No poet is beyond critique; every poet depends, in part, upon his or her audience. Spoken word poets, especially those who compete in poetry slams for money and titles, are not exempt from their share of critics. Many poets have fallen back on topics and tactics solely to please the crowd in front them and win the most points from judges at poetry slams. Topics and word choice rely on cliches and strained metaphors that are stretched over the length of a poem for dramatic effect. Spoken word should always be subjected to the pressures and expectations of competition; the intention behind any slam poet’s pieces should be rooted in giving voice to his or her experience and advocating a belief or an action rather than simply giving a good performance.
During poetry slams, members of the audience chosen to act as judges for the event score each performance on a scale from 0 to 10, taking audience feedback and participation into account when they are awarding points. The audience has a heavy hand in choosing who they want to hear more poetry from as they cheer for performers they want to advance to the next round of the poetry slam. This does now, however, always guarantee that the best poets advance to the final round; some poets are advanced due to the subject matter of their pieces since certain subjects award them more points than others.
During one poetry slam I attended during college, there was a young woman who performed two gut wrenching pieces about how she had been bullied for being a lesbian and how she had suffered abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Her performances gave me chills and some members of the audience had tears in the eyes. While the phrases of her piece weren’t particularly memorable, the raw emotion behind her performance won the audience’s hearts and she ended up placing second in the slam. Later, as she made her way out of the venue with her friends, I overheard her laughing about how she had done it all for the points—she was straight, she had never suffered abuse, and she had grown up with a loving father. She had given quite a performance, but I was disheartened to know it was nothing more than a hollow spectacle.
I respect any poet who stands in front of an audience and embraces the vulnerability that comes with placing oneself in front of an audience. It takes more than a little courage to act as a mouthpiece for others who share in that poet’s experience, but I cannot condone poets and coaches who simply compete for money and titles and unflinchingly resort to playing upon the judges’ heartstrings with false stories. It is one thing to create a piece that is inspired by someone else’s voice, history, and cultural traditions, but it is quite another thing to lay claim to a something that is painfully real for other people and exploit it for one’s own purposes. It is because of encounters with such poets that I realized that, as with any art form, there is both good and bad spoken word.
Good slam poets aim to provoke their audience into conversation or action, carefully constructing their phrases to stick in people’s minds as well as writing and rewriting their pieces until they “get it right.” Great poets want to advocate for a particular belief or course of action and aim to do more than goad people into applauding them for getting behind a microphone. Slam poets often ignore the taboo labels on subjects like abuse and alcoholism and speak their minds because they want their pieces to ignite conversations and spur change within their communities. Not all slam poets are narcissists that use spoken word as a means to draw attention solely to themselves—many poets rally against silence and ignorance, critiquing their society and expressing stories in order to connect with a widespread audience.
When most poets first delve into spoken word, they tend to rant about issues they feel strongly about before turning to personal experiences that draw attention to larger societal issues. In interviews conducted by two of Boston College’s newspapers The Heights and The Gavel, almost all of the poets work to both inspire and motivate change within the BC community, protesting issues like discrimination, peer pressure, and sexism as often as they perform pieces about heartbreak, death and loss, and even FOMO. Many of the poets long to “shift cultural norms,” “break from what is standard,” and be “courageous enough to bring up what is ignored or not talked about.” (1) Every BC slam poet represents different issues and they often try to express the views of those who struggle to share their own stories. Most of BC’s poets hope to spur others to action; they want their audiences to go beyond merely talking about an issue.
Slam poets can be great storytellers and revel in the ability to freely express themselves, delivering raw and personal moments of their own experiences, but this does not always guarantee they are factual in their references: “See the problem with religion is it never gets to the core // It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores // Like let’s dress up the outside make it look nice and neat // But it’s funny that’s what they used to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath.” (2) While this popular piece by Jefferson Bethke went viral online, Bethke’s rhythmic style cannot cover up the fact that the mummification process ensures the corpse will not rot “underneath.” Bethke’s wording and metaphors don’t stand up to close scrutiny when his readers have his piece in front of them.
Canadian poet Paul Vermeersch is extremely critical of slam poets like Bethke and expresses frustration that spoken word favors performance style and shock value over time and effort and is alarmed that such an attitude towards this form of poetry self-propagates. Many young poets follow in the footsteps of those gaining fame and recognition and aim to garner their own attention as quickly as possible. Vermeersch bemoans that when it comes to most spoken word, “the author hasn’t read very much poetry, causing the author to mistake hackneyed truisms and platitudes for insight and cleverness.” While I do not share all of Vermeersch’s opinions, I think that it is important that slam poets take care with the composition of their craft and don’t perform poorly written poems for the sake of phrases and subjects that are sure to please their audience. Some critics, like Vermeersch, spout arguments that are a bit extreme, but their words should be taken into account to prevent this genre of poetry from becoming meaningless.
Spoken word poets must remember that slam poetry is an art as much as it is a form of protest; poetic word choice should not be sacrificed for the sake of an audience’s approval during a competition. It is a challenge to make poetry resonate in spoken form as well as it does on paper, but it is a challenge that poets should keep at the forefront of their minds when they are composing a piece. Poetry slams should be sites of culture where a variety of cultural traditions and values are exchanged between both the spoken word poets and their audiences, instead of a place where points, money, and titles are all that matter. Many spoken word pieces carry noble messages, but their poems should also do more than appeal for sympathy or scold the audience in front of them. Not every member of a audience is indifferent towards injustice. Poets do not need to get up on a soap box and preach - they just need to be thoughtful and honest.
(1) "In Good Company: Spoken Word Poetry at BC” (page 17-23) http://bcgavel.com/2013/12/09/the-gavel-december-magazine/
(2) "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” by Jefferson Bethke http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Jefferson-bethke-why-i-hate-religion-but-love-jesus-spoken-word-annotated