Hi everyone! Today I’m posting in response to a frustrating effect I’ve noticed in the public perception of ‘slam poetry.’ For my research, I subscribe to Google News updates which send me daily emails with links to every media article posted that day containing the words “performance poetry,” “spoken word,” or “slam poetry.” Usually these emails are just event bulletins or interviews with poets; however, sometimes unexpected pieces pop up. This past week, I received notice of at least three articles where journalists were describing Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as “slam poetry”(see video, transcript of the speech; see articles in NY Mag, NY Times, Flavorwire).
Palin’s speech was long and rambling, full of incoherent, disconnected statements, delivered with over-the-top pep, and assumedly it is for those reasons that the sources described it as ‘slam poetry.’ This frustrates me because it indicates a cultural perception that performance poetry is simply passionate babble, lacking artistry or formal constraints. In this post I will briefly explain why this use of the term ‘slam poetry’ to describe Palin’s speech is inaccurate, misinformed, and rather rude. More after the jump!
The first reason this use of ‘slam poetry’ to describe Palin’s speech is inaccurate is that technically ‘slam poetry’ is not a genre. I’ve written up a longer, more comprehensive explanation for this which I will be posting soon, so I won’t go into this too deeply here (if you’re interested now, this article is excellent). Briefly: poetry slams are events at which all styles of poetry are admissible for performance. One could go to a slam and perform a gentle love sonnet, a screamed political rant, or a comedic monologue: all would be welcome. Labelling all poems performed at slams as ‘slam poetry’ is as inaccurate as labelling all music performed at open mics ‘open mic music’: it describes the venue but is useless as a descriptor for the styles performed there. Yes, there is some merit to the idea of a ‘slam style’ which has emerged as certain poetic and performative elements are consistently rewarded in slam contexts, thus leading to poets replicating these elements in pursuit of slam victory (this will be discussed further in my upcoming post). However, the concept of ‘slam poetry’ as a genre in and of itself is inaccurate and only serves to falsely imply that only one style of work is welcome at slams. Instead of using that term, it is more accurate to use the umbrella term ‘performance poetry’ or to refer to ‘poetry which tends to be successful at slams.’ Again, more on this soon, but for now it is suffice to say that the term ‘slam poetry’ is a misnomer.
Secondly, the way in which these articles describe Palin’s speech as ‘slam poetry’ indicates a complete ignorance of the field. Presumably, these sources use the term ‘slam poetry’ to describe the way in which Palin’s speech rambled, consisting of loosely connected soundbites and passionately delivered quips. This description matches only the very worst of the poetry which tends to be presented at slams. Performance poems are usually memorised and highly rehearsed, with a huge amount of emphasis on effective delivery. Since the audience only has one chance to hear the poem, the poet must be clear and the content accessible enough to be grasped upon the first listening. Although of course exceptions will exist, generally poets craft their work with the audience’s comprehension and enjoyment foremost in their mind: after all, success at a poetry slam is determined democratically by how much the audience enjoyed and engaged with one’s piece. Rambling incoherently generally won’t earn you high scores.
Thirdly—stating the obvious—Palin did not make use of poetic devices during her speech, so to term it ‘poetry’ is a stretch. I’m cautious here because I do not wish to imply that all poems need to rhyme or use meter or lineation; the definition of poetry has expanded so much in recent decades that it is risky business trying to pin down any definition based in formal structures. However, Palin’s speech is best characterised as prose given the traditional definitions of poetry and prose. (As a caveat, I acknowledge the NY Times pointing out her use of internal rhyme in one line; one could make the argument that her highly fragmented speech style is akin to textual lineation, and that her consciousness of the sonic elements of the speech qualify it as a poem. I’d be open to reading such an analysis; however, even if the speech were to be considered poetry, it would be a stretch to consider it effective ‘slam poetry’).
Fourth, a matter of logistics: poems performed at slams must be under three minutes long. Clocking in at over 20 minutes, Palin’s speech would have been disqualified and she booed out of the slam venue four minutes in. Poetry slams were initiated in part due to frustration with the way that the regular poetry reading circuit often allowed poets to ramble long over their allotted open-mic time, leaving audiences bored and other poets grumpy. Thus time limits are a mechanism for ensuring that poets respect the other performers, and can be a useful challenge to poets to craft pieces which effectively convey their ideas within those limits.
And finally: the performance poetry movement particularly in the North American context has tended to be characterised by the expression of marginalised identities and more left-wing political ideals (see Somers-Willett for more on this). Without generalising too much, it is fair to say that the majority of performance poems with political themes fall further to the left of the political spectrum. Common messages in performance poems are feminism, outcries over racial, class, and gender inequality, and pacifism. Poetry slam events have been described as social forums for the expression of identities which are usually marginalised in mainstream society, including black, LGBTQ, disabled, and socioeconomically disadvantaged identities. To some, performance poetry is not a literary/performance genre but a social/political movement for justice and equality. Suffice to say that poets with that mindset would be upset at the use of the term ‘slam poetry’ for a highly nationalistic speech advocating violence (“kick ISIS ass”), gun access (“proud clingers to our guns”) and attacking women’s healthcare providers (criticising Obama’s “blank check to fund … Planned Parenthood”) in support of a candidate advocating the banning of Muslims from the U.S.
To assume the best of the situation, perhaps the journalists were using ‘slam poetry’ as a reference to Palin’s highly performative, engaging stage presence. However, in the context of these articles, which universally panned and parodied her over-the-top delivery, the reference is clearly intended to be derogatory.
My response to these throwaway references may seem like an overreaction. However, to those of us who actively work and identify as performance poets, it is incredibly frustrating when our craft is perceived as overly dramatic performance empty of comprehensible meaning. We’re all too conscious that the way in which performance poetry is perceived in the popular imagination is informed by the (assumedly hilarious, but cringey) scene in the film 22 Jump Street where Jonah Hill’s character freestyles a poem to impress a girl:
When I was flyering for a performance poetry show during the Fringe last summer, I found that this scene was the top frame of reference most folks had for performance poetry. It didn’t make it easy to sell a show when people assumed they’d have to sit through an hour of material like that! And the use of ‘slam poetry’ in these articles describing Palin’s speech follow from the same assumptions: that slam poetry is the hipster toddler of the Beat generation, screaming in poorly crafted, disjointed prose about radical politics but saying nothing at all.
Furthermore, for me as an academic studying contemporary performance poetry, these sorts of misinterpretations of the genre indicate just how little mainstream culture understands about this still emergent, multi-medium field. Performance poetry combines textual, oral, and performative techniques in innovative ways to craft work which can be tremendously exciting and engaging. It is increasingly being taught in schools as a way of encouraging youth to be more confident and self-expressive, as well as showing them that poetry can be relevant to their lives and re-engaging them with literacy. Performance poetry is not limited to slams but is increasingly popping up in longer shows, in physical theatre, and in more mainstream commercial contexts. Performance poems go viral on an almost weekly basis, and poets are beginning to innovate with audio-visual media to produce multi-medium ‘poem videos’ which are hugely exciting for their fusion potential.
To sum up: performance poetry is so much more than the incoherent babble that the mainstream media unfortunately keeps implying that it is. Let’s stop using ‘slam poetry’ as shorthand for ridiculous, incoherent speech and instead recognise the full breadth and diversity of a field with so much to offer.
Performance poets: Do you often feel that ‘slam poetry’ is misunderstood in mainstream culture? If you have any additional examples, please send them my way!