Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On Slam Poetry


By Ted Burke

Slam poetry gets tedious quickly, the reason for which is that it's a style that knows one style, one attack, one speed, which is staccato, in your face, and angry. This isn't to say that there isn't a good slam poet here and there, but so much of what gets called poetry in these settings (that I've seen anyway) is an unfocused rant declaring independence in what sounds little more than a string of bumper sticker and T shirt slogans focused on a particular audience who are in the early stages of developing their poetry taste. It's the conformity of non conforming, rebels gathered together in the same room, aggressively agreeing with each other.
The in-your-face style and anger dominate , yes, and serve the purpose of drawing attention and making the speaker's agitation obvious, but with respect to the crucial matters slammers say they're dealing with, whether social justice, racism, rape, the performance style wearies the observer who isn't part of the mosh pit mentality that makes up a slam community . The injustices one tries to expose and address and the humanity they try to reclaim is more than obscured by the fidgeting exclamations coming from performers uttering their slogans at unnaturally high levels of throat stripping volume. The issues you bring up are reduced to an equivalent selection of talking points the RNC fashions when they sick their attacks on Democrats. At any point, the central theme of slam poetry is me and my anger and my right to express myself and you're not going to tell me what to do , man... It's a kiddie thing.

Would you not agree that poetry to supposed to motivate emotions?
First, I would say that poetry is not supposed to do anything other than be a poem, to paraphrase Archibald MacLeish. You can't write a poem with it in mind that your successfully living up to a strict set of requirements; not and remain an interesting poet.I would say that emotions are what motivates the writing of poems in many instances, not the other way around as you perhaps mistakenly phrased it. An emotion, a mood, a thought comes prior to the writing, which is the poet's attempt to frame their experience , their perception. Some might argue that slam poets take the emotional subjects and seek to make the audience feel something beyond the page and podium from where the poet recites, but often as not the feeling is like getting hit by a car over and over again.

Emotions are fluid , mercurial, gracing and cursing us with an infinite stream of sensation sublime, miserable and limitless variations in between, and the poet who seeks to do justice to the nuance of the feeling and their perception of it would attempt to find a language and the phrases that would get that fleet sensation across to an empathetic reader. In your face is fine if that's what is called for, but the constant barrage of anger, drum line pieces of rage, anger and pain makes one assume that perhaps some writers are cultivating their pain , refusing to allow their wounds to heal in some productive way, or that they pursue new miserable experiences for the sake of having something else to fit into their templates.

Anger dominates the idiom, and even it doesn't the pace has one speed, rapid, frenzied. It becomes monotonous; the real test of how good individual poems are is how they survive committed to the page, where the rhythms , cadences, pauses and euphonious effects resound in some idiosyncratic way in the reader's private sense of music. It should be, I dare say, something akin to a composition from which there are firm cues and structures that survive as literary art separate from the the author's / reader's projectile recitation. Even in the gentler, kinder, more ecstatic moods slammers might attempt, there is a feeling of wanting the experience to be over with. Rather than do justice to an experience, an idea, an emotional complex, too many slammers sound as if they prefer the crowd pleasing line, the cutting analogy than the sustained mood, which makes me think that the concern is less art than it is acquiring bragging rights. It's a tradition related to toasting, hip hop and such, and while it's a tradition of it's own making and standards, it's cursed with a monolithic ally monotonous style that seems more like the way Detroit used to think about the way they made and sold cars; the packaging was more important than what was under the hood.