The Art of Spoken Word

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The first time I heard spoken word, otherwise known as slam poetry, I was not impressed.  Now, I’ve even tried my hand at writing my own. So, to the summer camp counselor reciting his slam to 14-year-old me, I apologize for finding it boring and kind of strange. My view of poetry mainly focused on the “roses are red” variety, and I had never heard of a poetry slam. Fast forward a few years to seeing my first live slam at Brandeis University, and I was a completely different audience member, snapping at the snappiest lines and laughing at the more adult poems–much to my older sister’s chagrin.  After that I occasionally looked at videos others showed me, but I still remained pretty clueless.

Then, one magnificent day, I discovered the vast collection of poets featured on YouTube. Searching “slam poetry” on YouTube garners a whopping 324,000 vihqdefaultdeos of the passionate rhymes, personal stories, and well-placed f-bombs that general characterize a slam poem.   Some nondescript night last year, I began a homework-avoiding binge of YouTube slams that led me to Dylan Garity’s “Friend Zone,” posted by an organization called Button Poetry.  The language was beautifully sculpted, and the tone and pace picks up in the middle to transition from funny and light to serious and heavy and important.  The video has over 11 million views (to which I have contributed maybe a hundred). Try finding an open mic night that allows for an audience 11 million.

YouTube is the perfect platform to popularize spoken word performances. Rather than having to show up in a specific coffee shop in a specific city in a specific state and even country, anyone can stumble upon a performance from the comfort of their own home.  They can listen to it once. And then again. And again. And then watch other performances from the same poet, or the same subject matter, at any time. Because of this, slam is growing more and more popular, and the conventions and subject matter have adapted with that growth. Relationships, social issues, and character flaws are common topics, and hundreds of thousands of views prove that people find them relatable and touching.

Slam poetry is a performance art—the works are written to be read aloud, and the conventions of the style appeal to a large audience. Good luck finding a poem devoid of slang and cursing, or a pop culture reference. A billion people watch videos on YouTube every day, and anyone can upload. There are also tons of benefits to an online performance that make it even better than a live performance:

  1. You can watch it as many times as you want, and show your friends, and download the written transcription. And then watch it again.
  2. It’s sharable.  You could tell your friend, “Hey, come to this open mic venue and maybe the same poet will be there this week that I saw last week and he’ll recite the same poem in the same perfect inflection that really connected to me last time,” but we all know this is a one and a million chance, or you could just tell your friend to click here.
  3. Videos can add more performance to the performance art.  Artsy setting? Check.  Mood lighting? Check. Improved sound quality? Check.
  4. Poets can become famous.  A few years ago, my counselor was the only slam poet I had ever heard.  Now I have favorites that I follow and even fangirl over.
  5. Part of the draw towards slam poetry is how these poems can appeal to and inspire empathy in a wide range of people. Snaps for the sassiest or best-crafted lines, and tears for the most personal. The Internet grants a huge audience of age ranges, demographics, geographic locations, everyone.

The Internet is an amazing platform for arts of all kinds, from visual art to music, to even online literary journals…

But, I’m not trying to write a hidden advertisement or convince anyone to flock to the web here. 44f81e6577055ad230466ddac42379e6I simply have such an appreciation for a medium that can so transform the way people see and become influenced by the arts, that I want to share it with others. I spend an immense amount of time finding videos and pictures and content on the Internet finding art. Sites like Pinterest, Stumble Upon, Tumblr, and yes, YouTube make arts more available, popular, and most importantly, experienced.  I don’t have to visit a museum or gallery to appreciate a painting, because what’s most interesting to me is discovering a whole new art through the vessel of the web.

Certainly many lovers of poetry would argue that popularity does not make a poem valuable, which is true, but I admire that the Internet can help a very modern and unique form of poetry become something completely different.

Thanks to my WiFi connection, my feeble experience of slam poetry rocketed off into an extreme love for the art, and it is only continuing to grow.

— Emily Danzig

About Sara Korash-Schiff

Sara Korash-Schiff is a senior English and journalism and mass communications major at Washington and Lee.  She has served as  an intern for Hachette Book Group in Nashville and a reporting intern for The Springfield Republican.  After graduation, she plans to travel throughout Europe and attend a graduate creative writing program in fiction.

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One Response to The Art of Spoken Word

  1. Annie Persons says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the main points of this blog: slam poetry can be powerful, and the internet provides an excellent medium for the spread of poetry. However, my hope is that printed poetry never falls to the wayside or becomes lesser than slam poetry. The performative, oral qualities of poetry extend just as far back (if not farther) than written poetry, but there are also unique, strong, and important connections that occur in the act of reading a poem that I do think are missed when listening to a performance–specifically, poetic form. That’s not to say that slam poetry can’t make those connections, too (as you say in #5), and I think that, ultimately, the truth and the value in poetry comes from reader recognition. As long as this recognition occurs, I don’t really care whether it’s heard in the ear or in the mind’s ear. But often, for me, wrestling with elements such as form, punctuation, and other visual on the page makes my brain work in different ways than it usually does. Sometimes the emotional gains or the “recognition” that I experience from this mental gymnastics while reading a poem is stronger than what I feel when listening to a powerful piece of slam. Ideally, then, both slam and print poetry will continue to exist and even thrive.

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