(Note: I’m informing you out the gate that this one is a bit inside, a little shop talk with the Poetry Slam community at large. Feel free to keep moving if you need to have any part of the previous sentence explained to you.)
In an online discussion by a poet who was taking white poets at a recent competition to task for essentially appropriating the voices, angles and views of women of color, another poet who wasn’t competing wrote that the “inherent problem with slam right now…is that if you [are] a cis white male, nobody wants to hear your story. You’re left with the option of appropriating, or walking away. I chose to walk away.”
Okay, let’s get the dozen or so side eyes out the way right now this statement just elicited:
Rather than pick apart every aspect of this observation that I vehemently disagree with – because the people in that thread handled it just fine – I’d like to talk about the part that’s a fairly common sentiment about Poetry Slam among its practitioners. I’m less interested in deconstructing the view from the outside looking in, and am instead sorely feeling the need to talk about the part where he defines the inherent problem of Slam, because Slam does, in fact, have an inherent problem. It’s just not the problem he states. Slam’s problem isn’t that nobody wants to listen to straight white guys. It’s that it’s boring, and decisions like the one this straight white guy made are why it’s boring: because they’re either dishonest and appropriate things they shouldn’t in their art, or they’re not willing to do the work it takes to be successfully honest.
The poetry that appears in a slam doesn’t have to be anything except under three minutes. Nothing is stopping any poet from doing anything within the rules of a given slam except their ego. If you want to do villanelles, you can, but you don’t because you don’t want to lose because you are either incapable of producing – or can’t be bothered to produce – a villanelle that’s engaging enough to be competitive. If you want to compete with poems about how you think the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon has aged poorly over the last thirty years, there’s nothing stopping you from doing so save for the fact that you don’t think it’s competitive enough.
And that’s the problem: you’re a dishonest slammer.
I haven’t slammed at a national competition for a handful of years now but I didn’t stop because I didn’t feel like my ars poetica read off of paper wasn’t competitive enough. Sure, I disliked the unfriendly parts an otherwise friendly competition brought out of my peers, but that was just human nature. I’ve been running an open mic for eighteen years. I can navigate human nature. My problem was that the art of my peers – and in some cases, the absence of my peers – more and more began to represent discordant value systems written by people too scared to be completely honest with themselves struggling against the goals of Slam. I love Slam and slamming. I am less a fan of artistic dishonesty resulting in boredom. The inherent problem with Slam today isn’t that you can’t tell a given story. It’s that poets are too scared to tell their stories and risk scoring poorly. It’s the reverse side of our egos acting out, the self-deprecating side, the pride that Marsellus Wallace would suggest be fucking with you. (There is plenty of the more popular flavor of ego swimming around this problem – the part that refuses to submit to Slam’s goal before their own – but I’m mainly referring to the first one here. The second is a lost cause.)
Contrary to popular strategy, the answer to that problem isn’t for white people of any politic or gender stripe to start doing ally poems. If that’s your answer, you’re still committing the same crime. You’re still being dishonest and likely creating boring art. And if your answer to that is to go full-bore pseudo-ally – shock phrases, voices, non-white points of view, etc. – then you’re probably about to drop some serious mega-level garbage. What, you thought all the white poets suddenly got woke in the last five years?
If you as a white artist want to address, say, racism and sexism, that’s fine, knock yourself out. But don’t do it because that’s the art you think will help you win a dumb-ass fake barroom-level competition that has arbitrary anti-creativity bumper lane rules built into it to defray the cost of a week-long road trip where you might get to perform two poems, assuming your want-to-win-pseudo-competition team doesn’t bury you in group pieces. Do it because you genuinely have that value and agenda on your heart to share. People can generally tell when it isn’t, and there are so many people catering to that dynamic that even your most sincere efforts are being drowned out by all of the allies on their annual slam-as-activism vacation. I think it takes more balls for you to read your anti-5th edition D&D poem than it does for you to perform another in a long string of My-Family-Is-Mad-Racist-But-I’m-Okay poems. It’s not a cultural survey. It’s not even really a competition. It’s a poetry showcase. Nine times out of ten the poet that comes in second isn’t actually worse than the poet who came in first. More, there are plenty of mediocre poets hiding on winning slam teams. So, in this lark, might you have to work harder to sell your singular poem, to engage an audience primed for work about heavier topics? Perhaps. There is, however, a reason why the phrase “So what?” is built into Slam’s DNA. The actual inherent problem with Slam today – not ever, but for a long time; not at its inception, but probably not long after; not by definition, but it can be hard to find – is that poets keep replacing the missing DNA of not caring about the scores in some Jurassic Park attempt to build a super strategy. Half of the existing rulebook is a testimony to this kind of poet-centric value tinkering, and Slam has been the worse for it for a long time. The content has simply crystallized politically in recent years.
There’s also an element of Slam that is really just a reflection of the larger society under which the movement and its resultant art exists. Slam trumpets an outsider veneer but its contents aren’t that far removed from the average Facebook feed, and that was true before #BlackLivesMatter came along, and even Facebook. The people who occasionally post problematic things about gender or politics also write poems, and some of them compete in slams. The jerk who trolls your threads also has a membership to come play at your poet games. Slam isn’t weeding these people out. It’s merely informing what work many poets choose to share. And so long as the desire to win is the preeminent value, it will also remain Slam’s inherent problem.