A Brief Conversation On Slam
Read this brief on point essay from 2008 about poetry slam. I’m at work, bored and found myself conversing with the article in my head.
“The oral traditions of poetry are in trouble, and performers like this are to blame, performers who believe that as long as words are being performed, they don’t have to be well written.”
I recently watched—and listened—as colleagues gave a poetry performance. It wasn’t so much a poem as it was shouted bullet points, designed to trigger cultural memories the performer has with the audience. Referencing elements from pop culture– commercial jingles, cancelled tv shows, the bridges of top 40 singles, triggered the audience to clap with recognition. Nothing said went anywhere or made any points. It was a quickly recited list. I love lists, myself. But, but! You have my attention– what are you telling me??? I was hoping to hear something, learn something, or be surprised by something. I lost interest before three minutes elapsed. My bad: I’m over 40.
“Newbies are quick to copy the mannerisms, and literary quality, of the performers they see. Soon, a homogeneous and predictable performance style develops”
I started with open mics in the mid 90s. Just prior to poetry slam’s ubiquity, two things shook up my community. The movie Love Jones and the man Saul Williams. Love Jones made people grab hidden notebooks and go hit up their local open mic nights. Saul Williams saw his unique voice sampled worldwide as if he were the Funky Drummer. Saul brought hip hop heads and chapbook minded poets together thru abstract imagery and rhythm. He pollinated the culture of spoken word just through being himself—and seemingly, I might add, with only a handful of poems: Ohm. Amythest Rocks. New poets infected by his style brought in storm waves of more poets to beach themselves at open mics. Many sounded like his children. Ain’t it funky?
“Usually the important word that requires this kind of illustration is a first-person singular pronoun”
One difference between Before Slam and After Slam– Before Slam people seemed more politically angry and engaged with the community, All Of Us. After Slam—it became all Me, Mine, and I—self concerns, inner demons and psychological musings. Often, not always, even second-person YOU poems conceal an invisible, victimized “I” in their narrative. “We” is French.
when I say, “tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms,” I mean the writing is unoriginal, old-hat, and boring, something that generally indicates that the author of the work in question hasn’t read very much poetry (the work of his friends doesn’t count)
I was asked to be a writing coach for a slam team which was cool with me since I had no responsibility at all. One night I asked a member: “…So, do you read poets or have you studied any poetry at all?” She said No. She got on the team she said because she won the slam, one of he first slams she’d ever attended. That night I did my best to encourage them to write. But she wouldn’t. I remember her sitting alone on the floor in the next room, thinking. I remember thinking to myself: I’m a failure. What am I doing here?
In my experience, the audience members (at least the enthusiastic ones) are largely the performer’s friends, and the shittier his “poem” is, the louder they will clap
Full Disclosure: I don’t consider myself having many friends and rarely have I been able to ‘roll deep’ or even bring a date to a feature. (Only once did it happen when I featured and later that night got laid). The audience response was always genuine. I was fortunately liked, even if I was lonely. (For that I’m eternally grateful. Many nights I’ve gotten off stage wanting to kill myself, and I was encouraged only because some stranger truly Heard Me.) My best friend attended several of my readings, but I stopped asking him. He’s not an artist, he’s into science and math. After the last event, he said, incredulous: Everybody sounds alike.
And the more familiar the clichés are, the louder they clap still
Clapping with recognition is still clapping, I suppose. Since you’re standing before a room full of people, you might think they’re clapping for or because of you instead of what just happened within their own minds.
if you applied the most basic principles of English scansion to the composition (I’m loathe to call it a poem), you would find that almost all of the stresses in the delivery of the composition are not naturally there in the writing. In short, the rhythm of the piece as performed is quite different to the rhythm of the piece as written
Q. What exactly makes a ‘poem’ a ‘poem’? A. Well, because I’m a poet and I say so. Q. Oh. I mentioned I’m over 40, right? Yeah, fuck me.
But it’s important here because I Don’t Understand why an artist would recite SO FAST, therefore leaping over any impact their words might have. Am I not supposed to understand what you’re saying? Should I be more impressed by your Twista technique, compressing 5 minutes of an overwritten poem into 3? I mean– I’ve done it. Pressed down the throttle, speeding through the poem for the sake of ‘time’ as opposed to ‘meaning’. But its horrible, pointless mistake. A waste.
many of the compositions in this genre carry with them a message of social or civic outrage. This is kind of noble, I know, but the delivery is usually intended to scold the audience for their implied complacency in, or culpability for, some on-going social injustice.
…but you know, it CAN be done; social outrage regarding injustice and scolding the audience for their complacency. And we just buried the master of it. Amiri Baraka’s death this year (10/07/34 – 01/09/2014) was interesting to me for all the ways in which the media ignored his legacy and voice. (Let Ishmael Reed’s commentary shine some light) More than a couple colleagues have dismissed his work as not being ‘poetry’. He wasn’t a lyrical writer, he wasn’t an admirer of beauty, he was an activist who had to fight for the rights young people today take for granted. None of the speed-readers at poetry slams will be called onto the Nightly News to defend four lines from one of their poems. But I watched on youtube a visibly shaken Connie Chung speak with Baraka regarding A Stanza in his piece Somebody Blew Up America.
Diversity is the beauty of poetry. And poetry is an art of expression. Baraka was a poet amongst other things, but in him I hear Jazz. The Blues. I hear him as a vocalist, a truth teller, a rebel, a fighter. In a lot of slams, young people fight to protect and defend their egos. Baraka fought the system, the law, and respect from universities and a system that was offended by his insistence on naming names and calling bullshit when the rest of us have settled for complacency. Baraka was a man and socially conscious warrior amongst tv watching stoners. To listen to him is to engage with Coletrane or Monk moreso than Langston Hughes or Rita Dove. His was a music that stung and fought with the system and societal complacency. Many of the folks at open mics poetry slams happening tonight just fight with themselves.
If I’m wrong, please advise.