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"The Death of Art"? - 5 Times that Spoken Word Entered the Mainstream 


Posted by Bryan / November 3, 2013

Literary critic and theorist Harold Bloom once claimed that slam poetry is "the death of art." Is it really? It's more mainstream than you might think!

(Guest post by Chris Masson)

Slam poetry, and spoken word - the broader artistic field that contains slam--is often misunderstood, and even more frequently mocked. However, most people, Bloom included, have never been to a poetry slam and speak from a place of ignorance.
 In honour of this week's national poetry slam championships at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word we're taking a look at times when this frequently misunderstood (and even more frequently mocked) art form has crossed into the mainstream. In the interest of raising poetry slam awareness, we ask "...but was it slam?" 
Pop culture is still waiting for a movie that does for slam poetry what "Bring It On" did for competitive cheerleading, as Hollywood keeps stubbornly rejecting my screenplay on the grounds that a future where the threat of enslavement at the hands of one-wheeled aliens can only be defeated in slam poetry competition is "a convoluted and asinine premise." Whatever; those are the same idiots who'd remake Wizard of Oz and remove the rollerskates from the winged monkeys. Captain Chris and the Unicycle Slam Rebellion will be made, mark my words. Until then, examples like these six are some of the most readily available examples that mainstream pop culture has available to them.




1. Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)


Mike Myers plays a lovelorn San Francisco poet who fears his dream woman might have a deadly secret. He performs a couple of highly rhythmic, rhyming poems with a jazz band backing him. This scene throws in just about every spoken word cliché out there: smoking, berets, cappuccino, finger snapping, upright bass, and stilted, pretentious delivery. Myers's ubiquitous raised eyebrow and perma-smirk are all over it, letting the audience know that this whole situation is laughable.

...but was it Slam?: Not even close. This is usually called "jazz poetry." Slam does not allow musical instruments, visual aids or props--no matter how timelessly poignant blowing out a single candle to punctuate your misunderstood heartache is.

Slam judge score: If I were judging, I think I'd give this a middle-of-the- road 8.1. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't particularly enlightening, and relied too heavily on cliché.



2. Tom Hanks on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

Hanks knocks this "slam poem" about Full House out of the park on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Here is a fine point that comes up when talking about slam. Technically, what makes a slam poem is only that it fits all the rules for a poetry slam: it must be written by the performer, it can't make use of any props or instruments, it has to be under 3 minutes (or it will incur a point penalty). That's pretty much it. Uninitiated people tend to ascribe some kind of stylistic or thematic definition and constraints to it. Fact is the themes and styles of "slam poetry" are as varied and diverse as the performers themselves.

...but was it Slam?: Almost! However, as we know, there's no music allowed at the slam, and Hanks clearly has a bassline behind him.
But someone did their research on this one. Time starts ticking for the poet as soon as they make contact with the audience, so Hanks's moment of quiet centering in front of the mic, careful not to address the audience, is something you'll see from practically every other performer at a slam. He also nails the 3 minute time limit within a second or two.

Score: Hanks takes an early lead with 9.2! (However, he's later disqualified after it is revealed that Fallon's writing staff were the actual authors.)


3. Nick Offerman's Bacon Slam Poem

"Like a Goldilocks bear I bumble out of bed, and mumble, 'whose been cooking in my kitchen?'" is very much like something you'd hear at a slam, owing to its internal rhyme, anthropomorphosis, and intertextuality... That's right! At a poetry slam you may actually get your recommended daily intake of literary devices in an easily digestible oral preparation.

...but was it Slam?: Again, no instruments allowed. Otherwise, most definitely.

Slam judge score: I need to give two scores to this one. Today, at a healthy 160 lbs, I give it a 8.8. But the 130 lb miserable vegan me (circa 2009) gives it 3.7 and a scowl.


4. The Bitter End

Full disclosure: I appear in this video. (See 6:32 for my aforementioned miserable vegan scowl!) This hilarious Montreal-made webseries' second episode "Second Chances" featured a climactic scene set at a purported slam poetry event. The scene contains some amazing lines just waiting to become part of the slam lexicon like "kick his fucking ass with poetry," "slam his head off," and "I'd love to slam one out."

...but is it slam?: Almost! A slam is a competition, but there's no mention of scoring or judges here.
Nevertheless, this scene captures the vibe of a slam more honestly than any of the other clips in a lot of ways. It was shot at Cagibi, former site of the Throw Poetry Collective slam, and features actual spoken word artists like myself, Queen Ka, and Tristan D. Lalla. It doesn't need to rely on any of those spoken word clichés to set the scene.
The surprisingly affecting montage sequence in which Brent Skagford's scumbag character is so moved by the "Second Chance" poetry that he is inspired to get his life on track nails it in a different way. For me, it perfectly evokes the same catharsis and empathy, packs the same emotional punch that a well written, sincerely performed piece of poetry can.

Score: 10! (Because no night of slam is complete without a 10.)

5. "Slam poet" Shane Koyczan Performs at the Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremonies

The Olympics (which are terrible, for the record) are one of the biggest stages in the world. Here is one of Canada's most loved spoken word poets, former slam champion Shane Koyczan, literally on a massive pedestal, dropping a poem that would sound right at home in any local poetry slam. Some may point at this years from now as the moment when slam entered the mainstream.... Maybe not.

...but was it Slam?: Who cares? He's in the middle of a stadium, broadcast around the world, speaking poetry.

Score: Gold? ......Come on, this whole scoring thing was just a gimmick to keep you interested. Just like it is at a poetry slam.

If you want to see some live slam poetry, you're in luck! The national slam team championships at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word go down November 5th to the 10th at various Plateau and Mile-End locations. See CFSW.ca for details.

Discussion

22 Comments

Robb Thibault / January 3, 2014 at 07:45 am
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I wish to get the word out to Canadian Colleges and Universities about sending teams to this slam event- the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. On March 12-15, 2014 the 14th annual slam will be at the University of Colorado, Boulder....last year 60 teams registered from across the USA and competed at Barnard College in NYC. The event is sponsored and coordinated by the Association of College Unions International(ACUI). Check out the details at http://www.acui.org/programs/student/program.aspx?id=21541

Event registration will commence soonest.
For more information please contact: robb.thibault@oneonta.edu
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