Friday, April 8, 2011

Poetry Friday: Are Poetry Slams a Nuisance?

 "Poets should read in a controlled and compelling voice, one that lets the listener glide softly and gracefully under the spell of his verbal music. I do not go to poetry readings to be hollered at, hectored, harassed, bullied or read to in a stentorian style more appropriate for the amusement park."

  ---  A.S. Maulucci, from a Norwich Bulletin article titled "Slams are a Nuisance, and of No Real Use to True Poets"  (Follow the link for the full rant. Be sure to read the thoughtful reply from another poet in the comments.)

To which I say:

This is National Poetry Month. There are poetry potlucks; haiku-a-day's; online poetry bookclubs, and yes, slams. I went to one at my local high school. It veered from slapstick (a poet slamming about being an athlete dropped his pants to reveal running shorts) to fem power (Seven Strong Women) to the most amazing controlled riff on being "black enough."  I assure you that true poetry was present that night. Complete with hooting and hollering and shushing and cheering and crying.

I searched high and low for a bootlegged YouTube video that might have brought you there with me. No luck. But that's the thing about slams. You gotta be there. It's about signing up. Showing up. Not throwing up. What do you think those kids are going to remember from high school? The commutative property of addition? Or the night one of them admitted to not being able to deal with his mother's lupus?

The article I quoted from also says: "The work that gets read, recited or performed at these events tends to be trite, self indulgent, boring, narcissistic, embarrassing, obscene, boorish, coarse, uncultured, unintelligent, uncouth, or all of the above."

Of course. Add in self-pitying and you've got most of us on any given Sunday---and that's when we're trying really hard to be good.

I agree that poetry can and should be polished and lovely and intelligent, but the raw material it comes from is . . . well, raw.  That's why slams work. Because we clearly see the rawness. And ourselves.

Which brings me to my poetry selection for today: Louder Than a Bomb, a documentary about the world's largest youth poetry slam. It releases on May 18.

Poetry Friday is hosted today at Madigan Reads.


  1. Chills just watching the trailer. This looks great, Sara!

  2. Different strokes for different folks! Thumbs up to poetry slams.

    Two words that stuck out when I first started reading the article: "serious poetry." I wonder which is harder to take -- the raw emotion of a poetry slam, or the pretentious, self-indulgent, obtuse, inaccessible, esoteric ramblings of some "high-horse/academic" poets?

    Both, at times, could well be tortuous, but at least at the slam I'd know what the poets were ranting about.

    You cannot pit classical music against rap, nor would you want to. There's room for both.

  3. I agree, Sara. I've been to some poetry slams. There are some poems that are genuinely painful to listen to, but teens are extremely self-aware, self-focused. I think that's why YA novels are "edgy" and first person and focused on being in the moment. Emotions are so consuming at that age. Which if us, if we wrote poetry as teens, don't look back at those young attempts and groan. I know I do. But given the raw material and some time to grow and mature, and you've got some good poets who will emerge from that adolescent gooey mess.

  4. i was a little skeptical of poetry slams before i went to my first one back in the late 90s, but after that i was so convinced i helped produce live broadcasts of them on local radio. yes, there are the still poems, the contemplative poems, but then there are poems so alive the beg to be performed to a live, cheering, hooting audience.

    "true poets" *snicker* what is truth? whose truth? "true" poets are the ones who made me feel inferior for even trying to play with verse in the first place.

  5. There are always barbarians at the gates. I wonder if some of the rejection is rooted in insecurity.
    What poet wouldn't want that visceral response from the audience? What poet wouldn't want the intensity of moment? Seems to me the young poets have paid all the dues they need to pay, they have earned the right to say what they need to say.

  6. Wow.
    The article is well-intended, I think, but comes across as very highbrow speaking down to the lowbrow, who dare besmirch the ivory tower that is ::sniff:: Poetry.

    The thing is, the words belong to everyone, and we all have a right to them - and we all have a right to responses. I think that just like introverts aren't always good with a room full of rowdies, there's something for everyone in this world, and if he doesn't like the slams, he can just do the coffee shop thing, and leave everyone else alone...

    What kills me is why people always want to change things not just for themselves but for EVERYONE else. As if he's the poetry police...

  7. Speaking of what Tanita said about highbrow, you've seen this before, right? (I know Eisha once posted it at 7-Imp.) Love that.

    Thanks for the heads-up about the documentary. Looks great.

  8. We have an eighth grade poetry slam every year and I find out a lot of what I didn't know about the kids I've been teaching for the past eight years. They are mostly wonderful poets and I usually enjoy the show. Different strokes...

  9. What Tanita said, "...the words belong to everyone..."

    This video made me burst into tears and rush to the website to see how I can watch the whole documentary. JOY! It will be here in May! It's on my calendar.

    Why the tears? I'm still trying to figure that out. The reason might become my poem for today -- a poetry slam sort of raw and unedited wail, wondering if what I teach in fourth grade will allow even a few of my students to grow up to be the poets in that clip...


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