Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

(originally published at MN Mic; re-posting here with some revisions)

In my experience, many of the criticisms directed at slam and performance poetry are founded in an ignorance of what the form really is. People today are criticizing what slam poetry was five years ago, or they went to one really bad open mic and hated it, or they watched a particularly uninspired episode of Def Poetry Jam and decided that all spoken-word is platitude-ridden, clichéd sound and fury.

And to be fair, there's plenty to not like about spoken-word.  But as much as I criticize spoken-word, I still believe in it.  In an effort to assuage the fears of some potential audience members (and/or performers), I’d like to address a few myths:

We all know the stereotype. Some twenty-something with a goatee and beret gets on stage and reads some really awful, trite, cliché-ridden poetry about how “the government is corrupt” with a lot of passion and intensity; his rhythms are predictable and his voice goes up and down for no apparent reason. The audience goes wild.

I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t happen now and then, but so many would dismiss the entire art form due to the presence of a few hacks, or perhaps just some kids who are starting their journeys as writers. This is a willful ignorance.

It is true that many (not as many as you might think, but quite a few) performance poets have adopted a standard vocal style, and certain themes (alienation, identity, depression, radical politics, sexuality, etc.) come up at slams and open mics more than others. But show me a genre of music or form of expression where this isn’t the case. Singer-songwriters all sing about relationships in 4/4 time with a guitar. Rappers rap about how good they are in sixteen bar verses with eight bar hooks. Every form has its own standard, and every form is dominated by hacks and artists who are simply following a formula. If anything, spoken-word has a much HIGHER ratio of originality and talent to mediocrity than, say, indie rock or novel-writing (or page poetry, for that matter) or whatever other art you’d like to compare it to.

That’s not to say that every spoken-word artist is a completely original, convention-defying genius. But if you go to a slam today, you’re more likely to see and hear something inspiring, hilarious or powerful than something that embodies the stereotypes associated with the form. Spoken-word, at least the version of it that we’re talking about (since technically, it’s been around forever), is still a very young art.

On some levels, this might actually be true. But the key question is “according to whom?” Is the broader poetry community judging spoken-word by the same standards they judge some creative writing professor’s villanelles? The form is fundamentally different. It’s a performance art; yes, some subtlety might be sacrificed at times because the listener doesn’t have the luxury of re-reading lines and analyzing every word choice, but this is a conscious decision. It’s extremely important to remember: spoken-word is written to be performed; it’s not the same as reciting poetry written for the page and we should not judge the two by the exact same standards.

The best spoken-word takes elements of page poetry, theater, oratory, stand-up comedy, preaching and other vocal forms and mashes them up into something new and incredibly engaging. No, the focus isn’t always on the “pure” lyric, and while some might say that this fact dilutes the art, I’d argue the exact opposite. I think that poets’ balancing form, content and delivery is making poetry more relevant, exciting and meaningful. Language does, after all, exist as the written word and as the spoken/heard word; spoken-word poetry gets to explore places that page poetry cannot go. I’m not saying that one is better or worse than the other; they’re just different, and this should be celebrated.

Also, remember that spoken-word is about the democritization of poetry. Anyone can get up at an event and perform something. And sure, this means that you might here something not-so-great because the person performing literally just wrote their first poem yesterday. But the good here greatly outweighs the bad. A slam or open mic might not always be 100% revelatory, but it's a space for people to express themselves; it's about process as much as it's about product.

I’ve heard this from both academics who hate hip hop and want to associate spoken-word with what they consider violent, sexist doggerel, and from hip hop artists who think that spoken-word poets are just rappers who can’t stay on beat. Both are way off.

As someone who is both a rapper and a spoken-word poet, I can say that the two share some elements but are fundamentally different. At slams and open mics these days, you rarely hear rhyming poetry; you’ll hear free verse, theater-style monologues, persona pieces and much more, and rhymes are there but are generally in the minority. Poets who try to rap generally aren’t very good, and rappers who try to compete in slams rarely do well. If anything, I’d like to see more cross-over and cooperation between the two communities. I think they could learn a lot from each other.

Again, there is some truth in this statement, but it ignores the wider context. Slams (which are, for those who don’t know, competitions in which performing poets are given scores from a panel of judges) are imperfect things, but they’re also a means to a very important end. The idea behind slam has nothing to do with poets’ stroking their egos; it’s a way to build the community—to get poets writing, to get people to come watch them perform and to make spoken-word events more exciting and audience-oriented. Slams are responsible for getting people, especially young people, excited about poetry again, and the value of this cannot be overstated.

Yes, sometimes the best poets don’t win. Sometimes a really loud, flashy piece will beat an exceptionally thoughtful, well-written piece. But slam is about democracy. As a poet, you have to be able to connect to your audience, even if that audience is in a dive-bar somewhere, only half-listening. The best slam poets are able to strike that balance between content, form and delivery, to write something beautiful and meaningful and perform it in a way that grabs people and gets a point across perfectly. It’s a great challenge, and in my opinion, very healthy for poetry.

First of all, let’s not forget that spoken-word is as old as language itself. In some form or another, it’s always been with us and will always be with us. I’ve been talking about a specific manifestation of it (the post-Beat, late-20th century slam and spoken-word cultures), but it’s a form with enough flexibility and power to never truly disappear.

And as someone who has been to five National Poetry Slams, performed countless times all over the country and run a million writing and performance workshops for youth, I can say with certainty that even this specific manifestation of spoken-word isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to get more popular.

Nationally, the spoken-word community is big, diverse, supportive, talented and ready for the next big stage. High schools all over the country have spoken-word clubs. Universities are starting to teach spoken-word as a legitimate literary form. Slams and open mics are popping up not only in the usual places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but in small towns across America and beyond.

People who disparage spoken-word or slam should attend the Quest for the Voice youth slams that happen every year through the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. They should see the Brave New Voices national youth slam or the Louder than a Bomb festival, and feel the positivity and overwhelming sense of community in those spaces. They should talk to the countless adult poets who aren’t obsessed with scoring points in slams and simply appreciate having a platform on which they can share pieces of themselves. They should talk to the students I’ve worked with who have performance poetry to thank for being able to overcome social anxiety and low self-esteem, or the students who have used performance poetry as their gateway to discovering page poetry, or social justice activism, or whatever their true passion might be.

I don’t want to come off as overly defensive though. Of course, some people just don’t like listening to someone else performing poetry. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t go to death metal concerts. But I recognize that I avoid death metal because it doesn’t appeal to my personal sonic tastes, not because I think it’s full of blood-drinking Satanists. We should like or dislike things for the right reasons, and I have no problem with people criticizing spoken-word; I just wish they’d be more informed when they do it.

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