In this class we will have performance by Neeta, who will do a piece by poet Miguel Piñero.

Now we get to a more contemporary development in poetry performance: spoken word, which arguably includes slam poetry and storytelling and other kinds of popular poetry performance. We’ll discuss the genesis and the global spread of these popular forms, and we’ll read and hear and watch work by Bob Holman (including his introduction to the Nuyorican Poet’s Café anthology Aloud and his TV projects), by slam champions such as Patricia Smith, by theatrical spoken word performers such as Catherine Kidd and Jem Rolls, and by some of the stars of the HBO series Def Poetry Jam.

Let’s start with these videos:

Jem Rolls

Cat Kidd

Patricia Smith

Taylor Mali

A little bit of background on poetry slams:

Here is a short guide to how they work by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, from Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam.

And here is an introduction written by Marc Smith, who invented the poetry slam in Chicago in 1986.

Here is Bob Holman’s invocation at the beginning of the anthology Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café.

And here is the first chapter from The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry by Susan Somers-Willett.

We’re going to watch a few clips from a movie called Slam starring Saul Williams; here’s a key scene, in which his character is trying to avoid being caught between two prison gangs that expect him to pick a side. This was filmed in an actual prison in Washington D.C.

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  1.   Nick Matthews

    “The slipperiness of the slam poem is that it exists both everywhere and nowhere at once: it may exist as text or in performance bounded by space and time or as utterance and image in recorded media.” (Somers-Willett, 26)

    The above quote by Somers-Willet captures best the unique nature of slam poetry. As her analysis repeatedly suggests, “At the heart of each of these aspects of slam poetry is the complex exchange between slam poets and their audiences”( 20). It is this emphasis on the audience, the inexorable twining of fates that arises in the moment of performance, that makes slam something more than oral poetry. Looking at Slam poetry’s foundation in competition also brings to light the necessity of performing “successfully” in front of an audience. This variable,”the ever-changing audience”, throws a unique wrench in the aspect of live poetry, and in turn, makes slam poetry mutable in its necessity to always adapt to it’s current environment—because that is what truly fuels each performance.

    I found the variable tones of the performances in the videos to be interesting as well. Particularly, the high theatrics of Jem Rolls, and the interpretative (and heavily ambient) nature of Cat Kidd. These two performances deviated from my conceptions of slam (limited to a few televised performances) in their varying approaches. Through Rolls overly dramatic presentation I felt as though I were watching an actor on a stage; while with Kidd, I felt like I was watching a performance art piece, chock full of mood lighting, props, and ambient background music. Also, the near nine minute length of Kidd’s performance seems to put her outside the realms of slam, and into something more just “performance based”.

    Alternatively, I found Patricia Smith and Taylor Mali to be more representative of my notions of slam poetry. Their impassioned stances, addressing of current issues, and the quasi-symbiotic relationship with the audience, all seem to adhere to the foundational guidelines of slam. Though in the end, I suppose it all really boils down to differing approaches, and the successful execution of the author’s intention.

  2.   sarahcoluccio

    First and foremost I have to agree with Nick about the videos posted for this week. While I admit I am a bit unfamiliar with slam poetry aside from a few performances I’ve watched online, the general idea I had about it was much more of Smith and Mali’s performances. They spoke both to and for the audience, but also made me feel as though they could have been standing in an empty room performing a poem for no one but themselves and it would have been just as powerful. Kidd’s performance felt much more like an artistic expressionist piece, with all the props she used and the fact that she had a projector. It felt more like an act, and less authentic than what I envision as slam poetry, which is more natural and raw, involving only the poet and the audience. The Rolls clip didn’t feel like a poetry performance at all, quite possibly because of his animated tone and the way in which he addressed the audience and interacted with them. To me, it felt more like a stand-up comedy routine, which is of course also a performance albeit one that serves a different purpose.

    That being said, I think the piece that did the most for me in terms of my understanding of slam poetry and how it functions was Holman’s invocation. As I was reading it silently, I felt that it *wanted* to be read out loud like a slam poem, if that makes any sense. So I decided to give it a try and read the passage out loud, and it made an incredible difference. I felt a rhythm in the words, and it helped me to see and hear what slam poetry itself feels like. I don’t propose getting up in front of an audience any time soon and trying it for myself, but I thought the way in which he used short bursts of words, and so many exclamation points in his writing helped me to say the poem out loud with the kind of emphasis and emotion that Smith claimed many writers don’t have in their written work when they perform it.

  3.   coreyfrost

    Responding to Nick and Sarah, I should say that since none of these four performances took place at a poetry slam, technically they aren’t slam poetry. That said, the Smith and Mali pieces, shown here on Def Poetry Jam on HBO, are slam-poetry-style pieces (both performers became famous through the National Poetry Slam). All four performances, though, could easily be classified as “spoken word,” which for me includes slam poetry and similar performances: solo performers reciting their own writing, usually with some of the hallmarks of poetry, and usually with a more or less theatrical presentation style. Not everyone agrees on this terminology.

  4.   Sean Nicholson

    While watching the performances this week the one that I had the most personal connection to was the piece by Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make”. I always support someone who is defending the work that teachers do in classrooms across the country. The point that I take contention with is the fact that what Mali describes is not what teachers make; it is what good teachers make. Since I started working for the DOE 4 years ago I have come across teachers of all motivations and abilities but only the very best achieve the things that Mali outlines in his slam. As someone who strives daily to be a better teacher, I think Mali glosses over the fact that it is only the truly exceptional teachers that can achieve these things even occasionally

    I found the work by Bob Holman interesting for several reasons. One of the first things that I noticed was his use of the word invocation as opposed to introduction. For me this particular word choice gave the work a religious overtone instead of what I assumed would be an introductory tone. This religious overtone adds to the sense of seriousness and importance of the performances that are to follow by creating a system of ritual. One final comment about the Holman piece would be about its dated feeling. He spends a good deal of time talking about the trends of the 90’s and how they are impacting poetry at the time of the penning of the invocation. It would be interesting to hear where Holman thinks poetry and performance have gone now that we are a full decade removed from the nineties.

  5.   alee909

    To start off, I relate with Sean on taking note of Holman’s discussion of that time period. I can’t really tell what his tone is in the 3rd to last paragraph; I’m not even sure exactly what he’s trying to say in that paragraph – but I was laughing at the quote about MTV: ‘Content is making a comeback. Meaning is going to be big in the 90’s.’ First of all, what did everyone think about the content of MTV in the 90’s? I didn’t really have cable so I couldn’t tell too much. But putting it in perspective with MTV today, I had to LOLerskate pretty hard because there doesn’t seem to be much ‘meaning’ in our mainstream music outlets.

    I also was thinking about the intended and unintended consequences and interpretations of some of this week’s material. Somers-Willet pointed out that the ‘I Don’t Want to Slam’ piece by Chin critiqued many of the things that other slam poets while also knowingly or unknowingly doing the same thing. I guess some of these poems create an ironic/self-criticizing atmosphere; I felt like the ‘Skinhead’ piece was similar — something about her emotion and anger in acting out the white, ‘skinhead’ mentality could maybe be indicative of the emotion and anger that blacks held towards whites as well?

  6.   Elizabeth

    I think the main adjective I’d like to use to describe slam poetry is “cool.” I think that whole movement is “cool”: counter-culture, late night cafes, rocking your poetry out in front of a shouting audience… I can’t think of anything cooler. I like how slam attempts to exist outside of the usual poetry genres. I don’t know if I could call slam “regular poetry” because it would not work half as well on the printed page as it does out loud. It’s like the difference between reading a play and seeing it. You can appreciate the characters and the plot when you read the play, but seeing the interchange of emotion pass over the actors’ faces adds a very important layer to your understanding of it.
    For example, Taylor Mali’s poem would absolutely have worked on paper. I think the meaning could have been conveyed just fine without the performance. However, Cat Kidd needed to speak her piece aloud for it to make sense. Patricia Smith’s performance of “Skinhead” added a dimension of confusion to the piece that somehow made it more compelling to me. I had a very hard time figuring out what the point of view on the piece was, but her performance of it made it come alive for me.
    The pamphlet about what slam poetry is and the invocation for the Nuyorican café struck me as both attempting to capture the emotion and the excitement that they hoped to imbue the performances with. I think that Slam poetry is an engaging and exciting art form, and I don’t think it’s ruining art in any way, shape or form. Take THAT Harold Bloom.

  7.   nahmed

    When discussing the definition of slam poetry, or the meaning, I loved how O’Keefe defines it. She states

    “A Poetry Slam is a word circus, a school, a town meeting, a playground, a sports arena, a temple, a burlesque show, a revelation, a mass guffaw, holy ground, and possibly all of these mixed together. Slam poetry is performance poetry. It’s the marriage of a text to its artful presentation onstage to an audience that has permission (and perhaps a responsibility) to talk back. The audience is the primary judge of the quality of the poetry and its presentation.”

    The idea of slam poetry being a relationship between the text and presentation that is so intertwined and committed is a definition I would agree with. It’s bringing poetry to life. As O’Keefe points out, the old school poetry doesn’t seem as if it is meant to be performed but rather just read from a page. In the “poetry” I was taught throughout my education, the words and stanzas speak for themselves, but in slam poetry the artist (or performer) is equally important as the words.

    Slam poetry also involves the audience, it seems as if the performer feeds off the crowd’s reaction and roars. It makes those of us who cringe when hearing the word poetry actually become excited about it. Maybe because of the competitiveness of the performances? OR that there are rules and guidelines to the performances? I’m not sure but I can’t wait to check out my first live poetry slam!

  8.   nahmed

    On the scene from the movie Slam…

    This reminds me of what a lot of the students over at Rikers Island do, other teachers tend to get annoyed but I commend them on how creative they are dropping lines off the top of their heads like that. It’s not usually as insightful or deep as Saul’s piece in that clip…but nonetheless… it’s creative! I never thought of it as slam poetry though. I always thought they were rapping.

  9.   Sean Rogers

    Why Harold Bloom Rarely Masturbates and Hates Fucking T-Ball

    In an essay about the AVN Awards (Wallace, Consider the Lobster) a habitual consumer of porn (neither Wallace nor Harold Bloom) comments that the appeal of pornography is in this kind of incidental and inherently authentic betrayal of the performance. If you watch long and hard enough you might actually catch what Jenna Jameson or the star of your choice might actually do in the throes of physical ecstasy right there in the middle of her job of performing as a girl with endlessly bleached body parts that thoroughly enjoys sex on a Camaro in a barn with a lucky farmer. This disrupts the passive consumption of the physical act that has its ritualistic beginnings and inevitable catharsis (which is variable in the manner of where the catharsis is ejaculated but a catharsis we must have for the sake of audience expectation nonetheless). Despite its own award show most never confuse pornography for art and under the superficial reasons that a civilized populace cannot embrace the vulgarity of putting on film the repetitive embrace and extraction of one’s goofy parts with the goofy parts of someone else is the notion that art should not manipulate and it should be better than the tired Aristotelian manner in which narrative is thread. This is also why Everybody Loves Raymond is dismissed as sitcom and perhaps why Slam Poetry makes Harold Bloom so mad. There is a possession of the audience in this systematic replication of set up and delivery whether it be from innocuous to profound or from banality to punch line or from chance encounter (coupled with the brilliantly timed bikini wax) to orgasm. But in spite of its formulaic manipulations of the audience (which compels audience participation ie a too forced “ha ha” or masturbation) there remains a potential for the authentic to be communicated. As human we’re mired in this kind of hyper awareness of self that enjoys the comforts of formula which is perhaps why Slam and porn are such popularly enjoyed entities and also what keeps cranky old Harold from enjoying the potential of both. Granted Professor Bloom probably does masturbate but his is done to the Ancient Mariner and this excludes him from potential enlightenment still immanent in the most egalitarian of forums. At the slam on Tuesday the audience’s reactions were Pavlovian in that they simply punctuated the contrivances of the performer but in the babel of that could be heard some moments of genuine disruption of the notion of “performing listener” where a contemplative “hmm” escaped without realizing why or how (much like the mystery of the female orgasm). Performance is a version of the self or a replication of an idea of what self in the midst of perception should look like to achieve a desired effect. This kind of creates an internal voyeurism to authenticity and in its grossest exaggerations swallows any ability to provide something transcendental. But an identity is ephemeral and this vulnerability sometimes allows a glimpse into perhaps something true or at least something untainted to witness and perhaps enough of it becomes visible to the point where identity dissolves and something human is remembered.
    As to why Mr. Bloom hates t-ball. Well what is t-ball? It’s not baseball and everyone gets up and no one gets out and somehow everyone wins. This is stupid and why if you play t-ball after 8 years old you probably just really suck as baseball. So when Mr. Bloom is watching the Indonesian kid that his lesbian daughter adopted with her life partner (a source of confrontation that has been growing since she decided to liberate herself from patricidal dominance and began calling Mr. Bloom simply Hal) and can be heard shouting out a score of 103 to 94 you must know why he does this. Someone has to be right and someone must win. Most of these kids, including the Indonesian that his daughter named Spock, really do suck at t-ball so will most likely suck at baseball. But what Mr. Bloom may have forgotten is that Alex Rodriguez might have played t-ball and now plays big boy baseball and sleeps with Cameron Diaz. So these momentary disruptions of the canonically led life where the American pastime is infantilized must be forgiven as these too will end and the sticky pages of Kubla Khan will not have to wait forever for the Milk of Paradise.

  10.   mmullin1

    I really have not been exposed to poetry like this before this class. I was one of the people that never really gave poetry a chance besides the poetry I hear everyday in meaningful music. The topic of slam poetry and spoken word really had me hooked. I feel like the whole purpose of it is to convey feelings about something or other in a way that allows the audience to feel what you feel. The videos were excellent examples of this in my opinion. The two videos from the Def Poetry Jam were the two I liked the most because of the rawness to them. Patrcica Smith and Taylor Mali spoke with such passion it was intense. Patricia took a topic another level because it was about possibly the complete opposite of her. She was performing as a white supremist but she herself is black. Her attitude was impecable and really hooked me in. How could she or anyone who is not a white supremist know how they would sound? Even though I have no clue, the feeling of the poem made you believe that that is really how they think.
    Taylor Malis’ poem was also excellent. Again, the passion of the poem made the whole thing. I could’ve read that on paper and thought it was just another poem, but the way it was performed really connects you to the words and meaning of those words.
    Now I have never seen slam poetry or even knew about what it actually was before the readings, but I definately have a genuine respect for it. The competitive aspect of it makes it seem like it is a rap battle or something. Crowd response is key in a battle because that is ultimately who decides victor. The passion and hard work that goes into these is what the real reward is. From personal experience, I have been on stage during a freestyle battle competition. Much like a slam, there are multiple rounds factored in, only you don’t get a score. But again I feel the need to reiterate that the passion and pride of the speaker are the best aspects of all performative poetry pieces, whether they be slam, spoken word, or a rap battle.

  11.   Najila

    I’ve always found poetry interesting because of the many different forms it can be written in. And once I discovered “poetry slams” my curiosity and interest peaked even more. I can see why (in the readings we did for this weak) there would be different definitions on what a poetry slam is – competitive non-competitive, etc. – but I find myself agreeing a bit more with O’Keefe when they wrote “Slam’s premise is that everyone’s opinion about a poem is a valid one” – because I believe that because most poetry used in poetry slams are written in non-conventional forms and is open then there can be many different opinions on the piece as it’s being performed. For me, I found myself breezing by Jem Rolls’s video and Cat Kidd’s as well. The ones that really got to me were Patricia Smith’s and Taylor Mali. Though all four pieces were said with a passion, I found myself in awe in the latter two’s pieces and will be sharing them with several friends.

    Those two pieces made me think about what Somers-Willett wrote in “On Page and Stage” regarding the performer and the reciter being one and the same. Does it make a difference who recites or performs the written piece – outside of the competition that is. Earlier in the semester, someone in the class recited most Andrea Gibson’s piece “Blue Blanket” and just the words of the piece alone made me look up the performance after I left the classroom and I felt that Gibson performed the piece so powerfully that I couldn’t really imagine anyone else pulling it off without first having some sort of first-hand experience or knowledge in the kind of pain that’s needed to write such a piece. The same goes for Patricia Smith’s and Taylor Mali’s. Both hit on hot topics and made me care about what they were talking about.

  12.   dsykes

    I sympathize with Sarah’s impulse to read aloud the invocation by Bob Holman. I felt, as I was reading the words in my head, the meaning was fleeting and beyond grasping the consequence of intent. After giving in to the impulse to talk to myself aloud, I was able to connect with the form in a deeper manner. The italicized words and the transition from one fleeting construct to another allowed me to experience a self performance close to that within the scene from Slam starring Saul Williams.

    One particular line in the Somers-Willett piece struck my particularly: “all slam poems become about the author’s performance of identity on some level because of the author’s mandated presence on stage. His or her speech, dress, gestures, voice, body and so on reflect in some way on the poem at hand…(18)” I began to wonder about the process of preparing for a slam performance. Beyond what is constructed, are aspects that are not scrutinized significant as well? For instance, if a slam artist chooses to perform two works in the same dress, with the same tone of voice, does that make the content of the works connected? Does the author and the characteristics of the author work to connect unrelated topics together in the mindset of the audience? If slam poems are representations of identity, and different aspects of identity impose upon content, then it appears as if we can view the aspect of presence on stage in a slam performance as somewhat of a limitation on the conveyance of content as well as an expression of connectiveness to the process of creating art.

  13.   mooneydanielle7

    Marist College (where I went for undergrad) had an annual poetry slam that was apparently a big deal, and for whatever reason I never attended. I helped a few fellow English-major-friends rehearse, but that was it. Too bad I missed it. Anyway! I enjoyed reading the rules of poetry slam because although I’ve heard the term many times I never knew what it really entailed. The fact that the judges are picked out of the audience is very interesting to me, and I like the way it brings an unbiased feel to the entire thing. Judgment based on pure reaction rather than technical poetic elements is a great idea. Holman’s invocation is so refreshing! My favorite line is, “the poem is not written until you read it.” The invocation reminds us of the justification of poetry as an art form that is more prevalent in society than everyone realizes, in the form of rap, and– is just more alive than we sometimes give it credit for.

  14.   Jason G.

    Slam poetry is a phenomenon of sorts as it incorporates a theatrical element with spoken word poetry. Marc Smith states:

    “Slam strives to invigorate poetry by giving as much weight to the performance as it does to the text”.

    What defines Slam is the performance aspect, the lively display of the poem to the audience. There is a dramatic and at times confrontational aspect to slam poetry. These poems are read with intent to excite the audience. O’Keefe states: “The audience is, in many ways, just as important as the poets”. I find the interaction between the poet and the audience truly fascinating. The two forces feeding off one another similar to the way the audience and performer feed off each other at a rock concert.

    I enjoyed the two slam pieces that were featured this week. I feel there are vital things we can learn from each of the poet’s when examining slam poetry.

    Patricia Smith’s piece although rough and confrontational is rich with vivid imagery and crisp metaphors. This piece could very well be read in a reserved manner and be well received at a reading. What truely makes this piece a “slam poem” is the way Smith performs the piece. One could argue that she is acting at times as her volume shifts from a whisper to a growl to articulate the feeling of the “speaker”. She throws in a chilling laugh at the end of the piece that really captures the disconnect from reality the speaker is experiencing in the piece.

    Taylor Mali’s piece was another great example of how tone and diction can influence the weight of the poem. At the beginning of his piece he was a bit silly and sarcastic, making the audience laugh. As soon as he shifted his tone the feeling in the room completely changed. Suddenly his words seemed to pierce skin rather than bounce playfully against it.

    I think a great question to accompany this discussion would be “Could a poem not intended to be a slam poem be made into a slam poem simply by the way it is read?”

    -Jason G.

  15.   Joshua Lindenbaum

    How Poetry Slams Slam Poetry

    In the popularizing of any given form will be accompanied by tainted motivation by some of those who partake in that form. This is not in response to the videos shown considering they didn’t take place in a poetry slam, rather, this piece is in response to the written articles.

    Saul Williams referred to these type of “concessions” as “hustlin’ culture.” If poetry is suppose to be about “performance of self,” then how much “self” is accurately being portrayed when “self” is thinking about money, time limits, what the audience is going to repsond to, and what poem is going to receive a ten? These types of thoughts will enevidibly alter a poet’s work.

    Some poets have become aware of their inauthentic constructed poems such as Staceyann Chin:
    “creating lyrics that rock
    making sure they fit within
    the confines of some judge’s ticking clock.”
    I wrote a poem for an online poetry contest in which you had to write thirty lines or under, in this poem I wrote about the confines of having to restrict one’s poem to thirty lines, and mocked the system completely, but still writing the poem in precisely thirty lines. I.e. it wasn’t published. I don’t think any publisher (except those with integrity and a set of balls) would publish a poem mocking their set of rules and restrictions.

    Motivation will determine the authenticity of a work. If someone wants money, they’ll create what they know will make them money. They’ll see what works and try to replicate the outcome (money). So when you bring money into the poetic battlefront some people will fall victim to their motivation for money . . . and their poems will become tainted to fit the needs of popularized genre. But there will be some also, that will remain authentic and enjoy the money as a bonus. There will be some poets who make a living off their poetry without killing the art form in the process.

  16.   gfl11131988

    Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 781
    Response # 9
    George Festin Lorenzo

    This week’s reading take the topic of spoken word, which includes performances such as slam poetry. My first exposure to slam poetry was actually when we went around the class several weeks ago and recited something we memorized. James did a fantastic job of a slam poetry piece he studied in the past and I was simply amazed at how well it came out of his mouth. The flow and everything about it mesmerized me. So obviously, I was happy to partake in this weeks study. The videos were especially powerful.
    The videos help exemplify many aspects of slam poetry, which includes the importance of slam poetry being acted out live and in studio. As the first video shows, with Jem Rolls, slam poetry could be utilized in a comedic manner and help rile up a crowd to laugh it up. However, slam poetry could also utilize it’s unique style for seriousness in life. The third video, Patricia Smith evidences the power in slam poetry when concerning itself with a serious topic. And I suppose Taylor Mali’s video is able to capture the essence of both sides of it, explaining the importance of teachers in a child’s life with comedy elements.
    To comment on what Elizabeth wrote in her response, she said, “I don’t know if I could call slam “regular poetry” because it would not work half as well on the printed page as it does out loud”. Well, I know the answer and it would be no, slam poetry is not regular poetry. To me at least. Slam poetry takes poetry and brings it to a whole brand new spectrum of emotions, flow and style. Reading slam poetry would be like reading a song without actually never had had listened to the song. A person reading it would be truly unaware of all the tones, elongations of words, pauses, and much more that can only be grasped when listening to it, as opposed to reading it.
    The most alluring aspect of poetry slam to me is the fact that it is so different from regular poetry that it can often change peoples ideas on poetry and create a desirability from them to learn it, even if they did not enjoy regular poetry. The creator of slam poetry himself, Marc Smith, writes, “The competitive aspect of slam poetry has succeeded at achieving this goal. Slam draws droves of people, some of whom swore off poetry in high school and college, to its bosom, and most are shocked to discover that they actually like it, or at least like some of it”. I would completely agree with him and being that slam poetry is simply different, it’s been able to get people involved with an otherwise structured topic.

  17.   pseraphin

    When I first watch the videos I thought” What is this”? The performance seemed to be different from what we’ve done before. I wasn’t sure how to judge it. As I watched each performance I found myself not knowing if I should focus on the content of the poems or on the individual act. I went back to look at the title for today’s class and it said” spoken word and slam” and I thought again “What’s that”?. When I read the introduction it sort of made sense to me, but it did not seem as thsese people were competing or as if they were being judged by a panel, what I found ironic though was that I immediatly started judging them and I did not know what to pay attention to. It seems like there wa a lot going on. I did not get the first one because I could not clearly hear the content but I don’t think I liked his body expression either. The second one was ok because it had sound in the background but why did she have sound if they not allowed to have props or anything in slam poery? I really liked the last guy who was talking about teachers, he was loud, clear, and the message was clear, but it sounded more like a monologue them like a poem. I could be wrong.

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  • Listening “Literature” implies a written text. But what about the audiotext? Why do we refer to the “audience” (from the Latin audiens, listening) of a literary work? This course is about listening to literature and reading performance. ____________________________________
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