Slam poetry is the godfather of creative writing. It is the first bite into a brand new pack of gum. It is the moment where you walk into an air-conditioned house on a disgustingly humid day. It is the hours spent playing childhood games on the pavement until the streetlights go on. It is an amalgamation of all the cat videos on YouTube ever created. It is the word amalgamation. Basically, slam poetry is everything that is good in the world. Unfortunately, it is also extremely underappreciated.
I haven’t always been a slam poetry advocate. In fact, up until senior year of high school, I didn’t even know what it was. Slam poetry? Why would anyone want to slam poetry? Poetry is the bees knees! (My conscience dips into 50s terminology whenever I get excited. No need to get judgey about it.) And why do English teachers keep praising slam poetry? Isn’t that against the English teacher honor code or something? And do people really hate poetry bad enough to publically rant about it? Don’t they have better things to do like cure cancer or watch Oprah? Don’t these people have greater priorities?
With so many questions boggling my mind, I took to the internet and within a matter of hours had reached a point of creative enlightenment that would make Buddha proud. Slam poetry does not involve slamming poetry. Slam poetry is a combination of performance and artistic ability, a marriage of passion and writing that targets the deepest of human emotion. Good slam poetry follows a simple formula that involves much more than the writing itself.
There is a thin line (like, dental floss thin) between rhyming too much and rhyming too little when it comes to slam poetry. Too much can throw off the rhythm of the piece while too little just makes you one of those hipster poets that throws together sophisticated words and philosophical themes until your brain implodes. (I’m not hating on the hipsters. There’s a time and place for that type of writing, just not in this genre.) Slam poetry involves the right amount of rhyming, a Goldilocks balance if you will, to bring just the right amount of punch into each piece without making me want to drink green tea and play the guitar.
So you want to be a lawyer, a politician, a stand-up comedian, eh? Let me fill you in on a little secret: you don’t need fancy suits or a Harvard education to go from zero to hero. All you need is a fluency in dramatic pauses. Consider Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Would it have been nearly as influential if he had come out and said “I have a… dream”? Probably not. (Although, it does make for a fun guessing game. What do you have, MLK? You have an itch? A pony? A transformer? My nose?) Civil rights down the drain all because of an ill-placed dramatic pause. The number of pauses is also essential. No pauses at all will make you sound like you’re reading an overly dramatized run-on sentence while too many will give people the impression that you have asthma.
I love words. If I could find a way to make my children come out as words, my son would be “rendezvous” and my daughter, “persnickety.” Really. They would come out shaped like those words. However, when it comes to slam poetry, you must maintain a certain delicacy in order to keep the poetry’s depth and allow the audience to actually appreciate what you’re saying. You can’t say things like “Human existence is a road to nowhere,” or “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” in the same breath and move on without letting my brain wrap around the pieces or eventually my attention will wander and I will smile and nod and assume that what you said was crafty and meaningful. On the opposite extreme, speaking too slowly will put me to sleep. I can only handle so much nature imagery, people. Pacing. Do it.
This one is not optional. Let’s say you’ve decided to become a slam poet and when you finally perform your first poem, it is too fast, too rhyme-y, and has no dramatic pauses because you chose to disregard all of my previous advice. Whatever. I don’t care. If you will dance with me to Call Me Maybe and you like kittens, we can still be friends. However, for the sake of your slam poetry career, I highly suggest you don’t overlook this detail. Pretend slam poetry is a mix of stand-up comedy and creative writing. First, you set up the joke, you toss some minor details in and then you deliver the punch line which rolls everything you’ve said into a neat little ball of joy. It can be inserted into the middle of the poem or tossed in at the end but a punch line is essential in slam poetry to transform your big ideas into a powerful poetry dagger that will slash the heartstrings of your listeners. A really good punch line will give the listeners goosebumps, make their eyes water, and leave hardcore, hipster poets drooling at your feet.
Perhaps you’re an English geek looking for a new fix. Perhaps you’re a Creative Writing teacher trying to find a way to make poetry sound cool. Perhaps you like to talk very loudly and you’re looking for a way to get praise for doing so. Whatever the case may be, slam poetry is the answer. So grab a notepad and a pencil and give slam poetry the appreciation it…deserves. (See? Not nearly as effective.)
P.S. If you’re interested in slam poetry and want to know more, check out the clips available on YouTube from the National Poetry Slam as well as freelance poets like George Watsky, Taylor Mali, and Katie Makkai to name a few.
Poet image via Shutterstock