by Carly Szabo
With its roots clinging to a Chicago jazz club, it’s no wonder that slam poetry holds musicality at its very core. The success of slam poetry is dependent on the performance of the author, the voice of the poet. It’s not enough to have pretty words scribbled on the page. One must know how to perform the piece in a way that makes the words come to life. Oftentimes, slam poetry can look completely dull on the page. It can appear as prose poetry to some, or a stream of consciousness piece with awkward enjambment and nonsensical patterns. Its lack of form on the page is what makes slam poetry terrible, at times impossible, to read. Take the following example from Slam Nuba’s Volume Knob:
“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:
So what makes Smith’s approach to poetry so appealing? What differentiates it from traditional poetry? Slam poetry is different in that there is a performance quality to it that is not always present in traditional poetry. Slam poetry deals more with cadence and musicality, relying on wordplay, rhyme, and alliteration more so than traditional poetry. Poems that appear on the page contain these elements as well, but slam poetry works to synthesize these elements in a way that is more audibly appealing. The result is a strong and distinct authorial voice that can be heard rather than guessed at through silent readings. The poet knows which words to emphasize, which moments to speed up and slow down, where to whisper and where to scream. All of these elements go beyond the page and, without written cues, can be lost on the reader completely. Think of it in the same way you would think about screenwriting. You wouldn’t pay the box office $13.00 just to get a written copy of a film. The true experience is in the performance of the piece, the actors allowing what is written on the page to come to life. It is for the same reason that slam poetry should not be read on the page. Indeed, it should never be published in ink.