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The MC stands on stage with a microphone and squints past the musty yellow light of the Cantab Underground. She begins the poetry slam by giving a short synopsis of the rules of the game: poets perform original work onstage for under three minutes (with a 10-second grace period) while five randomly selected judges in the audience slap numbers on their words so that everyone can go home happy with a numerical label attached to their work. Most people in the room tune out the MC in the beginning because, at least at the Cantab, most of the audience is well-versed in the rules of the game; introducing the competitive art form at the start of each slam is a formality that has become ritual.
“Slam poetry was started in 1986 in Chicago by a construction worker looking to breathe new life into performance poetry. His name was Marc Smith—”
“SO WHAT?” poets interrupt from all corners of the darkened room as the MC speaks the name of the founder of slam poetry. From then on, there is no more mention of the history of slam—it’s all about sacrificial poets, score creep, and words, words, words.
This vocal reaction to the historical context of slam is not unique. I’ve been to slams in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and at the beginning of each, the MC explains the origins of slam only to have the audience interrupt with “SO WHAT?!” when the MC says “Marc Smith.”
To a slam newbie, it may seem like don’t want to hear the rest of the story. By yelling over the historical speech, it may feel like we don't care that slam poetry—as we half-hear at the beginning of MC spiels—started as a way to draw poetically-minded people to the same physical location, usually the basement of a bar, the back room of a cafe, or the top floor of a library. The reason poets began to assign numerical scores to poems was to generate enough enthusiasm to pack a room and share in each other’s aestheticized emotional experiences, but it feels like the "SO WHAT!?" separates slam today from slam in the ’80s. Apparently, poets today don't want to spend time thinking about those original spaces. But how is slam different now? Is the original emphasis of gathering poets in one physical space still important to the contemporary slam scene?
These are pretty big questions about the way spoken word has changed over time, and I want to preface my thoughts by emphasizing that I’m just one poet who is comparatively new to the entire art form; what I say here is only a semicolon in the miles of words that have been written and spoken on the topic of performance poetry.
The way I see it, most young people’s first encounter with spoken word happens on YouTube. We—the “millennial” kids from middle school to grad school—are the generation of the Internet. We connect more deeply and quickly to people through video blogs, chatrooms, and Facebook than we do to people in everyday interactions. Nowadays, we can most easily access spoken word online. We can sit in bed and click through countless personal stories, watch people we will never meet bare their souls from the comfort of a room where we can close the laptop, move on, and accept the trust that the poet is putting us—all without having to give anything back. Sure, we can “like” a YouTube video, but we don’t have to engage in the art any further than that. We are bypassing the vital act of consent between poet and audience by placing a video camera in between the performer and the receiver. I think that rampantly available YouTube poetry has contributed to a decreased emphasis on the importance of shared space.
It's true that it’s harder to get people together in the same place, but the beauty of slam is that you can’t click your way through competitive poetry; you have to be in the same room in order to experience the atmosphere and judge the poems. Despite the lure of YouTube poems, we still need something more substantial, at least I think we do. That's why as MCs at least start to tell the origin story, we have to remember that there is still a reason to brave the T or a freezing bike ride to get to a poetic space. Those first slams in 1986 remind us that it's still important to come together, to slam and listen to each other spit poetry even 30 years after Marc Smith—SO WHAT!?
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