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Essay: Slam poetry is despicable and dumb-ass and not good

Opinion: Andrew Paul Wood wishes a pox upon slam poetry, that “horrid practice” which is currently in vogue and features in the upcoming Auckland Writers Festival. (Read performance poet Penny Ashton disagreeing with him here.)

“I can’t bear these accounts I read in The Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.”  – Harold Bloom

I despise slam poetry. Not as much as I despise ukulele orchestras, but it’s up there. You can make all the connections you like to the spoken word performance poetry of the Beats and hippies of the 1950s and ‘60s (Allen Ginsberg performing Howl in 1959), Harlem roasts of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and Flyting (the bardic insult competitions the Anglo-Nordic peoples filled in the long winters with between the fifth and sixteenth centuries) and good luck to you, but I hate it.

It’s not that I hate recited poetry – Sam Hunt (doing Dylan Thomas by way of Denis Glover) was always fun and Tusiata Avia (launching her new collection at this year’s Auckland Writers’ Festival) punches me right in the feels – it’s that I hate naff McGonagall-esque doggerel rants allergic to nuance, passed off as poems, and ham theatrics of the William Shatner school.

I hate Slam’s pretentions. I hate its self-pitying clichés and bumbling clumsiness (stuff that would have offended Pam Ayres’ aesthetic sensibilities) forced awkwardly into hip hop iambics. I hate the contrived vocal mannerisms. I hate the stolen cadences shamelessly and shoddily aping better performers, ranging from twee tremolos to whatever that whisper-shout thing was Eddie Redmayne did in Jupiter Ascending. I hate that it’s ubiquitous and now considered acceptable fare at literary festivals. Oh look there’s a slammer at the Auckland’s Writer’s Festival next month.

They’ve brought over Malaysian-Australian slam poet/rapper/author Omar Musa – but  he’ll be doing other things at the festival. Musa has a grown-up scholarly chat with Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh of Auckland University, and some sort of freestyling rap battle with King Kapisi. I’m not quite sure what freestyling rap battles have to do with writing, but there you go. “Each artist has 25 minutes to impress with their rhymes and beats.”

The festival’s contribution to Poetry Slams is “Poetry Idol”, which adheres more or less to the Slam format of competing for an audience’s approval. It gives the impression it’s relatively serious because you have to audition for it. Two of the judges are Slam poets, South Auckland’s Zane Scarborough and American/New Zealander Carrie Rudzinski.

Zane Scarborough

Zane Scarborough

Scarborough is a past twice winner of Poetry Idol, a founder of Word: The Front Line, an inter-high school poetry slam competition, and a member of the South Auckland Poets Collective. SAPC already makes me warm to him – they are the authentic voice of Auckland’s Polynesian soul. You may remember the undeservedly condescending piece written about them by Michael Botur for the Big Idea website, though if you really insist on reading it, you’ll have to access it on his blog here. I wouldn’t bother. Scarborough has a soothing voice and isn’t overly flamboyant with the mannerisms even if he does screw up his eyes like he’s in pain.

Rudzinski is apparently ranked fourth in the world at the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam. I’m not entirely sure what that means in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly sounds impressive. She also has four collections behind her and works as the National Coordinator for Rising Voices Youth Poetry Slam and New Zealand Poetry Slam. I like her energy and openness, but I can’t quite get past the impression that she’s always on the verge of flying up into the air like Hildegard von Bingen.

Goodness knows what these two old hands will make of the mixed bag about to be thrust at them. With these sorts of events, the participants always seem to conform to certain archetypes of amateur and only slightly more experienced. There is usually a nerdy white boy, bullied at school (likes Eminem but condemns the misogyny and homophobia), whose register rises frenetically in pitch to an emotional, ragged, self-strangling of glottals until, mercifully, only dogs can hear him blame the world for his persistent virginity. There will be rhyming light verse from the elderly gentleman mopping his brow with a silk scarf (perhaps a nostalgic memento of a long ago romantic tryst) who forgets his words and resorts to reading them from a crumpled scrap of paper taken from his pocket.

But Slam is no country for old men. The winner is almost inevitably a young woman of bohemian attire who delivers an anguished and heartfelt soliloquy about a deceased cat or some debilitating, but curiously unspecific, illness.

America seems to produce the most extreme affectations. Here is Shaggy from Scooby Doo having some sort of seizure. There are the neckbeard white boy would-be rappers (god I hope this is staged) and the sensitive bros. I hazard to drag the female and usually more sensible of the species into this, but then there’s shouty bumf this.

The worst slam poetry is just banal prose with peculiar line breaks, syllable counting gurning and mime hands. Noble social protest is lost beneath all the posturing self-aggrandisement, faux patois and, ironically “keeping it real”. The best Slam poets – the really good ones who get toured around and awarded residencies even though they rarely, if ever, compete anymore and less often publish – are genuinely brilliant, cut from the same cloth as the best stand-up comedians and character actors, but are still largely performing dramatic monologues.

Taylor Mali is supposed to be one of the best Slam poets in the world, but his soporific-yet-jarring delivery bugs the hell out of me. Beau Sia, another celebrated Slam poet, would make a formidable stand-up comedian if he could just get past the pretention he’s delivering poetry. Anis Mojgani, who entranced audiences at Christchurch’s WORD Writers & Readers Festival in 2014 and again at this year’s New Zealand Festival Writers Week, is a great and uplifting performer, but calling his oratory “poetry” seems to me to miss the point of what poetry is, a spoken music that touches nerves in us beyond what the words merely say, “outwitting” as Ted Hughes said, their “inner police system”.

Sadly Slam poets who can do this are rare as true love. All of this would be fine, however, as long as it’s not packaged as a dreary form of competitive entertainment. It is, to borrow a phrase, a horrid practice.


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