Friday, June 10, 2016

Slam Poetry as Activism

What is slam poetry?

"[Slam] poetry is not to glorify the poet, but rather to celebrate the community around the poet." 

Marc Kelly Smith is credited to have started what we now know as "slam poetry" in the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in the year 1984. In his book, "Take the Mic: The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word," he recalls his move to "enthusiastically embrace performance as an essential part of the poetic experience." While poetry has been performed orally for centuries, Smith's contributions have resulted in a unique genre in and of itself. He and the other "Ill-Bred Poets of the Get Me High," as they jokingly called themselves, agreed upon and abode by the following rules:

1) The poet on the stage is no more important than the listening audience
2) Performing is an art, as much an art as crafting the text itself

These rules, as well as others, provided the mold to shape the slam poetry of today. 

My Poetic Love

I've always loved reading and more especially writing poetry as a form of entertainment and I often write poems for close friends and family members on their birthdays or for other special occasions. I almost always stick with rhyming, rhythmic poetry, but lately I've gotten into the slam poetry movement, mostly from watching dozens and dozens of passionate YouTube slam videos of youth speaking out. It's changed my entire view of poetry as a fun hobby to a means by which we can effectively be a voice for social change. 

Now, I realized before that you can use poetry to express your views on any given issue. I wrote a poem for a poetry contest in the seventh grade entitled "The Negative Effects of Alcohol" in which, albeit in a roundabout way, I show the reader how alcohol could adversely affect his or her life. Here's the poem:

The Negative Effects of Alcohol
by Kimball Leavitt

As I strolled down in the morning,
I thought about my friends
And I contemplated, "Which large, serrated
Blade would mean my end?"

You see, I was a gladiator,
I had a battle that day
And if I had fought any worse
I would have lost the fray.

The brawl began at the crack 'o dawn
The combatant was colossal
And though he was the king's great pawn
I sought to win the tussle

I landed in his gut, a punch!
And, involuntarily,
He rejected all his lunch
And upchucked it on me,

Suffice to say, it was a dance
I was a great deal quicker. 
He might have stood just half a chance
If not for his drinkin' liquor.

Say what you will, but in my opinion, this poem has some mildly humorous content, as well as an unclear purpose. The title clearly states the purpose of the poem, but anyone reading it won't understand how it ties in until the last line. I suppose that could be a good thing--providing a little twist/surprise at the end--but however you feel about this poem, I think you'll agree with me that for many rhetorical situations, slam poetry can be a much more effective medium than, say, words alone.

(Written) Poetry: An Agent for Social Change in History?

It could and has been said that John Milton's Paradise Lost (1660) is the best piece of poetry ever written. Though many now dispute its greatness with that claim largely because of how religious it is, its theme was extremely appropriate for Milton's time and situation. For those of you who haven't read it, it's essentially Milton's retelling of the premortal war in heaven, the fall of Adam and Eve and their subsequent salvation through the Son of God. Though biblically based, Milton takes the liberty to narrate far beyond the scope of the Bible in his recounting of these events that took place "in the beginning." Reflected in the epic is the idea of ad fontes, a going back to earlier sources for knowledge, creating a fusion of biblical and mythical.

In the poem, Milton sets out to "justifie the wayes of God to man;" in other words, he tries to explain why God does what He does, and why He did what He did. He (Milton) achieves his objective by engaging the reader with sophisticated and elevated language and causing him or her to think deeply about the about the argument. The world Milton lived in was not secular, and most people were intricately familiar with the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis, but Paradise Lost had quite the new twist on it. Milton expresses and hints at his personal religious, social and political views throughout the epic, such as his view of women as beneath men in the social heirarchy, problems with which arise when that order is reversed (Adam subjecting himself to Eve); his questionable ideology concerning the Holy Trinity (the Son as a separate being from God Himself); and his support of Oliver Cromwell and desire to see Charles I executed, reflected in Satan's questioning God's right to rule. All of these views along with his primary purpose, could be considered his "call" for social change: a call to question the government's power, a call for people to believe in God and obey Him unquestioningly, etc. I would willingly put Paradise Lost under the label "activism" but with the admission that it lacks the vigor, velocity, protest and speaking out quality that has pervaded activism since the term's birth in the early 1900s. Slam poetry is a more suited medium to call for social change.

Why Slam Works

"Slam poetry carries the oral tradition forward, encouraging today’s poets and performance artists to address the modern human condition by bringing to life (and the spotlight) personal, political, social, and spiritual concerns while knocking the socks off an audience through the artful and entertaining application of performance." This short segment from Marc Kelly Smith 

The internet has enabled slam poets' voices to echo millions of times after their initial delivery. It allows for a much larger, asynchronous audience not possible at a formal poetry slam event. Even someone ranting a spoken word poem about how much he hates social media can attract tens of thousands of viewers.

One of the reasons slam poetry works so well is the way it brings people together. "It strives to bring together divergent communities of people, not drop out from society to form a hipster elite" (1). Sure, sometimes slam events can get competitive, but it’s not about the prize or who “wins.” I was moved to tears by a slam poem done by two Muslim girls about what it’s like for them living in America and I got a little look-see into their world. It made me look inside myself and rethink my set of beliefs about Muslims, not that I’ve ever been intentionally prejudice against them, I've just never had that kind of experience before. Most of the Muslims I’ve met have been women and all were really timid, so it was a new experience for me that showed me how our views of others can change so quickly. Now I feel a connection with the two girls and I want to see them and other Muslims for who they are, not for what a stereotype defines them as. I guess it took a slam poem to change my mind.

Let's face it, there are myriad societal issues that confront us today. There are things that go on every day that are wrong on so many levels that need to be stopped. Some are very personal and others are more widespread. You know what I’m talking about. Most of us know someone who’s had an eating disorder, who struggles with depression, anxiety, OCD, All of us have witnessed or at least are aware of different kinds of injustices, prejudices and mistreatment toward people and/or groups of people. I’m talking racism, sexism, violence, abuse, rape, discrimination because of someone’s beliefs, etc. We know these things are happening. We hear about them on the news, on Facebook and other social media, but I’m not sure how much we actually do to help change the world around us.

That’s easy to understand. For a lot of these issues, we may feel they don’t affect our lives or that our influence is too insignificant to make a real change. But these slam poets, many of them youth, are making a difference by changing the way people think and feel. One evidence of their influence are the content in the comments of their videos. Here is Blythe Baird's "When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny" slam poem, followed by a few of the comments on her YouTube video I thought were extra special.

"I'm currently in treatment for anorexia and this really inspires me to work harder and beat this disease"
"I feel this so so much. I've been dealing with anorexia and bulimia since I was 15, and at 19 and even after fainting at school, in a concert, and at work, I've never gone to the hospital. "If you are thin to begin with when you get an eating disorder, you go to the hospital. If you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story" is so damn true. At one point I was 150 lbs under what I started at, cold in the warmest electric blankets I could find and not taking down a single calorie for days, I didn't go to the hospital. I went to therapy once every two weeks and was told to figure it out on my own. It's not fun to be fat and anorexic. It's a nightmare."
"Every time I feel myself slipping i listen to this again and I remember why i dont want to go back"
"all the words I've never been able to speak"

"This should be shown in schools. People don't realize how often you get congratulated when you have an eating disorder. It's fucking mind bending to have your treatment center telling you you're dying when everyone else says you look so good, they're jealous you can fit into that size, they want dieting tips, they talk about it like that's all that matter about you, people who never noticed you compliment you. It feels like being congratulated on being thin when you're going through chemo. You can feel that you're dying. You feel depressed, angry, anxious, and lonely as fuck all at once.
You know what's awful? Being told it's "such a shame" when you go to treatment because you're "wasting" that skinny body. If you want it so bad fucking take it, along with the hair loss, dizziness, fainting, bleeding throat, stomach pains, shaking, freezing cold, clouded thoughts, aching muscles, constantly getting sick, heart palpitations, liver failure, and more."

When I first watched this video (and every time after that), I felt compassion. I wanted to tell her and every other person who struggles with eating disorders and distorted body image to stop doing what they are doing, they are hurting themselves. I felt sympathy. My aunt died before she reached 50 because of bulimia and anorexia, and it's so hard to watch that. It's horrible to think that we could be perpetrating this idea that to be accepted, you have to have a perfect body. Blythe Baird is trying to tell us that being skinny, being complimented, having people praise you and have interest in you isn't worth dying. Society doesn't decide what you need to be, you get to be whoever and whatever you want to be. If you want to see more of slam poetry check out all the accounts I follow on my YouTube channel, as well as some playlists I organized by topic.

Works Cited

John Milton, Paradise Lost. Link

Leavitt, Kimball. The Negative Effects of Alcohol, taken from my blog

Smith, Marc Kelly; Kraynak, Joe. Take the Mic: The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word (A Poetry Speaks Experience) (Kindle Locations 600-602). Sourcebooks. Kindle Edition.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Early 17th Century: "Paradise Lost in Context" link here

-of Taking the Mic: Performance Poetry, Slam and the Spoken Word from, found here
-of John Milton found here
-of anorexic woman found here

Comments taken from the YouTube video entitled "Blythe Baird - When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny (NPS 2015)" 


  1. It would be good from a viewers point of view to have images to break up the text

    1. Thanks Samantha. I was definitely in the developmental stage