Thursday, April 16, 2009

On "Slam" Poetry

A former student of mine, Jess Morris, is doing a research project called "Communications Spectrum on Public Speaking Engagements: Poetry Slams, Political Speeches, and Comedy Shows," and has a survey for her research.

Here are some of the questions and my small answers.

Questions for Audience Members:
1) Approximately how many poetry slams have you attended?

A handful, though it’s difficult for me to distinguish between a “slam” and an open mic reading. Obviously, if you want to do a genealogy, the name probably comes from the performance-based readings that started in the 1980s, in a place like the Green Mill, in Chicago, run by Marc Smith. (It’s still going today, and I’ve been to that one).

2) Why are you interested in poetry slams?
I’m interested in different modes of poetry and of poetry performance, and they are part of the poetic landscape, so to speak. I’ve been increasingly interested in poetry “outside the book”—poetry that returns to poetry’s oral and aural roots, its connection to physical bodies and breath, and to an intimacy with audience.

3) How does performance poetry differ from poetry written for books?
It’s sort of a Venn Diagram; there are some performance poems that don’t really “work” on the page, and there are some written poems that aren’t really possible to do as performances (particularly visual poetry). But there is a healthy area where the two modes of poetry converge.

There is a whole slam subculture, and many who have come through that culture lament how rapidly the rules of the slam became ossified—in particular, that every poem should be a certain length (like 3 minutes, say), that it be crystal clear in terms of its language, and that the moves one makes or even the themes be relatively similar. So, by saying “slam” and not “performance,” you risk leaving out the wider possibilities of language/body interactions.

4) Do you also attend comedy shows? How many?

Not really—occasionally watch them—and yes, there is an overlap between the comedy show and the poetry performance.
-Do you watch political speeches?
-Did you watch the presidential inaugural address?
yes. And the poetry was not Elizabeth Alexander’s, but also Obama’s speech, and Joseph Lowry’s as well.
5) What type of style do you connect with during poetry slams? Explain.
- What type of delivery do you connect with during the poetry slam?
- What type of style and delivery do you connect with during comedy shows? Explain.
- What type of style and delivery do you connect with during political speeches? Explain.
6) What type of language is useful in poetry slams that will allow the speaker to engage with the audience?

(I’m answering 5 and 6 here):
Most argue that poetry slam/performance poetry language should be clear, succinct, direct—that is, “communicative”—and although there is a place for that, I’m interested also in language that works in multiple registers, not just the “communicative” (i.e. that the language be sending a clear “message”). There are a host of poetries that are orally based that veer closer to music, to pure sound (see Jerome Rothenberg, Christian Bok, Leevi Lehto, or the Dada movement, among others).

- What type of language is useful in comedy shows?

I always tell my students that punch lines tend to follow the rules of poetry—they are compressed, direct, and often use poetic devices like alliteration to add to their power.

- What type of language is useful in political speeches?

Same as above.

7) Why do you think certain poets advance to the next round?
- What factors do you think matter for judges?

This suggests that the slam is always a competition. That seems rather unfortunate! Why does performance poetry have to have winners and losers? The Green Mill poetry slam, from what I recall, privileged performances that were original both in terms of delivery and language.

8) Who is your favorite slam poet? Why?

Not sure I have a favorite slam poet, but I was completely blown away by this guy Leevi Lehto from Finland. He will blow your mind.

Thank you for your participation.

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