Peeping Tom?").

Contemporary poetry's shit-talking tension—when it isn't raging between the New Yorker's Harvard grads and the Poetry Foundation's Stegner Fellows—boils over most quickly, and most enjoyably, when "stage" poets find themselves in the same room with "page" poets.

Willfully déclassé "stage" performers like Martin Espada and Anne Waldman bite their thumbs at the stage-shy "page" types like Lyn Hejinian and Harryette Mullen—and the followers of each camp greet their rivals with equal parts bafflement and antagonism: Harold Bloom, in the Paris Review, calls slam poetry "the death of art." The Green Mill Slam Team in Chicago responds, "The pen is mightier than the sword, when I jab it in your neck!"

The tussles—and the rest of the world's continued indifference—have produced a certain amount of hand wringing from poetry's schoolmarms, who would much rather everyone just got along peacefully. Their anxiety makes sense. Since the poetry world has shrunk to fit its tiny cultural box, the vapid, tin-eared hack you call out in print might very well turn out to be the arts council director reviewing your grant application, so it's not the worst idea to go along with getting along.

Which makes it all the more enjoyable that this year's three-day Seattle Poetry Festival—taking place at Richard Hugo House, Pravda Studios, and Chop Suey—has drifted away from its secure slam roots and into the anxious world of the contemporary in-between. The organizers have made the festival into a place where "page" poets like Mary Jo Bang and Richard Kenney (poets whose work is best appreciated at home, alone, book in hand, silently) are lined up alongside "stage" poets like Gabriel Teodros and the slam consortium Suicide Kings (poets whose voice and presence are more valuable than the words).

The festival begins Friday night with a "Poetry Mashup"—DJ Vital somehow pitting "hiphop versus Alexander Pope and the Rape of the Lock," setting the tone for what could either be three days of transcendent juxtaposition, or a jumbled weekend of antagonism and ennui. Either of which is better than a self-congratulatory blurb fest.

Richard Siken, one of the festival's showcase poets, is a wonderfully in-between performer whose delivery is as mesmerizing as his lyricism. His first book, Crush, won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2005 and could be enjoyed Ashbery-style at home, alone, but it would be a shame to miss the chance to hear poems such as "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out" aloud. "Dear So-and-So," Siken writes, encapsulating the more traditional kind of poetic mashup, "I'm sorry I came to your party and seduced you/and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing."

Of course, the schizophrenia of most poets who don't easily fall into any rigid category is what's most enjoyable and truly "representative" in contemporary poetry. One example in this year's festival is Michigan poet Christine Hume, who brings a heady aggression to the often too-well-preserved worlds of surrealism and feminism. "Red puckered Os are lipstick prints all over my foot," she writes in the poem "Interview." "Their one joke is a kissing noise on the floor when I walk."

Plus, this year, there seems to be a conscious effort by the organizers to push the boundaries of what might be considered poetry at all. So we have Bruce Beasley discussing Lord Byron and neuroscience, Melinda Mueller presenting the lyric language of DNA, and Shin Yu Pai delving into visual art and literary inspiration.

The whole thing is capped by the Seattle Poetry Slam's 2007 Grand Slam at Chop Suey on Sunday night, and we can only hope that some discordant friction will have spilled over into dreadlocks-versus-sport-jacket street fighting by then. More likely than a fight, though, is just standard poetic awkwardness—a heckle or two at a staid podium reading, some derisive snorts at a high-volume slam—which might eventually give way to genuine conversation about what poetry is and where it can be found in American culture. SPF's quick answer: everywhere.recommended

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