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The Problems and Potential of Slam

Posted By Joe Weil On January 11, 2012 @ 9:45 am In Poetry and Poetics | 6 Comments

From what I’ve seen of student work, many are fascinated with fantasy/science fiction and what one of students called nerd consciousness–anything but emotional nuance and or engagement with day to day reality. Since few have an adequate template for poetry on fairies, ghosts, and the like, they tend not to write fantasy poems. This leaves love and slam. Slam poetry seems highly invested in the personal as the political: gender and sexuality, cutting, fat acceptance, suicide, drugs, family dysfunction, all tied together by more and more polyglot metaphors and an overly sold voice that makes “pass the salt” sound far more dramatic than it has any right to be. There is a slam voice that goes up in the register (this is usually done by white boy slammers) and sounds almost like a strangled or thwarted gobble. Usually this is reserved for an apostrophic address to some absent but all pervasive victimizer: America, racism, mom and/or dad, or some ex lover who is almost always brutal and has destroyed our hero/poet so that he might make metaphors between black holes, intergalactic space, and their destructive love. I do not hate spoken word. I hate ham acting. I would describe the current slam scene as anti-nuance. A low key slam poem is virtually impossible. Most slam might be defined as political correctness meets Oprah share session meets William Shatner doing the lyrics to Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” meets dysfunction meets metaphor as defined by the current writing initiative guidelines on effective personal essays. Slam is enormously popular and is now in the process of being co-opted by the Universities. Soon there will be fully tenured slam professors. Universities like money. They can speak about ethics all they want, but cash cows win. End of story.

And so I do not outlaw slam. If slam becomes the new orthodoxy, then highly talented, highly gifted young poets will be forced to fit the mold and, being, forced, will subvert slam and change it from within. At least, I hope so. At any rate, my qualms against slam:

1. It does not allow for the short, short poem (very rarely), and it does not allow for the long poem (very rarely) and is creating a fixed monologue poem (or group poem dynamic) that lasts from two minutes to three minutes ten seconds–an actor’s audition length of time. Slam, when it first appeared, had no set form except the time, but short poems could score high–poems of less than a minute, and acting chops were not required (especially ham acting and over selling). Enforced intensity and energy are as obnoxious as the purposely dead pan and flat free verse of academic poetry They’re the same thing: a fucking lie. When people stopped clapping at academic readings I think they did so in order to distinguish themselves from entertainment. Poetry readings have become more and more boring as a result. It’s like going to church without even having an interesting statue of some tortured saint to look at. I am hoping that academics will learn to respond again, and I am hoping that slam cuts out their fucking pep rally, and allows the real energy of the poem and audience to flourish. I doubt it on both counts.

2. The stakes for wining have become so high that no one takes chances, further creating a uniform and tyrannical sameness. Those who score high, eventually tour and teach and this makes money. Slam is as much about acting chops as poetry. Actually, slam comes as much out of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, and the anti-joke, social commentary tradition of post-fifties stand up as it does out of poetry. This is true of spken word as a whole, but slam in particular is about winning over an audience through identification. Everyone is preaching to the converted–a hipster’s pep rally. It’s pisses me off. I almost would prefer a monster truck show.

3. Slam is corporate, fitting the agist demographic of media: the 18 to 34 year old target market. This is in direct contradiction to its foreparent: spoken word. Those who defy this demographic inhabit the back waters of slam obscurity. Spoken word had an understated, but true sense of community. Many of the poets I met on the spoken word scene when I was in my early 20s, were 20 years older than me. I did not grow up in the suburbs and so did not have the same demographic sense of age ghettos, and boundaries. I became close to many of these poets. On the slam scene, community is pushed as an agenda and has all the artificiality of a talk show kiss on the cheek. Phatic closeness scares the shit out of me.

4. Slam abandons a true embracing of difference for a largely virtual advocation of multi-culturalism. Yes, it is multi-race, but each race seems condemned to its semiotic indicators. This is the tyranny of semiotics–identification rather than diversity. This is also a problem in academia, in the whole of American consciousness: identity is insisted upon through semiotics because of brand recognition.

Putting these qualms aside, slam has some potentials I advocate:

1. The return of rhythmic and cadenced speech and rhetoric to an at least equal priority with the image. This includes the re-emergence of extended and Homeric metaphor, anaphora, apostrophic address, hyperbole, decorative speech, and the idea of poetry being an utterance distinct from neutral registers of language. Good poets never abandoned these devices, but mediocre poets could, by the triumph of modified forms of imagism, get away with having tin ears, flat voices, and no sense of rhythm and cadence whatsoever. In short, overly simple prose with line breaks.
2. A return of the body and physical presense to poetry.
3. Energy and intensity as values which are not discouraged.
4. Appeal to an actual audience.

Of course, some of these potentials are tied in with the worst aspects of slam as well, and, truly, spoken word (which is much larger and less limited than slam) was already reviving these aspects of poetry. Slam has merely added commodity and a movement toward uniformity to the proceedings.

UPDATE: Here are some YouTube videos that clarify what I’m talking about above.

Here, the extention of metaphor in this poem and the formula hperbolic slam voice. The next poem is identification slam 101.

This is one of the more famous slam poems. Note Anis does not play the usual slam formula, but there is still a cadence that many slam poets mimic. Listen to how he says the word alone. Shake the dust, the tag line is a quote from the bible.

Note the tremolo in Sierra’s voice. She is doing a persona poem as Dahmer’s mother–a steal from Particia Smith’s persona poems (like Skin Head, from which it derives), and also Cornelius Eady, but note how she over sells the poem. You can find Patrica Smith and Hal Sirowitz on youtube. I’d compare them to what Anne Carson is doing, also Sharon Olds. All available on YouTube.

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