Features

In Defence of Slam Poetry: One Poet’s Journey to Enlightenment

Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu


On the 15th of August, as part of the Perth Poetry Festival, I performed in the Asian Connections segment at the Moon Café. This was a gig I had more or less landed after my feature at the Perth Poetry Club a few months prior. Peter Jeffery, who organised Asian Connections, suggested I open with a piece I had written and performed at the Perth Poetry Club, “The Voice of Myanmar”, which is one of the few poems I specifically wrote as a slam poem.

Honestly, I felt that I had come a long way from a year ago. Last year I was writing poetry solely for the page and performing them for the sake of performance. Let me elaborate.

As an eighteen year old Burmese poet stumbling onto the Perth poetry scene it is rather intimidating. The fact that you spent an entire year in the city believing that Perth was as bland a city there ever was doesn’t help. And then, when you find yourself one fine Saturday afternoon at the Moon Café, having coerced two of your friends to accompany you, at one of the Perth Poetry Club sessions, you begin to wonder what exactly you should be expecting. But you’re a poet and you won’t let a microphone stand in the way of you and sharing your poetry.

Reading your own poetry in front of strangers is entirely intimidating, which is why most people decide to sit and relax and watch other people make fools of themselves. But the Perth Poetry Club is first and foremost a welcoming community. It is then, in effect, arguably the perfect starting point for poets young and old to stand up in front of a group of people and read poetry.

I read one of the pieces I’d written possibly the night before, entitled “poetry lingered”. It proved to be a good choice; the people who heard it liked it, and some of them actually came up to me to talk to me about it afterwards. If ever poet needed an ego boost, this was it. I returned the next Saturday, and the Saturday after that.

What the Perth Poetry Club sessions introduced me to was the idea of slam poetry, or performance poetry, if you will. Before I arrived at the PPC, and for some time after, I’d written poetry solely for the page. Any recitation that occurred would be for friends or family, and it would be understood that I hadn’t written the poems for performance – and I was content with that. But then I started noticing the flow in other poets’ verses, as if the poem became something more than a poem, as if it was written specifically for performance. It intrigued me.

This intrigue quickly turned into inspiration, when one day I heard Jakub Dammer perform. One of the poems he performed when he was a feature at PPC transcended the normal poetic plane. It cascaded like music, like a symphony, bursting into a powerful crescendo, never slackening in pace, just going and going and going until your brain became attuned to the rhythm of his voice—and you heard nothing else, just him and his voice, and the words weaving their magic in the air, until you almost couldn’t bear it anymore. When he finished, I felt invincible. It was and is one of the best poetic experiences I’ve had to date.

Of course I didn’t speak to him afterwards, I was too intimidated.

But Jakub’s performance plunged me headfirst into slam poetry. My friend and I delved into the recesses of YouTube to search for more examples of slam poetry, and we stumbled onto a goldmine. Here are a few poems we especially loved, please have a listen when you can:

“Dear Straight People” by Denice Frohman:

 

“To the Boys Who May One Day Date my Daughter” by Jesse Parent:

 

“When Love Arrives” by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye:

 

As poet, novelist, and playwright Kate Tempest says, “A poem on a page isn’t finished until somebody reads it. It’s just some words on a page. But in a performance, the poem happens the minute it reaches the audience.”

That being said, I find it difficult to understand why there is such dissent and displeasure among poetic academia about slam poetry. It was even dubbed “the death of art” by critic Harold Bloom in the Paris Review. Taking offence at the competitive factor of slam poetry is perhaps understandable, but I believe the main argument is that slam poetry is not the intended use of poetry; that poetry is meant to be read and not performed.

I have one such critic fairly close to home: my brother. He is a conventional poet enthusiast and disapproves of slam poetry, with all my arguments in defence of it falling on deaf ears. Take, for example, this conversation I had with him a while ago:

My brother: ‘I hate modernists. They’re too liberal.’

Me: ‘Well excuse you. What do you mean, they’re too liberal?’

My brother: ‘They tweak poetry too much and can never match the Classical, Romantic or Metaphysical poets.’

Me: ‘Yes, but in saying that, you forget that the Romantic poets had to tweak classical poetry and bring their own spin to it to become the Romantics, same with the Beat Generation in the US. Poetry has to evolve with the times and it has and slam poetry is a pretty powerful medium through which to convey messages or emotions.’

My brother: ‘But this is a bad tweak.’

Me: ‘How is it a bad tweak?’

My brother: ‘Free verse is now too free. It is deformed poetry if you will.’

Would I say that it is mainly ignorance that fuels this hatred for slam poetry? Perhaps. I like to think that he simply hasn’t found his Jakub Dammer yet.

What it all boils down to is this: slam poetry is simply another method of expression. That’s the way I see it. Yes, it demands a bit more from the poet. Yes, it takes the audience opinion into consideration. Is it liberating? Yes. Is it threatening art in any way? Absolutely not.

And finally: is it still poetry?

Hell fucking yes.