I mean, the answer is no.
To clarify who I’m talking about by “slam” poets, I am not talking about poets who enter poetry slams and I am not even talking about those who do well in them. I’m not saying that “slam” is a particular style of poetry either – in fact I’ll be saying quite the opposite. The poets I’m talking about are those who get lumped into the simplified and often derisive term “slam” poets.
So, why do so many people, not only throw “slam” poets into the same category, but also think they all sound the same? Well, let’s look at a recent articles on the subject.
Chris Gilpin wrote about those frequently referred to as slam poets:
Many poets use similar arguing styles, speed of delivery, tone of voice and physical gestures. It needs to be said: the reason that all those poems sound alike is not because they belong to a poetic genre—it’s because they are filled with cliché.
This attitude is reiterated in articles on performance poetry and in poetry forums across the internet. Take Sam Berkson’s article published last week on the subject of slam as a genre. In the piece, Berkson advised of five cliches to avoid in writing performance (or as he called it slam) poetry. Each was a recognisable trope of such a critique, reinforcing the idea of slam poetry as a cliche-ridden form characterised by unoriginal content, saccharine emotional manipulation, excessive competitiveness and ignorance of the artform as a whole. I’m not going to be able to address each of these individually, but for the tl;dr version – I think this is bullshit. Instead, I’m going to look at a couple of the most insidious issues some in the scene have with “slam” poets.
Let’s deal first with the most obviously untrue of these, the idea that slam poets don’t have sufficient background in poetry and have to “read more”. Berkson claims in his article that “There is no other art form where practitioners are so uneducated in the precedents”. Where this idea comes from, I do not know, but it seems pretty pervasive among the slam-bashing community online. That being said, Berkson describes such poets as not knowing “their Mutabaruka from their Adrian Mitchell” and this might be the key. There seems to be an element of “if your poetic reference points don’t chime with mine, then you have none”. Personally, if you ask me about my influences I can chew your ear off for hours about how I developed my style on the back of my favourite writers. And I can do that without reference to a single poet. Or I can do that by only talking about page poets. Or stage poets. Now this isn’t because I’m somehow above the other slam poets, in fact I’ve never met a single poet who couldn’t do the same. Passages like this reek of either ignorance or elitism – even if that is not their intention.
Then comes the issue of style. To be as plain as possible, if you don’t understand the difference between performance poets, it’s generally because you don’t have a good enough background in different performance styles – not that they are in fact the same. I can honestly admit to no longer being able to differentiate between baroque and classical orchestral scores, but it would be rather strange of me to claim that they are in fact indistinguishable or unoriginal. They all have violins, violas, cellos and no electric guitar would not be a good enough excuse for failing to recognise the variations, in the same way that high tempo, high energy poetry does not a cliche make. There are a million miles between a poet influenced by hip-hop, a poet influenced by punk music and a poet influenced by other performance poets. Your inability to recognise the differences does not mean they don’t exist.
Articles like these, and the attitudes they contain, are not new to performers. They are not a wake up call to young writers and there is nothing noble in taking an intellectual or creative high ground over those you deem beneath you. If anything, the simplification and generalisation of a diverse and interesting artform does nothing but demonstrate an ignorance of nuance and a narrow view of expression. “All that new music, it sounds the same to me!” isn’t a good look for anyone.
After what was an aggressively negative article, I thought I would leave you with the exact opposite. An article from Elizabeth Rimmer, who wonderfully speaks to those who have ever had to listen to the kind of nonsense above, from a place of genuine encouragement and understanding.
Go write and perform how you like folks!
[Ross McFarlane – @RossDMcFarlane]