Making its official appearance in 1985, slam poetry took off with the help of Marc Smith, a Chicago poet and construction worker. Approaching Dave Jemilo, event coordinator for the Get Me High Lounge (a local jazz club, now the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge), Smith proposed his idea to host the first poetry slam event during the slow Sunday night shift at the club. On July 25, 1985, the first Uptown Poetry Slam was held and performance poets from around the nation soon clamored to become a part of the Sunday night slams.
“This - is not a heart, it is a volume knob, you turn it this way when you wish to scream, you turn it this way when you wish to whisper”
Even this small excerpt from the poem’s very beginning is lackluster on the page. You can see the places where performance is necessary to the piece’s success. Which way are we turning the volume knob? Why is this a good analogy? What images are we not seeing on the page that we would see in the performance piece edition? All of these questions are answered in the following video:
We can easily hear the difference in the poem’s performance and see that what looks like utter drivel on the page is actually a meaningful piece of spoken literature. Ken Arkind, shown center stage in the above poetry group, spoke in a Ted Talk about this difference: “Before the written word, there was the spoken. In fact, it was Socrates who once argued that writing is inhuman. That it attempts to turn living ideas dwelling in the human mind into mere objects in the physical world.” Slam poetry is a firm believer in these ancient ideas and therefore it should not be translated into the written word. It is not meant to be physical; it is meant to be heard. To be felt. To be experienced.
It seems in recent years, especially, that the core of slam poetry has been abandoned with new (oftentimes self-published) books of spoken word poetry coming onto the market every few months. This should not be so. Not only does it speak volumes that no self-respecting publisher would release these works under its own name, but also the lack of readership should be an even more telling sign of why spoken word poetry never should be published. This is not to say that slam poetry should not be appreciated. On the contrary, spoken word poetry can be more emotionally charged and inspiring than traditional poetry. How then can spoken word be distributed without being published? The answer is as simple as a recording studio. Rather than publishing volumes of one’s work, slam poets should focus their energy into creating audio versions of their poetry. This would maintain the principles of slam poetry while creating a space for artists to both promote and profit from their work outside of open-mic venues. Listeners can enjoy the cadence of their favorite poet’s voice rather than going through the guess work of recreating the sensations through reading the text.
Abandoning the principles of slam poetry in order to distribute one’s work is irresponsible on the part of the poet and detrimental to the perception of the art. Having its roots in a musical environment, slam poetry should be kept strictly in an audible space for consumers to enjoy. Rather than printing one’s work on the page, slam poets should create audio renditions of their work so listeners can enjoy the art as it was intended to be consumed. The fact of the matter is, Socrates was right. Sometimes the spoken word should not be made physical on the page.