My last post responded to the way media sources were misconstruing Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech for Donald Trump as “slam poetry.” I gave several reasons why I consider that use of that term to be inaccurate and rather rude, including that the use of ‘slam poetry’ as shorthand for rambling, incoherent utterances misrepresents a field of poetry generally characterised by tight performances and accessibility. One of the primary reasons I was frustrated with the way this term was used, though, is that ‘slam poetry’ is not a valid term, because it cannot accurate describe an artistic genre. In this post I argue that ‘slam poetry’ as a genre in and of itself does not exist, and suggest some other terminology which more accurately reflects the field of contemporary performance poetry. More after the jump!
Slam can be described as a movement, a philosophy, a form, a genre, a game, a community, an educational device, a career path and a gimmick.
—Gregory, “(Re)presenting Ourselves: Art, Identity, and Status in U.K. Poetry Slam” (201)
The term ‘slam poetry’ is perhaps the most controversial of the terms used to describe strands of contemporary performance poetry. ‘Slam poetry’ is used in the vernacular to indicate the type of poetry performed at poetry slam events. However, this is a problematic umbrella term because slams were never intended to foster one particular style. Slams are events at which all styles of poetry are (at least purportedly) welcome; as slam founder Marc Smith has quipped, “[t]here is no such thing as slam poetry. There is only the poetry slam” (Smith qtd in Gilpin np). Dana Gioia has similarly recognised the slipperiness of the term ‘slam poetry’ due to the fact that “the form encompasses the work of anyone in a bar or café with enough nerve (or alcohol) to get up to recite original verse to the crowd” (np). The only accurate way in which to use the term ‘slam poetry’ would be to only use it to describe the actual poems performed at a slam. Wheeler uses this limited definition, defining ‘slam poetry’ as “work recited by its authors at competitive poetry performance events” (141).
However, using the event name to describe the type of work performed at the event is massively generalising, considering that a wide range of styles are invited to be performed at slams. This would be akin to labeling all music performed at open mics ‘open mic music,’ ignoring the vast range of music which can be performed. Gilpin is frustrated with this implication that there is only one style of poetry which is admissible for performance at slams: “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 slam because it gives the impression that they are writing the wrong kind of poetry if it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s” (Gilpin np). The effect of the term ‘slam poetry,’ then, can be to limit the variation of styles which are performed at poetry slams simply because poets may not consider their work appropriate for the slam context and will thus decline to perform work which deviates from what they perceive as ‘slam poetry.’ This gradually narrows the field of work performed at slams as poets increasingly perform at slams only work they which expect to be appropriate and successful within that context.
While the term “slam poetry” is technically inaccurate since slams are events at which multiple styles may be performed, is there such a thing as ‘slam style’? It may be true that any type of poetry is welcome to be performed at a slam, but it is also true that not every style is equally likely to be successful. The structures and requirements at poetry slams have shaped a certain style of poetry which tends to be successful within the slam context; it is work in this style which is generally termed ‘slam poetry.’ For instance, the requirement that poems performed at slams must be under three minutes has led to the creation of a style which values poems of this length. Slams also require poems to be original works performed by their authors, which has led to the association of ‘slam poetry’ with autobiographical narratives and confessional work. In addition, the fact that a main criteria of judging is audience response means that successful poems at slams tend to actively work to engage the audience through energetic performance and through ensuring the poem is immediately accessible to audience members. Finally, the fact that slam organisations tend to self-market as part of a counter-cultural movement and slam audience have tended to reward the expression of marginalised identities has meant that these ‘underdog’ narratives tend to be highly successful at slams and are common within the field.
As slam competitors view the way certain elements of poems are rewarded more highly than others in the slam context and craft work using those elements in pursuit of slam success, this ‘slam style’ began to take shape. A commenter on Gilpin’s article termed this process ‘genrefication,’ an apt word I will borrow here. Increasingly poets are understanding that there seems to be a formula for slam success—including memorised, passionate delivery, (left-wing) political themes, identity expression, and certain performative tricks and stylistics—and they are following this formula rather than innovating. Somers-Willett laments this “formulaic work” following from the way in which “many poets adhere to certain standards of writing and performance to achieve slam success” (18). Through the consistent rewarding of poems in this style, its allure grows stronger and poets associate this style of work with slam success, and thus ‘slam style.’
Although any artistic genre will have certain benchmarks for success within the field, slam makes artistic success a much more recognisable milestone through its explicitly competitive framework. For poets chiefly motivated by slam success, following the ‘formula’ of ‘slam style’ will be more attractive than poetic innovation. In recognition of this conformist effect, slams consistently try to undermine their own competitive element through mantras like “The points don’t matter” and attempts to make poetic innovation and community the true purposes of the slam. However, as the slam infrastructure grows, there are increasingly high stakes for winning competitions, including large monetary prizes, touring contracts, and fame within the field. In such a high-stakes environment, innovation against the successful ‘formula’ is a risk few would be willing to take.
However, although there are certain elements of performance poems which tend to be more successful at slams and thus a certain ‘slam style’ has emerged, there is still not a singular formula which could be said to determine ‘slam poetry’ other than the time limits (and even these are sometimes broken by slammers). As Gilpin astutely observes, the term ‘slam poetry’ “fails as a definition because it provides no formal parameters that indicate what makes this style of poetry distinct from any other” (np). Attempting to define ‘slam poetry’ through its adherence to certain themes or performance styles is futile considering that technically any poet may get up at a slam and perform work of any style. One could quietly read a sonnet from the page at a slam: would then that poem be labeled ‘slam poetry’? It is also important to take into account the variations in slam styles across different cultural contexts, making the concept of a singular ‘slam poetry’ genre even more slippery to pin down. Audiences in Edinburgh may reward entirely different poetic styles than audiences in Dallas, and audiences in working-class pubs may be receptive to different themes from audiences in university societies (or not). Success at a poetry slam is contingent upon the whims of the audience in that particular context, who may be influenced by their perception of what ‘successful slam poetry’ looks like elsewhere, but who will ultimately pass judgment based on their mindsets on that evening.
Susan Somers-Willett takes an interesting approach to her characterisation of ‘slam poetry.’ Like Smith, Gioia, Gilpin, and Gregory, she is hesitant to definitively categorise slam as a genre because it is “difficult to isolate particular subjects, modes of address, or formal qualities that all slam poetry shares on a universal level” (Cultural Politics 19). Rather, she suggests that “slam is defined less by its formal characteristics and more by what is wishes to achieve or effect: a more immediate, personal, and authentic engagement with its audience” (CP 19, emphasis mine). She identifies four “effects” of slam’s “composition and performance,” including actively engaging the audience and a dedication to democratic ideals (CP 20). These ‘effects’ are useful for characterising common goals of poems written for the context of the poetry slam. However, her notion of ‘slam poetry’ still carries with it the same implications of genre limitations which make all definitions of that term problematic.
Helen Gregory also takes an innovative approach to viewing ‘slam poetry’ which helps to mitigate some of the issues with fixing a definition onto it. She coins the term “for(u)m” for referring to slam, which reflects slam’s dual nature as a social forum (the poetry slam event) and a literary form. This term serves as a useful reminder of the fact that slams are ultimately just events at which any type of poetry can be performed, and coincides with Gregory’s scholarly focus on the ways in which contemporary performance poetry events foster communities and forums for dialogue. I have not seen the term being adopted by other scholars, but I would suggest its usefulness and propose its wider adoption into the critical language we use to evaluate contemporary performance poetry.
On a related note, the concept of a “slam poet” can be just as inaccurate as the concept of ‘slam poetry.’ This is not only for the reasons explained above that slam poetry is not a genre, but also due to its implication that the ‘slam poet’ limits his/herself to competing at slams. This would be a difficult way to pursue a career; the majority of performance poets also perform at open mics, performance poetry events, and tours of solo or collective shows. This is particularly true outside the North American context, where there is a less developed slam infrastructure with smaller rewards, so it would be virtually impossible to make a name or a living for oneself solely through competing at slams. Thus, as Gregory notes, in the U.K. “it is rare for artists to adopt the slam poet label, yet many would happily call themselves performance poets” (“(Re)Presenting Ourselves” 204). Furthermore, as Gilpin has observed, slams are usually stepping stones to poetry careers for most professional poets, so the label of “slam poet” would be rather juvenile for them. Gilpin notes as well that in the early days of slam the term could be a “back-handed compliment” because one would only label a poet a slam poet if s/he “thought they performed work that could only survive in the slam setting” (Gilpin np). Thus, the label of ‘slam poet’ is as problematic as the term ‘slam poetry’ not only for its inaccuracy but also the condescension it implies towards poets who perform regularly at slam events.
Could the terms ‘slam poetry’ or ‘slam poet’ be useful at all? Somers-Willett notes that some poets “embrace the classification, hoping to legitimize the genre or, conversely, to associate themselves with slam poetry’s renegade status in the literary world” (18). For some, then, self-identifying as a ‘slam poet’ may be a source of pride and a marker of counter-cultural rebellion against ‘academic’ mainstream writing. I would caution against the use of ‘slam poet’ or ‘slam poetry’ for its technical inaccuracy, but its use is understandable given that there are no agreed-upon terms to describe this new wave of work so heavily influenced by the poetry slam movement.
To conclude: the term ‘slam poetry’ is technically inaccurate, but the evolution of a style which tends to be successful at slam poetry events cannot be denied. It is important to realistically consider the effect which slam conventions have had upon the formation of contemporary performance poetry as a whole. The fact that these structures have led to the performance of similar poems can be perceived as an unfortunate trend towards a lack of innovation; however, it’s also an effect which will occur naturally in an art world which explicitly rewards poems in a certain style. Ultimately it comes down to debating semantics; when the term ‘slam poetry’ is used it is shorthand for ‘poetry that tends to be successful within the slam context’ or ‘poetry composed for the specific purpose of being performed at slams.’ While ‘slam poetry’ is easier to write, let’s work to be more specific about the terminology we use, so that poets of all stripes feel comfortable performing diverse work at slams and so that slams are better able to return to the purpose for which they were originally founded: to get audiences engaged with poetry.
Poets who slam: What terms do you use do describe your work? Do you consider ‘slam poetry’ a genre? Would you consider the term ‘slam poet’ derogatory?
Gioia, Dana. “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture.” The Hudson Review LVI.1 (2003): n. pag. Print.
Gregory, Helen. “(Re)presenting Ourselves: Art, Identity, and Status in U.K. Poetry Slam.” Oral Tradition 23.2 (2008): 201–217. Web.
Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.
Wheeler, Lesley. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. Print.