The U.S National Poetry Slam rules require poets to perform pieces they have written: one cannot perform another person’s work at the competition. Slam as a genre is linked to the performance of one’s own identity since the poet is physically there onstage with an accent, a skin colour, an apparent sex, etc. These cues affect how the audience perceives the poet even before he/she opens his/her mouth: they identify the poet before he/she has had the opportunity to claim an identity for him/herself, and they generally expect the voice of the poem to match the identity that they have perceived.
As Susan B. A. Somers-Willett observes in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America, the performance of the authentic self is hugely important in slam poetry; indeed “it might be the primary criterion slam poets have in mind when they write their poems: to impart some truth about their subjective experiences that artfully reveals an authentic self” (73). This is a major factor in judging: does the physical body onstage match the identity-declaration from the voice onstage? Of course, this “authenticity” is itself false: by writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and performing a poem, poets are conducting an act. They are performing one identity while enacting another identity (even if these two identities appear identical). But poets tend to be judged on the level of “realness” of their performances, how “true” they feel to the audience. Some of the most interesting pieces happen when the perceived identity of the poet and the identity that the poet professes through his/her work seem to clash and the audience realises that their preconceived notions are flawed: this is where the power of performance poetry to challenge stereotypes lies.
However, it is interesting what happens when the audience perceives the authenticity of the poet’s identity to be broken, rather than just stretched. Several years ago, in the throes of body image issues, I was writing and choreographing a lot on about being a larger woman and the cultural politics around fat. Recently I reworked a poem entitled “Flesh” that I had initially written three years ago concerning these feelings and began performing it again. I realized after performing it last month that, since I had initially written it, I had lost a considerable amount of weight. I was speaking onstage about having a soft stomach and having to squeeze into dresses when my current body does not match those descriptors to the same extent. Performing the poem still very much feels authentic to me: memories of feeling too large are still painfully sharp and I absolutely still reject the way that the media glorifies thin female bodies. However, I realized that to the audience, my performance of this poem may have rung false and felt inauthentic, undercutting its message. Audiences may feel that, as a medically average-sized woman, I have no right to claim the identity of a large woman, and thus they might dismiss the ideas within in, or, worse, perceive my performance as mocking.
Now I face a challenge with this poem. Having just retooled it, I put quite a lot of work into it and do not wish to waste that effort; additionally, I feel that the poem represents some of my best performance poetry work to date. However, I also don’t wish to undermine the very message I seek to promote by performing a piece that feels inauthentic.
Poets: Have you ever performed a piece years after it was written and realised it may ring false to your audience because the identity you’re professing does not match the identity you appear to hold? When that happens, do you retire the poem?
Somers-Willett, Susan. The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.