Shawn Lynn Walker

Why We Need the Slam?

The phenomenon known as the "Poetry Slam" takes a lot of heat from poets who consider themselves above participating in them. They are labeled co-modifiers of poetry, forums for amateurs, and rowdy stages for sensationalism, where only the worst poetry is insured a place in the final round. All of this has been true in certain cases, and it will remain so if we accept it as the be all and end all of this medium's potential. I would like to argue that we poets, rather than disown the slam and its audience, should reclaim it.

To begin, I would like to note that oral presentation has been relegated to the fringes of a poet's responsibilities to his arts. Some poets, like myself, will recognize this as a tragedy. I am excited at the prospect of reclaiming and renewing the possibilities inherent in poetry to communicate a powerful, living experience of lines, carefully crafted and artfully delivered. Others are and will remain disinterested in the delivery aspect of our art. This is their prerogative, and this essay really does not pertain to them.

Poetry slams offer an arena in which poets can begin to renew some sort of oral tradition. The dramatic and competitive demands on slam participants force poets to reflect on the quality of their reading. A slam provides a captive audience, gathered together for the sole purpose of hearing poetry read, and ready to get very excited about it. However, many poets still deign from reading in this atmosphere, considering the crowd and its judgments beneath them.

Some argue that slams diminish the value of poetry by giving more weight to the dramatic performance of the poem. Certainly, if two mediocre poems are read, but one of them is read with passion and gusto, the audience will then be forced to base their judgment on the performance rather than the words; if angst is all they get, of course they will cling to the most moving reenactment of it. Similarly, if a very talented poetry-writer stutters through what might actually be a beautiful poem, a live audience will be unsympathetic. However (and some may argue that I prove myself too much of an optimist by saying this), I believe that if the same audience were given the choice between a well-projected poetic experience and a well-enacted piece of melodrama, the former will prevail.

Many of those who find slams distasteful base their opinions on pre- conceived judgments about the audience. "This is the public at large in 1995. They were raised on MTV and Nintendo. They want distraction, not transcendence. They do not relate to real poetry. To begin with, I do not believe these stereo-types. If the public (ourselves included, do not forget) was raised on fillers, perhaps they'd come looking for some- thing more. As a poet, I consider myself challenged to become the one who gives it to them, to reach an audience raised on sensationalism and re- familiarize them with the portion of themselves which worships art.

It is true, poetry slam audiences do not correspond exactly with the audiences most poets picture themselves as writing for. And they do not respond well to poetry written to be read by a well-refined reader, situated in a candle-lit corner of his study, in the midst of high aesthetic contemplation. Nor does a poetry slam reading at all resemble an open reading for a small, quiet audience reclining in a bookstore or college library. At least not for very long. However, truly powerful and serious poets should be able to bridge the gap between audiences. We should consider this wider audience one that will take bigger, stronger lines to encompass and then rise to that challenge, rather than denying that the challenge even exists.

A poet need not abandon her integrity in this attempt. If we believe that not only angst-filled melodrama has the potential to emotionally and intellectually involve a public audience, then we see that poetry slams are an arena waiting to receive their true competitors. And we must step up to that call.

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