Is Slam Poetry the Last Resort of the Failed Comedian?

“Most spoken word artists are failed comedians, too bored or dumb to do their homework, read the books, listen to the classic sound recordings.” So said poet Todd Swift, one of the fathers of Slam in America (Argotist online).

As the Galway scene becomes saturated with Slam, when every other week we see a notice about a performance contest, should we, like Swift, revise our opinion of the genre?

What is Slam poetry, anyway, I hear you ask? Slam poetry came to prominence a few years ago in Ireland when Rattlebag sponsored a competition as part of Writers Week in Dublin. I was at that first Slam competition in the Project and belly-laughed as loud as the next at the performance of the prizewinner. The winning poem – in the style of Dangerous Dan Mc Grew – was delivered with thigh-slapping panache, more moons and Junes than you could shake a hat at, all had a jolly good time and neither the poem nor poet were heard of ever after.

The following year, a number of Galway poets were on the Slam shortlist, myself included, and since we’d decided humour was the thing, we brought our funniest poems. Dennis O Driscoll, however, along with the other judges that year, valued quality of language over performance and so a quiet delicate poem won. The year after, the organisers couldn’t make up their minds – performance or content? A compromise was reached as they agreed to split the prize, half for performance, half for content. Subsequently, the matter was resolved by dropping the competition altogether.

A member of Aosdana sums up the problem; when she is given a list of artists from which she has to choose one for inclusion in that organisation, she has a dilemma. She can go to Aosdana head office and take in the magnificent display of a visual artist, she can attend a concert and experience the virtuosity and excellence of a composition, but if she goes to a reading she can end up listening to a poet mumbling into his or her book. Not so much apples and oranges as badly displayed oranges.

This is to make the point that any reading of poetry must include an element of performance. A few years ago, the poet and playwright, John Arden, read from his work in the Imperial Hotel in Galway. It was billed as a reading and yet it was one of the most riveting performances I’d attended for years. There was stage presence, voice projection, eye contact with the audience. When the work demanded it he burst into song: it might have been a one-man cabaret. But what captivated most was the quality of the material, the delivery always at the service of the work. Here was a marrying of the best writing with top class performance.

Todd Swift says, the problem with Slam is that “it is a ghetto where little poetry leaks in”. Is he right? The focus on competitions indeed poses a risk. When a poet decides to enter a writing competition, s/he can perhaps trawl through her back catalogue for something suitable. Not so with Slam performance poetry. The results of these contests rest heavily on audience clapometer, which means work is written for laughs. This carries the danger we end up on a thin diet of anecdote in rhyme.

For the sake of argument, let us compare and contrast a comedy piece with a 3-minute Slam: both include humour, anecdote, dramatic pauses, the “F” word for effect occasionally or frequently, the aim to entertain. And the differences? Harder to detail except to pose a question: if Tommy Tiernan were to play the comedy club and a Slam poet perform next door, all things being equal in terms of cost in etc, which hall would have more bums on seats? Of its nature this is the criteria by which we judge Slam poetry. Not its merit on the page.

As Galway continues to raise the stakes with its annual Grand Slam at Cuirt International, are we witnessing a new flowering of the genre? Should we all enrol in drama classes to polish up our act or should we instead heed the words of Todd Swift, the daddy of them all, the man who, after all, has been there, done that: Read good literature, he urges, rather than read to audiences – Slam is a sad tired art. My vote goes to Todd.

(All quotes by Todd Swift are from an Interview with Kevin Higgins at Argotist Online.)

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