Background and History
As Susan B. A. Somers-Willett writes in her book, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, “The slipperiness of the slam poem is that it exists both everywhere and nowhere at once.” Poetry slams are traditionally competitive events at which poets perform their work to an audience and a panel of judges— oftentimes willing audience members— who score each performance, either formally with a numeric value or informally through the amount and volume of applause, to determine a winner. These generally take place in bars and other “blue-collar venues” that do not conform the traditionally pristine and silent nature of academic poetry readings. Consequently, performances at poetry slams must be dynamic, theatrical, urgent, and engaging in order to punctuate the background noise. This does not, however, mean that slam poetry must be grave or evocative of heavy emotions, but instead it can span genres (Somers-Willett 2009). Since its emergence, poetry slams have gained popularity, and in some cases, been formalized. For example, the National Poetry Slam has a set of official rules for performers and judges to follow.
The origins of spoken word and slam poetry as an art form are somewhat elusive. Some scholars, such as Dana Gioia, argue that slam poetry originated as one of many forms of oral poetry, along with rap and cowboy poetry, that arose as print poetry became less relevant to the general population (Gioia 2003). Others argue that slam poetry has its roots in oral history and storytelling traditions, with origins as far back as Homer (Nagy 1996). The birth of slam poetry as a subcultural scene, however, is most often attributed to Marc Smith, a working-class American poet who is believed to have hosted the first poetry slam in 1985 at a Chicago bar (Gioia 2003). Slam poetry, as it existed at its inception and as a contemporary subcultural art form, is centered around performance. Thus, it is written with a verbal cadence in mind, and there is an emphasis placed on the way the poem sounds over the way it appears on a page. That being said, there is no clearly defined set of rules or criteria by which to categorize any given poem as a slam poem. Consequently, “slam poetry is defined less by its formal characteristics and more by what it wishes to achieve or effect: a more immediate, personal, and authentic engagement with its audience” (Somers-Willett 2009). To this effect, Somers-Willett argues that there are four main characteristics of slam poetry. She writes:
First, slam poetry aims to actively engage and entertain its audience, sometimes confrontationally, through live performance… Second, since it is judged in a competitive format, slam poetry makes an argument that attempts to influence (and sometimes instruct) its audience… Third, since the rules of the National Poetry Slam dictate that poems must be performed by their authors, authorship itself becomes a self-conscious performance… Finally, slam poetry is largely dedicated to the ideals of democracy, equality, and diversity.
The most important of these characteristics is the embodiment of authorship, particularly since slam poetry as a genre and a subculture places an immense amount of importance on authenticity, particularly in the context of performances of identity. This is in part due to the fact that “slam’s commitment to plurality and diversity has led slam poets to linger on personal and political themes, the most common of them being the expression of marginalized identity” (Somers-Willett 2009). Thus, any narrative presented by a poet is instinctually conflated with their own experience and identity and expected to be authentic. When considering the authenticity of slam poetry, it is important to acknowledge its socially constructed nature, and that the meaning around authenticity in a specific context is primarily relevant to those who exist within that context (Haenfler 2014). In this case, because of how intertwined the performance is with the reactions of the audience oftentimes poets, rather than presenting their identities in an “authentic” manner, will instead present performances of identities in order to package their narrative into a piece of art that will be well-received by the audience to which they are presenting. Consequently, “many poets adhere to certain standards of writing and performance to achieve slam success. These standards have in many cases led to formulaic work—a political rant, for example, or a declaration of one’s identity” (Somers-Willett 2009). Staceyann Chin, a Jamaican-American poet and activist critiques this in her piece, “I Don’t Want to Slam,”
Now that I’ve actually been a poet
been romantic and been poor
I don’t want to be a slam poet anymore
Today I want to write
from a place where I change lives
and change people and places
cross over boundaries
of sexes and cultures and races
paint the skies deep red
instead of boring blue
write the true histories of me and you
crawl deep inside the lines
of every poem I write
I want to speak about the stars
The irony of Chin’s piece is that it falls into the very system it critiques. She uses the standard metric patterns, vocal cadences, and figurative language that are all characteristic of the formulaic standard.
Slam Poetry as a Subculture
The nuances and contradictions that surround performances of authenticity within slam poetry are among the many subcultural elements of the scene. Another is the fact that slam poetry exists as an evolution and critique of written, literary poetic traditions. Literary poetry is an immensely academic discipline. Oral poetry forms “were initially developed by individuals marginalized by intellectual and academic society,” (Gioia 2003), and slam poetry in particular was explicitly working-class. Furthermore, literary poetry “is not, and never has been, a subculture… One of the defining characteristics of a functioning subculture… is that its members are indifferent to, possible even embrace its lack of popularity” (Phillips 2007). In other words, slam poetry as a subculture arose in response to academic poetry, which serves as the dominant poetic form. As it exists in its written form, literary poetry has never been marginalized, but rather has been revered within academic circles. The anxiety surrounding the alleged decline of literary poetics and the “end of print culture”(Gioia 2003), is evidence of its popularity amongst academics, and their desire for the art form to be preserved and universally appreciated.
Since slam poetry exists in response to academic poetics, it is important to call attention to the formal distinctions between slam poetry and literary poetry. Perhaps the most important distinction is that of the narrative voice. As we have seen, within slam poetry, the narrator and the poet are necessarily one and the same. Within literary poetry, however, the expectation is that the poetic voice is a separate entity altogether than the poet themself. Furthermore, slam poetry cannot exist in a permanent form. Every iteration will change based on the audience, the vocal inflections or meter, or even details within the words themselves. Literary poetry can be revised, but every published iteration can and is treated as a final product. Furthermore, slam poetry includes shared values (there is an immense amount of value and power attributed to performances of vulnerability and trauma, and their political implications), gestures (snapping), and stylistic conventions within the art form itself. Finally, there is a hierarchical nature within slam
poetry, both for the performers and fans. For the performers, they are ranked and judged, and those who are deemed authentic are oftentimes the ones who win slams. For fans, those who attend physical poetry slams in bars and clubs, and who poets who are still relatively unknown, are considered better fans than those who consume slam poetry predominantly online. This is primarily due to the fact that slam poetry is an active and interactive art form, and those elements of the performance are taken away when it is consumed in video form. On the other hand, YouTube has made slam poetry more widely accessible and increased its popularity amongst those who are unable to or do not want to participate actively in the scene.
Identity politics and the role of marginalized voices
Slam poetry oftentimes serves as a vessel by which which members of marginalized groups are able to celebrate their identities. Many slam poets will write poems that specifically focus on their experiences as members of marginalized groups, whether those are groups of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, mental illness, etc. Slam poetry is a space in which poets are able to celebrate the parts of themselves that hegemonic power structures seek to silence, repress, or discriminate against. Consequently, the majority of slam poetry is performed by people who fall outside the hegemony in one way or another.
The racialized relationship between slam poetry and hip-hop/rap
There is a widespread perception that slam poetry originated from hip-hop culture. Slam poetry and hip-hop draw upon similar performance strategies and expressions of identity. Furthermore, in both scenes black voices are oftentimes expected to represent their entire communities. The commercialization of slam poetry is oftentimes claimed to directly follow from the success of commercialized hip-hop (Somers-Willett 2009).
Change in class demographics of the slam poetry scene
Slam poetry started specifically for working class people. Over time, that demographic, both of participants and audiences, has shifted to include a much wider range of class backgrounds. This is partially due to the commercialization of slam poetry, which entails the scene being marketed to a more affluent crowd. It is also due to the geographic proliferation of the scene, through which more people in general have gotten involved in the scene. Finally, the gentrification of many urban areas, especially in Chicago, has made the areas that foster slam poetry scenes more affluent. Now, however, because slam poetry exists in gentrified areas, working class people are oftentimes excluded from a scene that was created for them.
Page by Tara Verma
Louder Than a Bomb
This award-winning documentary focuses on the youth poetry slam, “Louder Than a Bomb,” which is unique in its focus on teamwork and collaboration, as opposed to the generally individualistic poetry slam.
We Belong Here
This documentary focuses on eight poets, who speak about their experiences with poetry and the role it serves in politically tumultuous times.
Zenaida Peterson – “Pride/Proud”
This piece is a response to the lack of intersectionality in queer spaces, and the experience of being a queer person of color.
Stayceyann Chin – “Jamaican in New York”
In this piece, Staceyann Chin discusses diaspora and the role of immigration in identity.
Ronald Vinson – “Letter To Your Flag”
In this piece, Ronald Vinson responds to police brutality, and the lack of racial justice in the United States.
Solli Raphael – “We Can Be More”
Solli Raphael won his first poetry slam at age twelve in Australia, and this is his TEDx performance the following year, serving as one of many examples of slam poetry existing outside its typical demographic of young adults in the United States.
George Watsky- “S for Lisp”
In this piece George Watsky, who is now a hugely successful rapper, reclaims the narrative about his lisp.
Sabrina Benaim – “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”
In this piece, Sabrina Benaim speaks about her experiences with mental illness. The narrative is structured as an address to her mother.
“American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop is the first book to trace a comprehensive history of performance poetry in America, covering 150 years of literary history from Walt Whitman through the rap-meets-poetry scene. It reveals how the performance of poetry is bound up with the performance of identity and nationality in the modern period and carries its own shifting cultural politics. This book stands at the crossroads of the humanities and the social sciences; it is a book of literary and cultural criticism that deals squarely with issues of “performance,” a concept that has attained great importance in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology and has generated its own distinct field of performance studies” (University of Michigan Press).
“In recent decades, poetry slams and the spoken word artists who compete in them have sparked a resurgent fascination with the world of poetry. However, there is little critical dialogue that fully engages with the cultural complexities present in slam and spoken word poetry communities, as well as their ramifications.
In Killing Poetry, renowned slam poet, Javon Johnson unpacks some of the complicated issues that comprise performance poetry spaces. He argues that the truly radical potential in slam and spoken word communities lies not just in proving literary worth, speaking back to power, or even in altering power structures, but instead in imagining and working towards altogether different social relationships. His illuminating ethnography provides a critical history of the slam, contextualizes contemporary black poets in larger black literary traditions, and does away with the notion that poetry slams are inherently radically democratic and utopic.
Killing Poetry—at times autobiographical, poetic, and journalistic—analyzes the masculine posturing in the Southern California community in particular, the sexual assault in the national community, and the ways in which related social media inadvertently replicate many of the same white supremacist, patriarchal, and mainstream logics so many spoken word poets seem to be working against. Throughout, Johnson examines the promises and problems within slam and spoken word, while illustrating how community is made and remade in hopes of eventually creating the radical spaces so many of these poets strive to achieve” (Rutgers University Press).
“This book is a comparative study of oral poetics in literate cultures, focusing on the problems of textual fluidity in the transmission of Homeric poetry over half a millennium, from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods of ancient Greece. It stresses the role of performance and the performer in the re-creative process of composition-in-performance. It addresses questions of authority and authorship in the making of oral poetry, and it examines the efforts of ancient scholars to edit a definitive text of the “real” Homer” (Cambridge University Press)
“The cultural phenomenon known as slam poetry was born some twenty years ago in white working-class Chicago barrooms. Since then, the raucous competitions have spread internationally, launching a number of annual tournaments, inspiring a generation of young poets, and spawning a commercial empire in which poetry and hip-hop merge.
The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry is the first critical book to take an in-depth look at slam, shedding light on the relationships that slam poets build with their audiences through race and identity performance and revealing how poets come to celebrate (and at times exploit) the politics of difference in American culture.
With a special focus on African American poets, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett explores the pros and cons of identity representation in the commercial arena of spoken word poetry and, in doing so, situates slam within a history of verse performance, from blackface minstrelsy to Def Poetry.What’s revealed is a race-based dynamic of authenticity lying at the heart of American culture. Rather than being mere reflections of culture, Somers-Willett argues, slams are culture—sites where identities and political values get publicly refigured and exchanged between poets and audiences” (University of Michigan Press).
Skott-Myhre, Hans A. “Language, or Can the Subculture Speak?” Youth and Subculture as Creative Force: Creating New Spaces for Radical Youth Work, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2008, pp. 27–41.
“Radical youth work is gaining popularity as a means of teaching adults how, in collaboration with youth, they can challenge dominant ways of knowing. This study uses two particular subcultures, skinheads and punks, to explore how constructions of subcultures in time, language, space, body practice, and identity offer alternative ways of understanding youth-adult relationships. In doing so, it investigates youth work as a radical political process and suggests a new approach to current subculture theory.
In Youth and Subculture as Creative Force, Hans Arthur Skott-Myhre interviews six youths who identify themselves as members of either punk or traditional skinhead subcultures. He discusses the results of these interviews and demonstrates how youth perspectives have come to inform his understanding of himself as a youth worker and scholar. Youth subcultures, he argues, have considerable potential for improving relations between youths and adults in the postmodern capitalist world. Drawing on Marxist, Foucauldian, and postmodernist theory, Skott-Myhre uses the subjective formations outlined in his study to offer recommendations for constructing legitimate radical youth work that takes into account for the perspectives of young people” (University of Toronto Press).