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Outspeak the Outspoken

Charlie O’ Grady on slam poetry and the fetishisation of oppression.

The phenomenon of reading and listening to poetry is nothing new. Spoken poetics, in many cultures, predate written text. Classical Greek and Latin epics were recited aloud and written down later; myths and creation stories pass through time and across spaces through oral tradition.

If anything, this preoccupation with written poetry (seen particularly throughout the Enlightenment and its disdain for balladry), which has become the form’s legacy, is responsible for the stereotype of poetry as being nothing more than stuffy, old white men. And of course, for much of modern literary history poetry has been bloated with old white men waxing lyrical about war and God and declaiming that women who won’t sleep with them are demons. However, poetry has seen a rebirth in the past 50-60 years with the genesis of the poetry slam.

Slam poetry takes many forms, but its current most recognisable iteration is that of the Slam itself – an open mic-cum-competition event wherein poets perform, usually to a time limit, and are scored on their performance. Slam poetry is frequently highly emotionally or politically charged: because of this, as well as its disregard for literary convention, it has become highly favoured by young writers as a way to engage with or process social issues. Personally I find spoken word helpful as a way to make sense of my own life in a form that gives space to complex and intersectional experiences.

It’s clear that poetry has become a contemporary site for the voices of those minorities who are silenced within political and literary spheres – spoken word poetry in particular, as its aural form renders it a more democratic, widely accessible art form.When one considers the number of poems that have “gone viral” in recent history, it’s apparent that slam poetry also has the ability to help change society’s normative views.

In the contemporary slam scene, however, it would appear this power has been diluted by a trend of appropriating experience as means to an artistic end. In a form where lived experience formulates the raw honesty of a poetic statement, people are taking on experiences they have not lived.

An example from a recent slam I attended: a white male gets up to perform a poem. His dreadlocks just graze his shoulders, flopping out from his pale scalp like a sad, anaemic willow. “So my dad is pretty racist,” he says. “I guess this is a bit of a personal piece about coming to terms with that.” What followed was a fumbling account of racial politics the likes of which has not been seen since Eminem declared: “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / to do rap music so selfishly”.

This is not the first time spoken word has witnessed this phenomenon. Beat poetry, one of the multiple styles of spoken word, was borne out of the Harlem Renaissance and inspired by the rhythms of blues music, and had a substantial contribution to the Civil Rights movement. While this influence was continued in radical spoken word collectives like The Last Poets and in powerful pieces like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, the style was also co-opted by the Beat Generation, and subsequently used to feed a now highly familiar white male existentialism.

Those of a privileged identity doing slam is not an issue on its own, and that fact should be made clear. The value of slam is its openness as a forum for sharing personal experience. It’s a space in which one is allowed to be controversial in discussing issues that may not ordinarily be considered “literary”. That said, in many cases a slam audience is far less concerned with the social issues a “controversial” poem may indicate, and more by controversy itself. (Case in point: after I performed a poem at a recent slam about the frustrations of being regularly misgendered, one judge remarked “how brave she [was] to get up and perform that poem”.)

There are a number of reasons why this happens. One in particular is the scoring system that applies in slams: traditionally, each piece will be scored out of ten by three judges – who, let’s be real, are typically white males – and the three highest scoring poets will be put into a final from which a winner is chosen. When scoring is so frequently arbitrary and down to the personal taste of whoever shows up and doesn’t want to pay a door charge on the night, people begin to take “good” to mean “shocking”.

Another contributing factor is the ever-present phenomenon of the guilt that comes with privilege. In his poem “How To Get Beat Up By The Cops” Neil Hilborn claims, ironically self aware: “The thing about being oppressed is that I’m not: I am straight, white, and male in America.” We all realise, now, the parts of us that make us lucky in this world, and we feel sorry that we have them – so, being poets of a post-Romantic world, we write about that. In doing so, however, we speak over those who are not so lucky, and impede their ability to reclaim a voice on their own oppression.

What makes it problematic is that slam poetry stops being a forum for honest expression of hardship, or the processing of experiences, and starts becoming a contest for “who can say the most dramatically oppressed thing”—or, alternately, “who can make their own experience sound the most dramatically oppressed”. This, needless to say, is stupid. Fetishising minority status does very little to change the social conditions which oppress those of a minority identity. There is no drama to oppression, there’s nothing flashy about being silenced, there’s no shock factor, there’s only silence. The power of spoken word poetry is in the transcending of this silence, in the fact of speaking and being heard. The power of spoken word poetry as a force for social change is diluted by all this other noise, and poets who write cathartically are written off as “just another poet ranting about discrimination”.

What’s more, it sets standards for what is or is not acceptable or valuable to talk about in slam, which comes back to one of the most important things the performance poetry scene has achieved – that is, to construct a dynamic wherein there are no topics that are more acceptable, where there are no strict rules to determine who is or is not allowed in the club.

Linguistically, performance poetry will place itself outside of traditional grammatical structures and conventions of how language is supposed to sound – conventions which are inherently hegemonic and implicitly reinforce normative ideas about gender, race, ability or sexuality. Slam is based on rhythm, sound, and movement, not the words themselves and whether or not they cohere to form a complete sentence. In this way, not only is it a more accessible form of literary expression, without the dynamic of gate keeping found in the written word but, in the very structure of each line, spoken word poetry defies hegemony.

There is not, and never has been, a correct way to slam. That’s not what this is about. There is, however, a correct way to treat the identities who find their voice in spoken word poetry – more importantly, there are ways to engage in this scene and have one’s voice heard, without speaking over others. The answer is simple: just listen.