Can slam poetry still inspire?
“You took my heart like a thief in the night, placed it in the iridescent colors of your soul, put it in a box. Locked it with a key, and kept it. That’s how you start it, with a deep ass line.”
This is how Daisy Armstrong begins her 2011 spoken word poem “This Shit Looks Deep”: with a deep-ass line. For four and a half minutes, she goes on to mock, comment on, and most importantly, utilize every slam poetry cliché that has ever emerged. Her dynamics change even when the content of the poem does not. She fabricates emotions to gain the audience’s attention; she uses a fake New York accent because everything sounds good in a New York accent; she lets her body control what happens, not the words. Daisy points out everything that was wrong with slam poetry trends back then, and we are still seeing the same trends today.
The first time I ever experienced spoken word poetry, I was sitting in my eighth-grade writing enrichment class as a prose writer terrified of verse and all things related to it. My teacher put on a performance from a Def Poetry Jam, Shihan’s “This Type Love,” and it was unlike anything I knew. It had the passion of acting, the lyricism of prose, the energy of a stand-up comedy gig. It was the combination of my favorite kinds of art, and I fell instantly in love with its originality and creativity. I discovered Andrea Gibson, a spoken word poet who lies on the softer side of the genre; Patrick Roche, a mentally ill college student who leaves his entire heart on stage; Kai Davis, a black girl with more passion than I could ever fathom; and Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye and Neil Hilborn and Alex Dang and countless poets who have their own unique styles.
Around the time I was discovering the genre, it started gaining popularity. The revolutionary show Def Poetry Jam was off air, but the Brave New Poets competition was in full-swing. The YouTube account Button Poetry began in 2012 and quickly became one of the biggest sources for spoken word online. Individual Youtube pages were started, and more people than ever were able to share their art. I discovered poets whose words and voices transformed and inspired me.
Yet now, I’m finding poets who sound almost like them. Their words are different, but their inflection sounds familiar. I’ve seen their mannerisms before. They’re conforming to an unspoken formula that has been created throughout the formative few decades of the genre, and now, Button Poetry is riddled with poems which accomplish nothing other than compliance.
“Poet Voice” is something that has been written about for years. It is this insufferable airy and performative tone that most poets (including myself, on occasions) use when reciting a poem—always a few steps away from what their actual voices sound like. Every other syllable is stressed, the lines always end on a down-note, and for some reason, poets adopt a voice that is not their own. I should not be hearing the same exact voice when watching Rudy Francisco, a romantic, passionate black man, and Sam Flax, a white guy walking on some train tracks with one corner of his lip upturned to create an accent and a façade that he does not have any right to maintain. Poems lose their authenticity and heart when they are performed in the way that has been laid out for them by prior poets.
Poets come out the door with a mission: to make the audience feel what the poet feels. What many don’t understand is that just as respect has to be earned, the audience’s emotional response is not a given. I have no reason to feel for a poet from the get-go. Sure, there is a sense of human connection and natural empathy, but the second a poet comes out swinging loudly, proclaiming something mundane with an overdramatic voice, they have lost me. I already know that they are going to be using just their body and their voice to tell me their story, as opposed to their words. Poetry slams are not merely a space to see who can yell the loudest.
This brings me to my final point. Slam poetry is a fascinating genre because it is one of the only spaces that is primarily occupied by marginalized and minority groups. Because of this, the platform has become increasingly politicized, and for good reason. A queer woman standing and demanding a platform is a political statement; a mentally ill person putting issues into the spotlight is a political statement; a black man taking back power on a stage is a political statement. Spoken word poetry is a political art for unheard voices—but it is still an art, and I have observed a lack of original art recently. A small yet noteworthy portion of slam poems focuses more on the message than the poem itself, as if the destination is somehow worth more than the journey. This ideology turns poems into speeches, poets into politicians, and poetry slams into rallies. Politics and slam poetry can and should coexist in the same space, but not at the expense of a poem still having validity as a poem.
Over the past five years, I have found solace and love and inspiration and knowledge in writing and listening to slam poems. I know no better way to share my story, and to hear stories that do not get told as often as they should. But the art cannot continue to thrive if it is being dictated by clichés and trends that mar originality and creativity. I want to leave a punch, an impact, but my way.
“Remember to always fade your Last. Three. Words.”