My problem(S) with poetry slams/ Make poetry weird again™

I’m going to start by saying I love the poetry slam. It has given me more friends than I had love in my heart. I love performing. I adore being challenged by some of the bold work I have heard. I am fueled by the work that pushes me to think, feel and grow. I love the creativity and the different styles slams to which slams have exposed me. I love the community element, the event itself. I love how the poetry slam strives to be inclusive and all the organizers I have meant have huge, beautiful hearts. There is really nothing quite like a Monday night. There are so many creative, brilliant poets subverting the “genre” or “movement” from within, into something even braver.

Because I love the slam so much, and it has shaped the way which I see the world, it really does bother me when I see some problematic elements emerging in the background of this place which has been my vessel, safe haven and gateway into the larger big bad world of boldness.

I feel like people should compete in poetry slams because they have something they think is valuable, artistic and vivid to say. This is why I really loved Hullabaloo, I feel like the youth in the competition would share their voices resonated that it meant something to them. Yet there seems to be this weird disparity, between being an honest poet and being focussed on winning a slam. I feel like outside of the context of that festival, it becomes pretty easy to get caught up in wanting to “win”. And this is obviously impossible, because who doesn’t want to win? But if we all take a step back for a minute, slams are a total buffoon game, it’s just a marketing tool to promote poetry showcases. The person who wins the slam, is usually not the best poet, because how do you even rank that kind of thing?  If humanity could learn to take their masturbatory minds out of their egos for a second things might be different in this case. Honesty, has gotten lost for many pieces I have seen in the pursuit of a viral poem, or in the pursuit of getting points.  We already have sensationalist news articles, dumbed down political event videos in 30 second tidbits, and people reduced to avatars by their Facebook feeds and I don’t want to see that type of repetitive, meaningless and too-easily obliging soulless content regurgitate itself in an art form that is supposed to be built on truth. The truth is nuanced, it is complicated, and odds are it can’t fit in the pentameter of the “slam poet” because the conventions of this performance inherently limit boundary pushing.

Crowds and Facebook feeds alike, like the quick and dirty, the pain-pimp, the ego-pump, the backseat activism, the accessible and easy, disguised as effort. I love that shit too. But at its best, it’s feel good propaganda, and at its worst it’s instant empathy, meaningless rhetoric designed for a fake, robotic, silhouette catharsis. These dopamine hits with titles like 10 ways my depression is horrible or What the patriarchy taught me are hallmark art, pieced together by conventions of a made up genre- that isn’t even a genre- in a clown-car style competition where people keep coming out holding different balloon animals and everyone is desperate to call it art and get praised for it. If people want to rewrite what has already been said and not go deeper with their voice, they could make a Buzzfeed video with a clickbait title instead of a poem. But something keeps us all writing, and the desire to be heard should not be lost in the desire to “succeed” because this type of success is counter intuitive to what poetry is trying to achieve.

To me, the poetry slam on some nights, appears as a preaching pep rally of the “pained” where everyone blames the same enemy and makes “bold” statements to those who are already converted. You are not bold to go and say you hate Drumf, or Harper, or Bill C-51 on a slam stage. You are not bold to say sexism is bad. Being bold, in slam, is going up and believing in yourself enough to do a 3 minute long piece about the nuances of ladybugs. Being bold is being fired up by an outlook that has not been already articulated as safe.

That being said, we need anti-systemic racism poems, colonialism poems, poems that deal with gender and sexuality. And these are topics that affect a lot of people and should be performed about, and should be given voice to. However, I have a hard time believing that someone’s misogyny they experienced is as universal as the next poem describes it to be. There is a shield of honesty here; the poetry is mechanical and uninteresting because it’s a recyclable of the same images and the same connotations. People play it down, frequently to pointing a finger at the all encompassing oppressing evil, which perpetuates the us and them rhetoric. Then I see angry poets safe in their own community without tangible work to appeal to a non-leftist audience that they should be aiming to change with their words. The poems do not serve their purpose. In writing the perfect example of racism, the perfect example of oppression, the perfect story that ends up robotic and bow-tied, they take away the meaty parts that make this their story. Instead, these poets might get good scores a back pat and forget that the fire that made them write that initial poem, is not being targeted, is not being explored, is instead be tolerated and kept up to continue to compete in this zoo-like undefined impossible game.

I feel like slam is evolving into a competition of identity instead of poetry. People perform their identities, when they perform their poems, like they are brands.  When you’re performing a poem, unlike a written piece, people will see who  you are and make assumptions of what that poem means as a political statement. But people are making the same damn “political” statement again and again, it feels like a church. This isn’t interesting. People are molding their poetry to be what won last week’s slam, and then molding their identity and puking out the same beliefs and ideals. This is a tactic that helps nothing. For a scene that values diversity, why is the way the stories are told, the pentameter, the allusions and the portrayal of race and gender so similar? For a scene that values multiculturalism and inclusion, why are the experiences that are being shared an echo-chamber? For a scene that believes that its own worth comes from being brave, why does it point fingers at all encompassing monster instead of digging down into the nuances of the problems and exploring truth, wholeheartedly? For a movement that values diversity and inclusion- why are we pointing to a universal picture of contempt and forgetting to look outside of ourselves?


2 thoughts on “My problem(S) with poetry slams/ Make poetry weird again™

  • Of course, not only are you an amazing poet, but an incredibly articulate writer as well! Thanks for sharing this post, a few UBC students and I were just talking about our problems with the slam environment (as wonderful and accessible as it is) and they echoed some of your sentiments as well. Mainly how it’s disappointing the way the score has become something taking seriously in many slam environments instead of something to be strived for by the poets yet ultimately mocked in importance.

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