Poetry Wednesday: Anatomy of a Slam

Poetry readings are a mixed bag.

I’ll fully admit that I’m a sucker for a gorgeous, trained voice, and when that voice, which usually flows from a professional actor, is reading, say W. H. Auden or  Shakespeare,* or even Lewis flippin’ Carroll, I’m there, ears fully dilated.  But given a voice lovely enough, I’d probably enjoy a recitation of the 1895 by-laws of Poughkeepsie, starting with the ordinance restricting  hay carts of specifically outlined dimensions from traveling through residential boulevards.**

But when poets, even well-known ones, read their own stuff, it’s often (and please pardon the pun) a crap shoot.

I have been to several public readings where the poet stands, pages in hand and in front of face, mumbling into a microphone at exactly the wrong distance.  And since the poems they read aren’t a hundred years old or read at every wedding and bar mitzvah, the audience can’t help.

Of course, a lot of poetry is meant to be read silently, one’s eyes following the trails of the words that shape themselves into visible art on the page while they speak intimately into one’s inner ear.  Most of e.e. cummings’ poems are like this.

But some poetry is meant to be performed, to ring in one’s outer ears and shake things up inside.  And the performance of the speaker—the emphasis, the cadence, the gestures— is as important as the poem.

In many ways, the poem is the performance and vice versa—a symbiosis.

Leonard Cohen‘s poems are like this.  Slam poetry is like this.

Humor me a minute:

The transcript to Katie Makkai’s  poem”Pretty” is here.  Read it, please, think about it, then come back and watch this:

The poem is powerful on the page, but Ms. Makkai’s performance of it transfixes.  And I can tell you right now that if I were to recite “Pretty” in front of you, no matter how much I deeply believe what it says,  it wouldn’t be half of what it could be.

Not only because I’m not the poet, but because I’m not the performer it needs.

Omar Holman may be my favorite male slam poet and not only because he skillfully incorporates everything from Snapple to love to Bob Barker to rage to obscure riffs on nerd culture.  His delivery is so present, so personal, that it becomes natural to respond immediately, to the point where it’s difficult to hear his lines over the audience’s appreciation— or rather, participation.

But for Mr. Holman, it’s clearly an energy exchange:

Not all slam poetry is angry or anxious.  Some of it is outright hilarious—Omar Holman’s “Contingency: 8 Things I Tell Myself Whenever I Forget a Poem” moves me to tears—and some is full of hope and steady determination.

Sarah Kay’s slam poetry, simply put, is full of grace.  I could try to describe her style and substance, but it’s probably better if I just get out of her way—letting  performance poets speak for themselves is really the point, isn’t it?

I will say that  had a difficult time choosing which one of her poems to share, but as I inadvertently appear to have stumbled on a motherhood theme of sorts, I went with “For My Daughter”:

See what I mean?


*Though, honestly I’m just about over sonnet 130, which appears to be the Go-To  Classic whenever a lovely-voiced male actor records a selection of poetry.  I’ll agree that it’s one of Shakespeare’s most interesting, but logic (and laziness on my part) dictates that he did write at least 129 others and it might be nice if these talented actors—or their producers—selected a new one to interpret.  Or, in the case of Benedict Cumberbatch and, say, Clancy Brown (who hasn’t recorded any poetry I can find, but should, please)all of them.

**I’m making that up, but I’ll bet you a dollar that if Poughkeepsie has older boulevards, there’s a law in there somewhere because people who lived on boulevards appear to have been uniformly and consistently prickly about traffic on their streets and how it might affect their lawns.  Except for the punctuation and the offending vehicles, it’s exactly the sort of thing you might see today on the editorial page.  The more things change . . .