Unlike with many other forms of poetry, slam poets are rarely published in print form, and when they are, it’s usually in homemade zines that are made and printed by the artist, sometimes in collaboration with other slam poets.
When people outside of the poetry industry think of poetry, I’m sure many think about print poetry books and classic authors such as Wordsworth or Shakespeare, the texts of whom many of us learnt when we were in school. What most people don’t realise is that Shakespeare rarely wrote for publication.
Although some of his texts were published in his lifetime, many were not endorsed by the author himself. During Shakespeare’s time, the art was in the performance. His sonnets, of which most of us can recall at least one, were written with strict limits on the length of the line and where stresses should lie.
Although I for one grew up learning to place these emphasises in the poem and count the syllables and rhyme on the print page, these techniques were rarely used for page appeal. Rather, they would control how they would be performed and give cues to the artist reading the work, much like a playwright would in a script.
Today our popular poets are not writers like Shakespeare, but performance poets, such as Omar Musa – long-listed last week for the 2015 Miles Franklin award – whose poem My Generation won the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam. While slam poetry is gaining momentum, many poetry publications are going out of print and many new works are not being published at all.
Where print poetry are sometimes bound by the conventions of the page, slam poets are governed by the conventions of performance within a very specific space: the poetry slam.
A poetry slam is a competition in which each poet gets two minutes on stage to perform a poem without any props and are then judged and given a score out of ten. The judges are selected at random from audience members and could be poets, artists or family members that have come to see their loved-ones perform.
Because of this, the poems performed in slams are rarely abstract; they need to connect with the judges, whether they have previous knowledge of poetry or not. More importantly, the writer cannot rely on the audience being able to reread the poem in order to fully appreciate it in the same manner as print poetry, so the ideas and metaphors need to be clear.
Therefore, many slam poets align themselves closely with music such as hip hop, placing a heavy emphasis on the beat and rhymes used to carry the audience through the poem in the same way grammar and punctuation do in print poetry.
In order to connect with the audience, slam poems represent the quotidian, the everyday. Musa’s My Generation is about the attitudes of young Australian’s towards political policy.
Runner up for the 2014 Australian Poetry Slam, Stephen Belowsky’s poem My Teeth plugs into the everyday in an unusually engaging way – by talking about the longevity of his teeth and all the life and global events they’ve seen come to pass.
Unlike poetry readings used to promote books or other merchandise, there is more pressure on the slam poet to engage the audience in order to win the slam, this therefore becomes the paramount purpose of slam poetry and is the reason why, in print, slam poetry usually only serves to mirror the original performance.
Image: Omar Musa