Lately I’ve been meeting a lot of slam poets who have never participated in a poetry slam. To be clear, I’m not referring to spoken word artists working outside of the slam movement. These are self-proclaimed slam poets who don’t perform at poetry slams. They’ve never attended one and have no intention of doing so.
This is absurd but understandable, given how many people think that slam is a poetic genre rather than a grassroots movement. If you believe that slam poetry is a poetic genre, then you should be able to learn the technique and craft of making slam poems and do so in any context. Why bother with the potential let down of a poetry competition? Just find some slam poetry on YouTube and imitate whatever style has the most hits. Tada! You’re a slam poet!
There’s only one drawback to this approach: slam poetry does not exist.
It’s a misconception—one that is becoming more common as slam continues to gain mainstream exposure. At this point, the term slam poetry is shorthand for the kind of poetry that happens at a poetry slam, which fails as a definition because it provides no formal parameters that could indicate what makes this style of poetry distinct from any other. If Margaret Atwood were to read at a slam event, would that make her a slam poet? See how bizarre that sounds? We all know that when Atwood slams—under her stage name The Northern Undeniable—she considers herself only a temporary participant in the poetry slam movement.
In 2005, when I started performing in slams, the term slam poet was a back-handed compliment. You’d say someone was a slam poet if you thought they performed work that could only survive in the slam setting. The preferred idea was to use the slam as a laboratory to build and test spoken word pieces that could later be performed for all kinds of audiences. The slam community provided support for the work while the poetry slam sharpened one’s skills as a writer and performer through friendly competition. The goal was never to be a slam poet; it was to be a spoken word artist whose skills were battle-tested at the poetry slam and whose political awareness had been broadened by the slam community.
These days, slam poet has become a fashionable—and, I’ll admit, useful—label to adopt. Teachers and event organizers want to book slam poets. That’s what they ask for when they call. In fact, I often call myself a slam poet when booking gigs. I consider it shorthand for “spoken word artist from the slam movement”. But most people assume you’re a slam poet because you perform work that falls into the genre of slam poetry. I’m glad that slams have become so popular that people are making this mistake. I truly am. But this shift in terminology has insidious side-effects.
The idea of a singular, formulaic genre called slam poetry creates an artificial barrier for those who would like to share their work at a poetry slam. Poets start to assume they are writing the wrong kind of poetry if it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s. I have had countless students tell me: “I can’t be in the poetry slam, I don’t write slam poetry.” My reply has always been “There is no such thing as slam poetry, so let’s sign you up.” Apply a few basic public speaking skills to any well-written poem, and it can shine. After all, the slam is simply an open mic with a brilliant gimmick to encourage audience response.
A quarter of a century ago, an American poet named Marc Smith created a new format for an open mic poetry show by giving three random audience members score cards and telling them to judge the poets on a scale of one to ten. The scores encouraged the audience to be rowdy, to be involved in the experience, and to give direct feedback to the poet—usually enthusiastic support, but not always. When this format caught on and began being replicated in other cities around the world, poetry slam became a movement—one where all voices and poetic styles were welcome. No poet has ever been required to write or perform in a certain way to take part in a slam. It’s an innovative format for an open mic, not a genre or a school of thought.
Having more people interested in poetry slam is a good thing. Slam is a populist movement based on the idea that everyone should have the chance to share their work without an expert pre-judging whether or not the poems are good enough for public consumption. Obscurity is a barrier to inclusion. After all, how can a slam welcome poets of all styles and voices if the general public doesn’t know it exists? Popularity is a sign of access. Good, then! Let us be popular!
But are all styles and voices truly welcome at a slam? Emily Dickinson would lose every time. Robert Frost would be yawned out of the building. Having scores has created a culture and that culture creates a certain kind of poetry, right? The problem with this kind of thinking is it assumes that the only poems that matter are the ones that win. But whether you finish first or last does not determine the degree to which you are a poet within the slam community. It is your willingness to participate and your level of involvement. If Emily Dickinson wants to show up every week and read her quatrains about trees and angels, then she is a poetry slammer, no matter where she ranks in the scores at the end of the night. When the crowd chants “The points are not the point, the point is poetry,” they’re not consoling the loser; they’re using Alan Wolfe’s axiom to remind themselves that paying too much attention to the scores is a fool’s game.
The key premise of the poetry slam movement is that elite cultural gatekeepers should not determine whose voice is heard and whose is not. What’s ironic, and deeply disturbing, is that the concept of slam poetry as a singular genre has started to take on that gatekeeper role. Because slam is being touted as a genre but lacks an official definition, it conjures up whatever style of delivery won the biggest slam last year and shames all those working in different modes. Sadly, the genre-izing of slam poetry has become the most exclusionary force in the poetry slam movement; a movement that was founded on the idea of democratic inclusion.
When I visited classrooms five or ten years ago, I would have to begin with an explanation of what poetry slam was. No one had a clue. Now, I can walk into any classroom, ask students who their favourite slam poet is, and hands will shoot up right away. I’d like to ask them who their favourite spoken word artist is, but slam poet is the term most students know. They know the term because Shane Koyczan performed for a few billion people at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. They know it because, in 2013, two poets with slam backgrounds, El Jones and Mary Pinkoski, become poet laureates of their cities. The slam movement in Canada has gone from underground to overground—which is wonderful—but, during the transition, its inclusionary ideals have been compromised by the spread of the meaningless term slam poetry.
When I say slam poetry does not exist, I am not ignoring the fact that a great number of spoken word poets in the slam movement sound alike. Many poets use similar arguing styles, speed of delivery, tone of voice and physical gestures. It needs to be said: the reason that all those poems sound alike is not because they belong to a poetic genre—it’s because they are filled with cliché. Most of us recognize cliché in writing, but cliché also exists in performance technique.
There are many clichéd ways of writing and performing, almost all of which are the result of poets copying overused gestures, rhetoric, or intonation. Sometimes these techniques are quite effective, but mass imitation does not constitute a school of thought nor a poetic style. I can show you thousands of poems that use birds as a metaphor for freedom. This does not mean birdism is a new poetic genre. It means there are poets who need to start thinking past their first symbolic impulse. The same goes for performance clichés. Those who have fallen under the spell of slam poetry need to hit the reset button, go back to their regular speaking voice, and find an original form of theatricality that suits the needs of each text.
Here is the crux of the problem: there exists a term, slam poetry, which pretends to be a type of poetry but has no formal parameters. A time limit does not create a style of poetry, nor do any of the other rules inherent in slams. They only compel the artist to focus solely on words, voice and gesture in conveying their poem, which are the performative requirements in any form of orature. This term has plunked itself down at the centre of our discourse. Aspiring slam participants (and apparently even those who have no interest in participating) have been given the impression that they must replicate certain styles of writing and performance in order to be taken seriously as a slam poet. So they copy the most obvious elements of performance cliché—yelling, speed, tones of distress, waving their arms—believing that they are correctly recreating a cool, new poetic style. In this way, the idea of slam poetry has crushed a great deal of artistic self-expression, encouraging poets to conform to something they can’t even define.
Examine the distinct poetic approaches of Fernando Raguero, RC Weslowski, Sasha Langford, and Ian Keteku: poets who all identify as spoken word artists and who either started out in or continue to participate in slams to this day. Their differences in style, subject matter and presentation far outweigh any similarities. They are all innovative spoken word artists and display wildly different inspirations and influences. Weslowski practices spoken weird—he’s a surrealist poet influenced by clowning. Keteku draws on a background in hip hop. Raguero has more in common with Bukowski than he does with either of the previous two. Langford’s theatre background is the training for her persona poems, which use stillness and a quiet voice to examine the machinations of denial. The only thing that joins them is that they have each participated in the slam movement. To say they all practice something called slam poetry is to diminish the variety in modes of expression between them. They are not beholden to any concept of slam poetry, nor are any of the other artists practising spoken word within the slam setting.
That said, I realize that no amount of quibbling will remove this term from the English lexicon. It’s already in common usage. What I hope is that, every time we hear the term slam poet, we remember we are using it as a shorthand for “spoken word artist with a background in the poetry slam movement” and not “person expected to perform one type of rather predictable poetry”. There are many poetries being practiced within the slam movement. Let us welcome them all. And let us never forget Marc Smith’s maxim: “There is no such thing as slam poetry. There is only the poetry slam.”