NaPoWriMo, Week 2: In Defense of Slam Poetry

I decided that this week, instead of joining in the caveat of writing prompts and advice floating around the blogosphere–and which I wrote about at length last week–I’d demonstrate through example by writing the blog post I’ve been wanting to write for a while now: a defense of slam poetry.

Some of you may be wondering why slam poetry needs defending when, nearly 30 years after its inception, the competition is resembling a movement more than ever. Poetry Slam, Inc hosts several massive international competitions each year; U. S. Regional slams attract hundreds; in Germany and other parts of Europe, stadiums are packed to watch poets throw down; most importantly, the youth poetry slam movement has swept this nation from coast to coast, bringing poetry into classrooms and youth who need it most–many times youth who would otherwise have no interest in reading or writing.

However, even through this massive popularity, there is not much academic discourse on the concept of a poetry slam. Last year, when AWP was held in Chicago, I attended a “Stage Meets Page” event (a spin off of Taylor Mali’s New York reading series that pairs a “page,” or book-famous poet, with a “stage,” or slam-famous poet). I watched the poet Mark Doty, god bless ’em, say of slam poets, “There’s a certain air of celebrity that I just don’t have.” He meant this in a sincere and self-deprecating way, but it speaks volumes for the academic concept of slam poetry: that it is largely image based, reliant on performances tropes, rather than actual written skill, and is ultimately just plain shallow.

Moreover, many successful academic poets just don’t seem to get the point of reading work aloud, let alone slam. A Chicago poet, Michael Robbins, who is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who sparks my sensibilities as someone intrigued by language and structure within craft, disappointed me when he was selected for a profile in our city’s alt weekly, and said:

“I have a real aversion to poetry readings, even when I’m reading at them. … I feel fake when I get up and read poetry. If I got up and read ten Yeats poems, I think I would feel more natural. … [S]omehow when I’m in front of a group of people reading my own words, I don’t feel related to the words the same way I do when I’m just reading them to friends or when I’m reading them in my head. … I just feel like it’s a waste of time and I would rather people just didn’t bother.”

To each his own, but this disappointment is compounded by the fact that he made this statement in a publication using him as a representative of Chicago’s poetry scene, a community that centralizes around the poetry reading, not to mention a juxtaposition with a lengthy heritage of performance writing. What Robbins’ insecurities as a performer do represent are an attitude I’ve found to be pervasive in academia, and I do believe this outlook can keep poets isolated from their audience, or at least an audience outside of fellow poets.

Enter me. I’m a poet with a lengthy academic history. I was an intense student of poetry in high school, taking independent studies in writing as a freshmen, and even attending the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy for a year of school as a creative writing major. My passion ultimately led me to pursue a Bachelor’s of Arts in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, the only school in the United States to offer such an undergraduate program. At Columbia, I received a cutting-edge education in poetics. I read Sappho, Horace, and Issa alongside Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Lim, Viktor Shklovsky. My thesis was a book of language poems. This sort of thing is the antithesis of the traditional concept of “slam poetry.”

So my relationship with slam poetry is a little spottier. I started slamming as a youth poet because it was a way to do poetry as an extracurricular.  I was pretty good at it, but fully aware that the perceptions of “slam poets” were not in line with what I wanted to accomplish as an academic. I stuck to my guns in that respect until my last semester of my senior year of college, when I participated in a college slam, mostly as a form of therapy. I was going through a lot at that moment and wanted to write about it in a direct way, and found that slam poetry was more accommodating to that process than my classrooms. Regardless of my reasons for writing poetry or my education as a poet, I’ve always felt like somewhat of an outsider, both within slam and academic communities, because of my embrace of an aesthetic that places the utmost importance on presentation on the page, but my personality as an artist lends itself to performance as well.

This information may or may not be surprising to those who know me now. Since I graduated college, I’ve come to fully inhabit the adult slam circuit as a poet. Since slam poetry started in Chicago, there is a beautifully rich scene here. I only started seriously slamming right after I graduated from college, and even then, just as a way to experiment with the language poetry I’d written for my thesis through the medium of performance. But I’ve now represented Chicago at two international competitions, and the other day, I found out I’m a finalist in the Write Bloody book competition, a press which is unique in that it places an emphasis on the performative qualities of its authors (although it could not be a successful publisher without valuing written craft as well).

My purpose here is not to talk about myself as an artist at length. I explain my history to try to contextualize my personal ideas of what poetry should be, if it is at its best: a reconciliation between my academic upbringing, which has taught me that, above else, poetry should demonstrate a total submissiveness to the transcendence of language, and attempt to control this wild possibility, with my identity as a competitive poet, which has taught me that, in its purest form, poetry is the manifestation of speech at its most free, and therefore has a profound potential to transform audience’s perception.

I do not believe these ideas should oppose each other, although many seem to believe in the “page vs. stage” mentality. They ultimately support the monumentally weighty idea that poetry has an ability to change the surrounding world, or, at least, a few of the people in it. This is not to place a superficial importance on poetry; whether you are an academic or slam poet, the chances of you ever making any money off your work–let alone becoming relevant outside of a very small consumer market–are next to none. I’m painfully aware each day that poetry is not itself a form of direct action, that if I want to protest, or truly help others, I have to apply myself in a way that is not artistic.

But poetry is still important for these reasons precisely. Its irrelevance as a commodity frees it from a capitalistic pressure for mass-production and mass-appeal that simultaneously indoctrinates its audience. Simultaneously, there is a total freedom in modern day poetics, where a poem can be literally anything you present in the context of being as such. As Eileen Myles once said, “Poetry is an expression of the self.” Clearly I’m biased towards this particular art form, but it is my feeling that there are few others with artists that strive only towards self-expression (whatever that may mean to you) on such a wide-spread level throughout the genre.

So let me finally speak on the importance of slam poetry, and begin by saying that this importance can be supported, shared, and influential to you even if you have no interest in competition (chicken!). You could argue that, if poetry is meant to be an expression of  the self, that this form of expression is most fully realized when manifested through the poet’s body. This could be supported by the poet Louise Gluck’s definition of “voice,” which that it is not a pattern of speech, but a pattern of thought. Writing is a way to physically entrap those thoughts. The writing process itself is not performative in the traditional sense. However, by using our own bodies and our own voices, we can manifest these patterns of process in a way that could not be accomplished by leaving our poems to only ever be read on the page, or by authors who do a poor job at reading because they find it boring or self-serving.

Yet performance and slam poetry are not synonymous. In general, I believe that the writer/performer has a huge relevance in our culture right now, and that this juxtaposition has taken on a new importance in the past fifty years through a range of different mediums. So to understand this basic power of translating a piece of writing into a performative action does not justify the concept of competition that comes from slam poetry–the concept which is what many struggle with the most. How can one reconcile poetry that attempts to win with poetry that is truly attempting to push its creators own level of craft? Many who are not comfortable with the idea of slam poetry would feel that those two aesthetics are diametrically opposed. And this would definitely be supported by the fact that many top slam poets approach competition from a strategical aspect, or are performers who barely consider themsleves poets. They come from theatre or stand-up comedy backgrounds; they may have never read a book of poetry in their lives.

However, those types of poets are rare, and it’s even rarer for those types of poets to win the big competitions. Those who succeed most often–who win titles, but also, influence other poets, become authors, or are otherwise ultimately relevant outside of slam poetry–are ones who reconcile the question of attempting to win with pushing their level of craft. I’d like to propose the radical idea that wanting your poems to win is not a misplaced desire. I feel the opposite, that if you don’t seek the success of your own writing, you’re probably writing for the wrong reasons, as success is dependent on the affect of your audience. If you don’t care about your writing being successful, then you are writing for wholly selfish and self-serving reasons. You’re basically saying that it doesn’t matter if anyone likes your writing. Even if you only want success within a specific aesthetic, or a specific group of people, you’re still considering your audience. This article that appeared in Ploughshares sums up this idea perfectly: “If the extent of our Public Reading Imagination is ‘Make words be out loud,’ our texts are better left to the page. … [F]ew things are more egotistical than giving a mediocre performance and believing it’s worth your audience’s time.”

This brings me to the idea of slam poetry as a populist construct, and in order to understand this concept, one must understand that poetry slam is really just a bar game. That’s how it started; in the 1980’s, Chicago construction worker Mark Smith (so what?) was inspired by bar goers who would face off in toasting competitions. He combined this tradition with his love for baseball and poetry open mics, and poetry slam was born. One of the most important aspects of slam poetry is that the judges are audience members, and as such could know absolutely nothing about poetry, or be a college professor of English. So, if you’re a serious slam poet, that means that you are not necessarily writing to appeal to The Poetry Foundation, nor are you attempting to necessarily appeal to “average Joe”–although you could do either, and many do. What you are trying to do is affect an audience, to endear them to you, to make the judges believe in what you’re saying the most. In essence, you are competing against these random judges–who could literally be anyone–rather than the other poets. Since the judges can be anyone with any sort of qualification, the only thing you can know about them going in is that they are a member of the audience. In this way, your poem must attempt to affect that audience. So while the desire to win is egotistical–and one could argue the act of writing poetry in the first place is egotistical–the fact that your ability to do so is totally dependent on an outsider’s perception undermines the value of ego tremendously.

One other issue critics take within slam poetry is the way in which poems are judged, which is typically on a numerical scale of 0-10 with one decimal point. And actually, slam poets themselves are well aware of the flaws within this scale. On a philosophical level, providing a numerical value to a subjective reaction is not possible. Further, the point system itself can backfire–for example, “score creep” will pretty much always benefit poets who go later in a bout, even if an earlier poet did a much better job.

In my opinion, numerical scales are always fucking shit up. Students fail classes in subjects they are knowledgeable and passionate about because of a bad grade. Whether our economy is doing good or bad largely has to do with the way numbers impact supply/demand, inflation/deflation, and the negative (and positive) side effects are ones that impact our daily lives. Numbers take the fun out of things all the time, but human innovation has yet to find a “more fair” way to decide something’s objective value. That’s not the fault of slam poetry. And besides, the ridiculousness of using a number to ascribe value is one many slam poets take to heart–one famous saying goes, “The point is not the point, the point is the poetry.” This compounds the importance of audience, especially since so many factors completely out of one’s control will effect the numbers.

In recent years, poets have also made contemporary twists on the flawed judging scale to be more welcoming to a diversity of styles. One of my favorite examples is The Lit Slam, started in the Bay Area by poet Tatyana S. Brown, which rewards slam winners with publication in an annual journal. Judges are replaced with editors who assign numeric scores on a comment sheet with suggestions for improvements or things they liked about the poem itself, thereby making the poetry slam more like a poetry workshop. Another competition, the National Underground Poetry Invitational Competition, in which poets buy-in and face off in one-on-one rounds for a huge cash prize, is decided entirely by audience applause. These changes modify the traditional poetry slam in numerous ways, but it’s reassuring that when there are high-stakes such as being published in a highly selective journal or winning several month’s worth of rent money, the process can be a little bit more fair than objective numbers for a subjective reaction. Further, these innovations demonstrate that slam poetry is evolving to accommodate rewarding poetry beyond a system of points. It would seem that slam poetry is continuing to progress, rather than go out of style, even nearly thirty years after its inception.

I believe many of my former professors would be mortified that I’ve gone the route of adult circuit slam poetry, without even having the chance to examine the aesthetic value of the work I’ve been producing as a career poet, rather than a student poet. But beyond my ideological reconciliation with poetry slams, it has provided me many more benefits. Through slam poetry, I’ve been able to connect with poets all over the country, as well as in my own backyard. By participating in slams–not winning–I’ve gained respect and momentum behind my work. I’ve been able to use slam as a tool to connect with teenagers, to improve their reading and writing, better their chances at getting into college and providing them communication skills that will become insurmountably important to their success as adults. Not to mention the strange fact that I’m able to get students to actually be excited about poetry in the first place.

But the best part of slam poetry is its direct ability to be a tool of self-expression, of storytelling, of discourse and ingenuity. Such is the tradition of poetry as an art form. Slam poetry is not without its criticisms and misconceptions, but such could be said of any art form which takes risks through ingenuity. It is through these vessels we are able to not only continue traditions, but reinvent it.

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