Does an American Accent help with Slam Poetry?

A comment that I keep receiving after performances is that I “sound right” when I perform slam poetry because of my American accent. I’ve been told by multiple people that my slam performances sound “authentic” since they’re done in an American voice, so lately I’ve been trying to sort out the cultural factors underlying that perception and the implications for my poetry practice as an American performing abroad.

Slam poetry originated in the U.S. and the infrastructure to support large-scale slam competitions is the most strongly developed there. In the U.S. exist the major television and radio outlets for slam poetry (Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, NPR’s Snap Judgment, etc.), as well as world-famous slam venues (the Bowery, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, etc.), and the U.S. National Poetry Slam is a major annual event supported by its own non-profit organization, Poetry Slam Inc. Due to the globalizing effects of the Internet, many slammers around the world learned the craft by watching American slammers on YouTube. This leads to an association of the slam genre itself with American culture and with the American voice (although, of course, there are myriad “American voices”: here I refer to the American accent as opposed to an English, Scottish, Irish, or other English-language accent). So, to some people, slam poetry sounds “proper” and “correct” when done in an American accent because it’s being performed by a member of the culture where it originated.

I’ve certainly absorbed much of the American style of slam, mainly through watching American poets such as Andrea Gibson and Katie Wirsing online (and, thrillingly, in person). It’s probable that I’ve picked up their cadences and rhythms by listening to their work so much, so that it’s not only my accent but also the way that I perform that sounds “American” (although there are many styles under the “American” umbrella). And my accent is definitely American, an East Coast generic voice, I suppose. I’ve realized that I even alter it slightly when I perform, unintentionally, drawing out ‘o’s: this is something that Gibson and Wirsing do as well, and perhaps another trademark of “American” slam.

Still, it’s bizarre to consider that my accent, over which I have no control, could be a positive force affecting how my poetry is received. I dislike the idea that it might be biasing judges to score me higher, as I want my work to stand on its own merit. I also learned to slam in Scotland, not the U.S., so the Scottish performance poetry scene is a larger influence on my work than the American one, making it strange that I’m perceived as an “American poet” as soon as I open my mouth.

Furthermore, the last thing that I would want is for the voices of American slam poets to be elevated over the voices of non-American poets: this would fly in the face of the democratic aspect of slam that I find so important. The form is stronger for the diversity of voices that speak it, which is one reason I’m worried about this trend to consider some voices to be more authentic or natural than others. Slam is best when it promotes cultural exchange rather than holding high regard for poets from one culture. So, let’s continue to celebrate the voices of all poets, no matter their accents, and create new cadences so performance poetry can continue to expand and reach new ears.

Performance poets: Have you ever been told that your accent makes you more or less fit for performance poetry? Poetry appreciators: Do some slam poets with an American accent sound more authentic to you?

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2 responses to “Does an American Accent help with Slam Poetry?

  1. Tracey S. Rosenberg

    Hmm. Good question! I’ve only ever slammed here in Scotland (except once in Toronto, and a few sacrificial poems at the Swedish Nationals) and I won my first slam only last month, so I don’t have tons of experience, but here goes.

    I’ve heard people here, who are familiar with international slam, say things like ‘[that person] is very American slammy’ – which I think refers to the cadences you mention, as well as to the accent and the way the subject is approached. (Like, say, your birth control poem. It’s something I’d expect to hear in North America, but not here.) And I don’t write slam poems along North American lines, so I doubt I’m considered ‘American slammy’ even with my accent.

    I think there’s an influence, though. Some UK slammers are mad Shane Koyczan fans and it slips through. 🙂

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    • I agree: I think it’s more the cadences and subject matter that categorize what people view as “American slam.” I’ve been trying to think about what categorizes “Scottish slam”: it’s quite diverse and I don’t want to generalize, but I think that there is a definite style that’s emerging out of the Loud Poets mold, a way of performing and using the language which typifies many of the poets out of Edinburgh. Not sure whether Glasgow has such a distinct voice. It’ll be interesting to see how these styles evolve! Thanks for your comment.

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