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February 25, 2008
To most people, the word "poetry" equates to a Shakespearean sonnet. To others it stirs the first lines of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." But to a growing number of teenagers and young adults, poetry has come to be defined by spoken word pieces from Saul Williams, Beau Sia, and many other young, often minority wordsmiths on a growing list of artists embracing a new style: slam.

Slam poetry has been essential in rekindling interest in an art form once thought appropriate only for classroom instruction, or at its most recreational as a lighthearted pursuit for the highly-educated leisure classes. Slam has changed these stereotypes. Slam poetry originated in Chicago in the late 1980s, first practiced by Marc Smith at The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, and soon spread across the United States. The Nuyorican Poets' Café and Bowery Poetry Club, both in New York, are the two brightest beacons of popular slam venues today. In the United States, slam's hallmark event is the National Poetry Slam, an annual event in which teams of four compete in a tournament-style format. Begun in 1990 by rival poets from Chicago and San Francisco, the NPS circulates between different venues across the country and will land in Madison, Wisconsin this August with a record 84 teams in the bracket. Lest slam be considered a strictly American male artform, its governing body, Poetry Slam Inc. (PSI), has in recent years also established the Individual World Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam. To date there have been two major documentaries made about the movement: 1996's Slamnation, and Slam Planet, which was screened at the 2006 SXSW Film Festival.

Marc Smith and Chicago's Green Mill Lounge, the origins of slam.

In spite of its growing popularity, slam poetry is still plagued by misconceptions about what is. Most people just imagine Russel Simmons's DefPoetry Jam as the artform's summary definition. While a major vehicle for slam's expansion and one of the most visible components, such assumptions are only partially the truth, as DefPoetry is not the be-all and end-all. PSI defines slam as "a competitive event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host or another organizer selects the judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (on a zero to 10 or one to 10 scale) based on the poets' content and performance."

There are, of course, variations, but what has been set forth by PSI is slam's mainstream standard. A major attraction of slam poetry is that it is a democratic art form. While slam in the broader sense, like snowboarding or improv comedy before it, has gone through the segmentation and specialization expected of an exploding subculture, it has retained its general tenants on the national and international levels. One of slam's cornerstones is the idea that anyone can participate, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or any other barrier used to filter people. That openness has been a key component in making the movement very marketable, and in turn extremely viable. Slams now take place in countries across the planet, and with global reading rates in continual decline the spread of slam is one of the few bright spots in the generally questionable outlook for the printed word. With all of the attention given to reading - and poetry in particular - by the slam movement, the cranky old traditionalist notion that slam is the worst thing that has ever happened to poetry is particularly hard to swallow.

For comparison's sake, examine the first four lines of two similarly-themed poems:
You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.


---

I think love is the most beautiful thing
in the world,
and I don't give a fuck,
because I have no original ideas.

The former, from a poem called "Nightclub" by former poet laureate and best-selling author Billy Collins, seems rather bland, and one is not hard-pressed to "get" what Collins is saying. Quite simply, it lacks any spark. The latter lines, taken from the opening of a slam piece by Beau Sia called "Love," exemplifies the drastic and often humorous creative difference between most traditional poetry and the art of slam. Sia is taking a jab at love, one of the most ubiquitous subjects in traditional poetry. In the direct comparison of just four lines, the dramatic difference between academic poetry and slam is obvious. One is tranquil while the other grabs a reader by the funnybone, and the latter goes a long way to encouraging examination and a deeper questioning of poetry, society, or wherever the mind might wander.

Saul Williams, Michael Salinger, Beau Sia, and Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (clockwise) illustrate the demographic diversity of slam poets.

The harshest critics accuse the slam movement of making poetry utterly meaningless. They argue that, essentially, it takes no skill to compose a slam poem. Critics also contend that slam verses do not translate well to the page, so it has no place within the realm of true "poetry." As anyone who has participated in (or simply witnessed) a poetry slam can attest, it does take skill to compose slam poems. If one were to stroll on stage and recite a Billy Collins poem, while the next participant presented a poem in the style of Beau Sia, there would be little contest as to which would most engage the audience. An unlike the explicitly non-interactive nature of traditional poetry, the audience is a crucial and integral component of slam poetry. Slam takes the idea out of the stuffy library and drags it through the streets. It is meant to be recited aloud, not in the quiet confines of seclusion, curled up in a chair. People are far more interested in things that make them think, and a critical mental reaction is nearly unavoidable with slam, as it can't be avoided.

While it is true that slam poems sometimes (though far from always) do not work well on the page, any constraints of their origins as oral works are not enough to make them irrelevant as poetry. Established poets within the academic realm have always taken risks, and by and large the adventurous nature of the poet has proven beneficial to poetry as a whole. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets of the late 1970s like Ron Silliman redefined the way language worked in poetry, and the movement produced many notable figures and works. Charles Bernstein has a poem in which the text is counting from one to one-hundred, each number the voice of the speaker getting louder and louder. Although Bernstein and others of the avant-garde movement have since become respected and noted poets within the academic field, in some cases their work is almost impossible to read on the page. For all of the stones of semantics hurled at slam poets, a good portion of their work is still far more conventional than the output from other, now established avant-garde movements.

Although there is unlikely to be a definitive union of the two anytime soon, tensions have eased somewhat between academics and slam poets over the years. With more poets from both sides having success in their opposing fields, the lines have become far more blurred. The true test of academics accepting slam as a legitimate and worthwhile movement is its incorporation into the study of poetry, which is slowly happening as far afield as Sweden. In the wider world, which is ultimately a more accurate indicator of slam's influence on poetry, it is undeniably encouraging people, across numerous demographic lines, to write and express themselves. Anything that increases awareness of an art, especially one that had virtually been forgotten in mainstream culture, could hardly be described as anything but legitimate.

SEE ALSO: www.slampapi.com
SEE ALSO: www.poetryslam.com
SEE ALSO: www.womenspoetryslam.com

--
Nate Logan
Hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, Nate Logan is a contributing writer to LAS who will be going to Minnesota in the fall to pursue a MFA in poetry. He hopes to develop some weird accent as a result of his time in the North.

See other articles by Nate Logan.

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