Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Defense of Slam Poetry Part 1

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Some time in the 1980s a Conservative construction worker from Chicago founded a modern genre of poetry. Technically, Slam is not a genre, but rather, a platform for under represented, populace driven spoken word genres of poetry to be showcased. Mark Smith (So What!) produces a weekly show (every Sunday) at one of Al Capone's old stomping grounds – The Green Mill in Chicago. If you get the chance to speak to Mark (it's actually really easy to) he'll tell you that the original slams had ringers. The goal of the event was to entertain and expose a non literary mass to great talent. If you go to the Green Mill on any Sunday, you'll discover a world with a tough crowd that will jeer you for writing a poem with basic rhyme schemes. They'll do worse if your poem is sexist. An audience that is proud to inform you that the lowest score given out at a slam there is negative infinity. There are even tales of a woman biting one sexist poet's face on stage...

Hopefully we all know the rules of poetry slams:

Poets are given 3 minutes to perform their best original work without props, five random members of the audience judge them, the top score and lowest scores are dropped, and after two or three elimination rounds a champion is decided.

Unfortunately, as Slam poetry has spread internationally the entertainment side of Slam has waned while the competitive side (which was never the intent of slam) has flowered. Die-hard detractors of slam have also flowered. It was in a fairly recent, but much different environment, that Dan D'Onorio and myself promoted Toronto's $100 Slam for 4 “seasons” ( basically a school year schedule). We leaned hard on the early ideals of Slam poetry – encouraged literary types to join our audience --- giggled as popular slam poets from other series' failed to make the second round repeatedly. Most importantly, we created a platform for talented poets.

Recently, one of the founders of the London Ontario slam series (Elyse), reminded me that we gave her her first feature. Other weeks, we featured legends like Robert Priest, dub poet Anthony Bansfield, and Gianna Patriarca. It was a slam by two talented writers, for writers -- influenced by our past experience as two of the first Canada based poets to feature at Mark's series in Chicago.

Currently, Kitchener has a series where competitors are required to give a heads up if their work treads on controversial (sexist, talks about abuse,etc) ground. My point? Not all Slam series are the same. Just as not all poetry slammers write the same work.

And this is where I plant my flag. I am a slam poet. Whether I never compete in another slam, or I come out of retirement and barnstorm across North America arm wrestling Shane Koyczan and Ed Mabrey. When $100 Slam was in full swing, a noted member of Canada's literary community wrote a scathing opinionated editorial (Op. Ed.) on why slam poetry was not a genre. The slam poets who did respond were full of passion and not reason (quite frankly, if they could keep their cool with so much support swaying against them, they would not be slam poets). The following is my response.

"Slam poetry is not a legitimate genre of poetry"

You are correct. Slam poetry is actually the union of numerous genres of spoken word poetry. Most of these genres were dying. Grandparents taught children (just as I was taught by my grandfather) and then there were no platforms to share what we had been taught. It is also tied to more contemporary genres of spoken word poetry, giving the handful of us who tread in genres like Caribbean story telling, or East-Coast Celtic influenced spoken word traditions legitimacy.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dane Swan

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011.

Go to Dane Swan’s Author Page