Slam: A Poetry Revived

What most people ignore about poetry is that it is ever-changing, always evolving. Long gone are the days of rigid and complex text as norm for poetry. The poetry of today in particular must be read out loud. Poetry readings are not as popular as they could be, even though some of the most poignant poetry in literature is recited by students in English classrooms, across the United States and the globe. An extension of these poetry readings is slam, with high degrees of spoken word. Slam is competitive and performed by the author himself or herself. A popular view of slam is defined by the competition and rage we see on stage. Slam is more than a competition; it is about building a thrill and connection to the audience, which can only be accomplished by a true poet.

The experience of poetry is what one makes of it. That could not be truer in the case of slam. If one is part of an audience, in the suburbs of a city coffee shop with dim florescent lights spotlighting a lone microscope, and an MC introducing the next performer, do not be quick to criticize. When she timidly gets up on stage and thanks the audience, and tells them the name of her poem, do not be taken aback if she recites her poem with urgency. The force in which she recounts her poem, build up a momentum that might mesmerize an audience, if only briefly. Being part of a slam audience involves staying open-minded to the experience, letting go of the notion that poetry must be read in a controlled tone.

A major component of slam poetry is definitely its competitive edge, so the previous scene will typically play out on stages or auditoriums, through team or individual performances. The academia world criticizes those on stage calling themselves poets because of slam’s competitive edge. Great poets do not need to compete on stage, they say. I actually had a professor express a similar viewpoint when I shared with him a slam poem. He surprised me when he suggested that the poem was not real poetry. Performance poetry like slam is rich in emotion, leaving room for the misinterpretation that those emotions are artificial, just for show or rather, for the competition. The view becomes that real poetry is deeper than emotions. If that were the case, what do we call real poetry?

Poetry is more than aesthetically pleasing pages. It is rhythms and unique perspectives exposed. Kathleen O’Dwyer, teacher and philosopher, writes “poetry touches the core of the human being… [reminding] us of the basic contradiction between our essential solitude and our equally essential connection with others” (“Why Poetry Matters”). Poetry speaks to the human experience, which involves more than the ability to think. The human experience includes the ability to feel and to connect to others—slam is able to do that, and it may be doing so with increasing rate. According to Poets.org, slam began in 1986 when the slam movement was born from a reading series at a jazz club in Chicago (“A Brief Guide”). Ever since, slam has taken the nation by its collar and a much needed focus on poetry has resurfaced in a world bombarded with technology.

What slam is now doing in particular is tying the intellectual to the emotional and the social. Slam touches all three human degrees by its competitive nature, but not everyone recognizes this. Critics like Yale University’s Harold Bloom denounce slam, saying that “the whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art” (Somers-Willett, 21). In other words, Bloom believes slam is poetry’s deterioration. As Somers-Willet interprets it, Bloom finds that slam sacrifices quality for entertainment purposes, though slam is actually sticking to “slam poetry’s commitment to pleasing its audience” (22).  Bloom’s view symbolizes a traditional school of thought, who believes a piece must follow routine to be called poetry, such as remaining on the page. Nonetheless, a poem is but scribbles in a notebook if it does not have an audience. Through slam, poetry reaches its audience at an entire new intensity, so perhaps, Bloom meant to say slam is the revival of poetry.

This revival is in part due to a younger generation’s love for performance poetry. The involvement of youth in slam is evident in Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s 2010 documentary, Louder than a Bomb. Throughout the film, we follow the lives of four teenagers as they prepare to compete in a Chicago competition by the same name. The winner is seventeen year old Adam Gottlieb, whose trademark is a beret and curly hair (though his personality is not coffee shop material). He is known as the most charismatic—“[they] love him; he’s a superstar,” says Kevin Coval, co-founder of the competition. Adam, indeed, immerses himself in the people of the competition, not the competition itself. Like many competitors, Gottlieb knows that slam is about the experience. The Louder than a Bomb competition’s motto rings true: “The point is not the points; the point is the poetry.” It is no one’s place to judge a poet, but a competition calls for a first place winner.

Slam is also an effort for eloquent youth expression, which deserves more praise. Poetry offers guidance for those still unsure of what to do with their own voices. When I first started writing poetry at thirteen, for example, a voice is exactly what I was trying to find. I have only performed spoken word at open mics, and with that non-competitive exposure, I already know that facing the stage requires courage. With courage also comes development as a person and poet. If a poem lacks substance, the poet will not make it far in a slam competition, and most of these young poets have the talent. It is time to acknowledge youth’s potential and side with  Kevin Coval when he says “the way we judge kids and their intelligence, maybe we have that wrong, and maybe it’s in part… we don’t incorporate the reality of their lives enough into their educational space” (Louder Than a Bomb). When a slam poet dares to show a full house that he or she is more than words stringed together, we see poetry for what it has always been: a reflection of the human soul that has no age. The youth of today deserve more credit for their thoughts, and through poetry, many of them can now express their knowledge.

Additionally, competitive poetry is a mechanism to bring out the poets in those of us willing to become poets. When a poet is placed in the position to compete, the poet is able to bring his or her best to the table. Slam emphasizes the need to reach out to an audience, using creativity, smarts, and the heart. Often, people who are new to slam are overwhelmed by the intensity of a performance and are unable to recognize that what they are hearing is poetry. Slam is not meant for the page, but it may start there. Instead, slam is destined to be heard. Some slam poets, however, can publish a text version of their work, which is likely to be accompanied with a recording of the poet’s performance. Slam, to stay true to its genre like any other poetry must follow a set of rules, one of which is to stick to three minutes in length. Most importantly: a poet should give a performance, not a mere reading. A slam poet must take vocal delivery to an entirely new level. Only then can an audience allow itself to fall into the rhythm of breaths, pauses, and the rise and fall of a voice.

An audience’s reception of a poem is thus a reflection how well the poet executed the poem. For a slam poem be remembered, some poets develop the misconception that it must show anger. Even though, an angry poem may gain attention, without content and meaning, it will not go far in the competition. In the 2007 national competition of Brave New Voices, the team from Philadelphia wins despite one of the member’s shouts and tears on stage. The poet was Alysia Harris and she was reciting “That Girl,” a break up poem dedicated to her boyfriend in the audience. Like many great slam performances, a record of her performance is available for generations to hear on YouTube under channels such as HBO’s Brave New Voices playlist. Through the YouTube video, we see that Harris barely looks into the audience. At several points in her poem, it sounds as if she is caught in a rant, but her words still manage to reach the audience. As she shakes off tears and ends her poem, she says, “I’m fighting for respect because I will never be content with [… ] being your something on the side […] I’d rather spend every night crying alone in my bedroom floor than to ever be that girl.” The poem is indeed a rush of emotions, giving the impression that it is only a means for Harris to give off steam.

On the other hand, Harris is dong more than exposing a broken relationship. She is recounting a lesson in self-respect. She has learned to value herself through someone who did not appreciate her outside of bedroom sheets. This ability to put things into perspective and express one self’s evocatively, shows that being a young poet does not disqualify one’s poetry from being mature. In fact, Robert Frost once said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat […] A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words” (“Acquainted with the Night”). Harris was able to express the lump in her throat, turn it into poetry, and deliver that emotion to her audience. Slam is that effort to tie together thought and emotion. Frost himself “drew large crowds to his immensely popular poetry readings, which he preferred to call ‘poetry sayings’” (“Acquainted with the Night”). I believe that Frost knew that verbal recitation helped reach his audience. The slam poets of today are doing the same, but with a sense of urgency that youth nourishes.

Slam is about expertly weaving poetry into the competition, through passion and connection to an audience. Though slam has an element of performance, its true essence is poetry. Slam is in fact a poetic movement. Poetry was never meant to stay on a page to gather dust; it was meant to be read out loud. The way I see it, performance poetry is one of the truest forms of poetry. A poem that is performed is likely to be received exactly as the author hoped it would be. Whether it is through anger or tenderness, the poem’s tone will be deciphered easily. The points and emotions are all part of the slam experience. The poets with the courage to express the human experience of pain and growth, and who hold the talent to express the lumps in their throats make it far. Slam cultivates passion in youth, so by the time they reach old age, they are still writing, speaking in rhythm, and breathing poetry.

Works Cited

“A Brief Guide to Slam Poetry.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 2012. Web. 18 Nov.  2012. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5672&gt;.

“Acquainted with the Night.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media. 26 Mar. 2011. Web. Transcript.

“Brave New Voices: “That Girl” (HBO).” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Apr. 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t7UsbvF4qY&gt;.

Louder than a Bomb. Dir. Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel. OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, 2010. Film.

O’Dwyer, Kathleen. “Why Poetry Matters.” Edge Magazine. The Edge, Aug. 2012. Web. 17  Nov. 2012. <http://edgemagazine.net/2012/08/why-poetry-matters/2012&gt;.

Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the   Performance of Popular Verse in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,  2009. Print.

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