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”
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.
Have you ever read a piece of poetry and wondered about its form? Have you ever felt that you’ve understood the structure of a poem and then, midway through, had that understanding turned on its head? Chances are, the poem you’re reading is a slam poem translated to the page. The result is oftentimes catastrophic, leading readers to dismiss the poetry as a jumbled mess of attempts at the usage of poetic devices. What readers don’t know is that when listened to in its intended state, slam poetry can elicit as much of an emotional response as traditional poetry. Rather than printing these poems, they should appear strictly in their original form: the spoken word.
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.
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.