Novice Slamming: Giving it back to the people?
Next week I make my proper competitive debut into the world of poetry slamming. Since entering the world of performance poetry I have always been undecided about whether or not slamming is for me. Just what is the point of competing with our poetry and who are we trying to impress? However, having attended a few slam contests in recent months as an observer my instinctive rejection of the contest environment has diminished. I have seen what great fun is to be had at a slam by competitors and audiences alike so it has dawned on me that perhaps I am over-thinking the whole process - which is really just a great night out of poetry-filled entertainment.
Don’t misunderstand my position, I am a huge fan of anything that raises poetry’s profile and I have felt enormous admiration for the performances and the poetry of the slammers I have seen and heard. I just wasn’t sure if it was for me personally. It seemed that the best way to address my own dilemma would be to find out what the experience was really like, so here I go with an open mind and a sharpened tongue.
Here are some Slam Poetry fun facts about which you may be unaware:
- Marc Smith the American poet is said to have created the very first poetry slam in Chicago in 1984. It came about as a reactionary movement to the mainstream cliques of society poetry and what Smith thought they had become: “The very word 'poetry' repels people. Why is that? Because of what schools have done to it. The slam gives it back to the people.... We need people to talk poetry to each other. That's how we communicate our values, our hearts, the things that we've learned that make us who we are.”
- The jury has always been out on the usefulness of slam contests despite their continued growth. In 2009 literary critic Harold Bloom said in the Paris Review “I can't bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn't even silly; it is the death of art.”
- 2017 saw the UK’s first ever sign language poetry slam. This BBC film article beautifully captures the excitement of the contest for one particular competitor, 20 year old Honesty Willoughby (spoiler: she came third). The film is a fascinating insight into the event, of course revealing the usual nerves and stage-fright any performer may experience, but also a look at how sign language itself can be made visually as well as linguistically poetic with its emphasis on pace, rhythm and body movement.
- As fast as slamming has evolved as a discipline in its own right, rules and organisations have struggled to keep up and various governing bodies have attempted to lay claim to governorship. A bit like the various world boxing authorities the world has, there are several “world championships”, some of dubious construct such as the 2018 World Poetry Slam to be held in October this year, where “96 of the best performance poets from North America, as well as poets from other parts of the world” compete for the title!
But there I go, over-thinking it all again. So what if it isn’t really a “world” event? Baseball’s “World Series” is exclusively for American teams but it does alright for baseball fans around the globe, so why not the same for us poetry fans?