Slam poetry, also identified as spoken word poetry, is known to have been originally founded in 1985 by a former construction worker turned poet Marc Smith. He believed in bringing the current form of poetry more 'alive'. Having placed an emphasis on the concept of performance, this as a result enabled the foundations for a particular style of poetry that would soon be known all over the world. It was in 1986 when Smith approached Dave Jemilo, the owner of a Chicago jazz club known as the Green Mill, and put forward his idea in regards to hosting a weekly poetry competition. It was then that the poetry slam was born. Smith wanted the poets to consider the audience as well as their own personal vision, and to remind them of effective communication. The audience participation was highlighted with encouragement for the audience to show what they liked by yelling and clapping and equally showing what they disliked through the act of booing. This concept allowed the poetry event to be removed from its original respected settings in order to become something that was arguably owned by everyone.
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To reinforce his account of the slam poetry gospel, Smith has recently released a book, Take the Mic, which he wrote alongside Joe Kraynak. In his book Take the Mic he himself outlines what Slam is, and of course what it is not. In regards to the definition of Slam, he claims that "Slam poetry is performance poetry, the marriage of the text to the artful presentation of poetic words onstage to an audience that has permission to talk back and let the performer know whether he or she is communicating effectively" (p5). Many people often mistake slam poetry for merely competitive poetry that is performed in front of an interactive audience. However, according to Smith, it is much more than that. "For some it's a way to bring classic poems back to life through passionate performance. For others, it's a vehicle for creating a new community cantered on the celebration and articulation of performance poetry." (p5).
However, Smith's establishment of performance poetry should not be mistaken as the first recognition of it, in that poetry was first performed within the ancient world. The first recorded instance of performance poetry is within The Frogs by Aristophanes (405bce). In the play, Dionysus judges over the title of best tragic poet as Aeschylus and Euripides battle it out. In similar fashion to how performance poetry is judged today, Dionysus would quite literally weigh their words on a physical set of scales. Today, those performing would be given a score from 1 to 10 - 10 being the highest - and the person with the highest score would then go through to the next round in the hope of potentially winning. Smith has claimed that he first introduced score cards to the audience as this technique allows them to express their own opinion on the work being performed. Performance poetry as a result became somewhat more interesting as the audience were no longer passive members but instead were able to share and reflect on their own experience of the poem. Due to this concept, it comes as no surprise that slam poetry became so competitive.
Slam poetry continued to go from strength to strength as the years progressed. The movement originally spread throughout America, and then to the rest of the world. Slam poetry first came to the United Kingdom in 1994 and is still hugely popular today. It was at its peak when it was shown on MTV's Def Poetry Jam, a television series whereby slammers such as Patricia Smith, Taylor Mali and Saul Williams performed poetry alongside entertainers, singers and rappers such as Mos Def, Jamie Fox and Alicia Keys. There are many controversies that come with Slam poetry; critics often claim that, irrespective of the quality of the poetry, it tends to be the quality of the performance that often comes out on top. Further, it is frequently complained about that poems are usually judged more on their subject matter rather than their content, and that some subjects automatically receive higher points as they provoke sympathy or pity within their performance, poems on topics such as homophobia or racism for example. There are also some critics that accuse the slam movement of making poetry rather meaningless in that they argue there is essentially no skill required in order to compose a slam poem. Jonathan Galassi at one point defined slam poetry as a "kind of karaoke of the written word," while the critic Harold Bloom has called it "the death of art" and complained of "various young men and women in various late-night spots" who "are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other." George Bowering condemns slams as "abominations" that are "crude and extremely revolting."
On the contrary, one of slam's highlights is the concept that anyone can participate, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation or any other potential barrier that could be used as a filter to otherwise not allow participants to take part. This notion is key in regards to making the movement very marketable, and as a result very practical and worthwhile. As the movement is so popular, this then raises the question of what is left for the world of print, considering reading rates tend to be declining. As much attention is given towards the slam movement the traditional idea that slam is arguably the worst thing that has happened to poetry may cause controversy between many people. As Smith argues, "Slam is more than just 'rap without the music' or 'competitive poetry'; it's a global social / literary movement fueled by the passion and energy of thousands of organizers, poets, and audience members." (p13)
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The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry provides a critical reading of the slam movement, and reinforces the relationships between the slam poets themselves and their audiences through race and identity performances. The author, Susan Somers-Willett, argues that slam is a culture, rather than a reflection of it. She shows readers how some poets come to celebrate, or rather exploit, the politics of difference with American culture. Somers-Willett also discusses the ever-growing popularity of spoken word poetry, and further explores how it ties in with media, hip-hop music and popular verse. She then goes on to entangle each within the corruption of black urban culture. Somers-Willett claims that "It is quite possible that, like Beat and Black Arts Party, slam poetry will be defined by the cultural-historical moment in which it was produced - destined to fail outside of its moment but also influencing work beyond its current purview to push American poetry in new directions." (p15)
It has been recognised that slam enables people to speak out regarding political issues that are close to them. In another book by Somers-Willett, Slam Poetry: Ambivalence, Gender, and Black Authenticity in 'Slam'[Somers-Willett, Susan B.A. "Slam Poetry: Ambivalence, Gender, and Black Authenticity in 'Slam'" Text, Practice, Performance (2001): 37-63. EBSCOhost. James G. Leyburn Library, Lexington.], it is suggested that Somers-Willet feels that poverty, alongside the oppression that inevitably comes with it, are all a part of the slam culture. It is discussed how slam is "regarded as a counter-cultural force,"(p41) which as a result further suggests that it is "characterized as the artform of the literary and social underdog" (p41). Arguably, the issues that slam poets raise are based upon the social and political concepts that surround them. Somers-Willett made the point in saying that the concept of the slam competition is the notion that slammers "must convince their audiences they have something important to say," (p42) and those "messages of counter-cultural complaint are awarded attention and rewarded by judges" (p42). In order for competitors to make it into the slam arena, the member must ideally be part of the counter-culture, in that they must have experienced some form of hardship throughout their life. This as a result makes the slam more than just a part of inner-city culture, but instead it comes across as a vehicle for social change.
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