In Defense of Spoken-Word and Slam Poetry
by Kyle “Guante” Myhre
This past January, representatives from a wide range of Twin Cities spoken-word and slam organizations held a meeting at the Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul. We discussed ways to build our community, to improve the viability of spoken-word as a recognized artistic medium and to promote our events more effectively. It was a great discussion, and a lot of positive things (including the decision to support minnesotamicrophone.com as the go-to website for Twin Cities spoken-word) came out of it.
One thing I left with was the idea that to really build this community, we have to do more than entertain our base; we need to reach out to people who have never heard of spoken-word… and also to people who actively dislike it.
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.
But the Twin Cities has one of the top spoken-word scenes in the nation; our poets are incredibly talented and our events are consistently big, beautiful and a lot of fun. In an effort to assuage the fears of some potential audience members (and/or performers), I’d like to address a few myths:
SPOKEN-WORD POETS ALL TALK ABOUT THE SAME THINGS AND USE THE SAME DELIVERY.
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.
Also, and this is something that people outside the performance poetry community probably wouldn’t know, the standard, cliché style is on its way out. Spoken-word, in its most recent incarnation, started going strong in the late eighties and early nineties. By 2000 or so, it had developed its own formulas and clichés, as all art forms do. Today, those formulas and clichés are widely recognized and good poets work hard to avoid them. If you go to a slam or open mic today, at least in the Twin Cities, you’re probably not going to hear some neo-beatnik ranting about “the man” or some bohemian caricature adlibbing free-verse about the revolution.
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.
MOST SPOKEN-WORD POETRY ISN’T VERY GOOD POETRY.
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.
SPOKEN-WORD IS JUST HIP HOP WITHOUT THE BEATS.
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.
POETRY SLAMS ARE TOO COMPETITIVE AND VALUE FLASH OVER SUBSTANCE AND/OR QUALITY WRITING.
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.
SPOKEN-WORD IS JUST A FAD, OR AT BEST A NICHE ART FORM THAT WILL NEVER CATCH ON WITH THE WIDER POPULATION.
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 three 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 (this year’s finals are on April 9 at the Ritz Theater). They should see the Brave New Voices national youth slam, and feel the positivity and overwhelming sense of community in that space. 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.
Because as a community, we do have a lot to work on. I want to see more women and people of color on Twin Cities spoken-word stages this year. I want to see more cooperation between the various spoken-word entities in town. I want to hear poems that are not just well-written and powerfully-performed, but challenging too. I want to see our audiences get bigger, more diverse and more rowdy. All the pieces are in place; it’s just going to take some elbow grease.
More than anything, though, it’s going to take people who aren’t already involved to dive in. As poets, as audience members, as journalists—we need these new faces to make the scene their own. So to the theater kids, the hip hop heads, the closet poets, the storytellers, the professors, the high school students and anyone who understands the importance of engaging, dynamic, fun art: come to a slam, read at an open mic, check out www.minnesotamicrophone.com. The odds are good that you’ll find something you like.
One perfect opportunity to get involved or simply watch some great poetry is the first-ever Minnesota Spoken-Word Awards on Friday, April 3rd at the Varsity Theater. It’s only $5, and will feature performances from many of the top poets in the Twin Cities.