Do all slam poems sound the same?
I’m writing this post because I believe there is a misconception among the community of slam poets and slam poetry fans that spoken word poems have to sound a certain way.
I think you know what I mean – the inflection so many slam poets seem to use; the intonation that exaggerates syllables, particularly at the end of a sentence, verse or stanza, to accentuate the delivery.
In my own humble opinion, this verbal cadence can be either good or bad.
Often times, the inflection sounds great and highlights a particular point of attention in the poem. It gives the slam poem character and calls attention to the performance aspect of what makes a poem slam.
This is the good side of that 'sound'.
Remember, delivery is absolutely a difference between words on a piece of paper, and vernacular darts that spike necks when delivered from a stage. Intonation is a poetic tool that slam poets have adopted, and now it's almost an innate and mandatory characteristic of a spoken word performance.
But should it be?
Does slam poetry always have to sound the same?
If it doesn't have that sound, is it actually a slam poem?
This intonation is heavily overused (again, in my opinion). It’s not always bad. But sometimes, it’s ugly.
It doesn't always fit or work; it’s not performance tactic that all poets can adopt well enough to execute on. What happens is some poems begin to sound off-beat. The pauses become awkward and misplaced because the performer is over-trying. Meter and rhythm tend to get lost. Poetry is essentially lost. The performer has probably watched too much YouTube.
Poets and fans have weighed in on this issue in a number of online forums. I don’t think there is a right answer. The fact is that each poem belongs to its writer. The performance is the author's embodiment of their own words. Everything else is just your opinion. Those opinions, however, are what make up the competitive aspect of poetry slams. Don’t let go of them. Opinions are treasure; it’s what makes slam poetry not just poetry.
Slam poetry is about preference of style as much as it’s about words and context, as much as it’s about poetic devices, as much as it’s about a message. Slam poetry competitions are about how all those elements make you feel in the moment.
If you rewind the tape back to Chicago in 1985, you’d find the Godfather of Slam Poetry looking for a way to give CPR to a dying art – open mic poetry. His breath was gale force wind that contrived a perpetual movement. Today, we slam because of Marc Kelly Smith. But have you ever seen him perform?
Now you tell me – does all slam poetry have to sound the same?
Still not convinced? Here are a slew of phenomenal slam poems that don’t use the traditional sound many of us have become so accustomed to.
Eric Darby - "Scratch & Dent Dreams"
"Mighty" Mike McGee - "Open Letter to Neil Armstrong"
Sarah Kay - "The Type"
Buddy Wakefield - "The Information Man"
Jill Scott - "Nothing is for Nothing"
I wrote this piece because I want to let you know that it’s OK to be yourself. It’s more than OK – its evolution. Your individualization, your image of how your poem is and should be spoken and performed, makes spoken word a sacred art. So I encourage you to string together terrific words and thoughts; write great poetry. Then slam that great poetry. Slam with every emotion and passion your heart tells you to; pour those words like tears and blood. Just don’t try so hard to sound like someone else. Instead, try hard to make your poem a memorable one.