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Slam Poetry: Rebirth of a Genre?

Punchy and powerful, the slam poetry movement has rejuvenated poetry; blowing away the stereotypes of a literary genre often reserved for professors and those looking to appear educated with gale-force winds.

What is Slam poetry?

The phrase “Slam poetry” is used to refer to all performance poetry nowadays. This includes performances filmed alone and then broadcast to an audience over YouTube or other video-sharing sites, as well as the live performances given in front of a crowd which stay truer to the genre’s roots. Historically, “Slam poetry” refers only to poetry presented in a competition environment in front of a voting audience or judges and a spectating audience. These contests pitch different individual poets, teams of poets or group poetry-acts against one another and the winner often receives a monetary prize as well as acclaim.

How do Slam poetry and normal poetry differ?

Unlike traditional poetry readings, where a work written to be read primarily alone is read aloud to a group for the sake of collective appreciation, slam poetry is created exclusively to be performed. Written copies of these performed-poems are rarely published. As a result, they tend to be more theatrical and can be much easier to engage with due to the fact that their goal is usually to bring about an immediate emotional response in the audience. The process of reading a traditional poem is often one which takes much consideration in order to pull apart all of the piece’s possible meanings, and sometimes to understand links within the poem to other literary texts. Slam poetry, however, has in-the-moment impact and is often based on current issues: this means less googling and more controversial opinions.

This isn’t to say that traditional written poetry doesn’t have its place: sometimes the myriad meanings of a TS Eliot masterpiece are exactly the kind of mental puzzle you want to play with. Neither do I wish to pen both genres of poetry into niche definitions – a lot is possible with both the written and the spoken word. Slam poetry can be subtle and provoke ambiguity as to how to interpret it. Similarly, written poetry can be intensely emotive and brave.

What’s the history behind slam poetry?

Emerging in the late 1980s in America, slam poetry gained popularity in the UK in the 1990s and is still gaining interest as an alternative way to engage in an art form sometimes viewed as “high-brow” and stuffy. Slam poetry was born in bars and jazz clubs, amongst the artistic nightlife of Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The movement gained greater momentum after the 9/11 attacks as poets looked for an artistic outlet through which to express their dismay and come to terms with their collective devastation. Nowadays, slam poetry can be found all over the internet. These poems tend to tackle issues in society such as feminism, racism, homophobia, mental illness, asylum seeking and immigration, drugs, and terrorism; but no topic is out of bounds. Many performers also turn to the more traditional poetic topics of love and loss.

Why should you experience slam poetry?

Watching slam poetry offers you a few privileged minutes of access into someone’s deepest beliefs and inner world. It allows you to empathise and feel in-tune with a stranger, opening up new ways of looking at the world. It can bring an audience to tears – of sadness or laughter – empower, and inspire.

Photography credit: Arzenia Arabe

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