Slam poetry – it’s spoken word performance with a penchant for the political and a determination to bring poetry to the masses. Inspired by hip hop culture and born in Chicago in the 1980s as a way to spice up performance poetry, poetry slams are essentially an open mic event with a competitive streak. The audience judges each performance – which could be anything from a story to a poem, a monologue, hip hop or lyrics.
In Issue 41 of Collective Hub magazine, we caught up with three wordsmiths to find out what makes a poetry slam dunk. Here’s a sneaky peek at what Australian Poetry Slam founder Miles Merrill had to say (plus an except from his ‘Rain Song’ to whet your wordy appetite).
Live spoken word is one of those things that destroys barriers. Marginalised communities are able to access an audience immediately without gatekeepers and without the additional layers of editor, publisher, casting agent, director – you can write it and then stand up in front of your own community and say it. People who don’t often see their own ideas or opinions reflected in the mainstream media outlets have this opportunity to be heard. They perform at a live event and that gets videoed and it goes on YouTube and suddenly someone from a remote or regional community [who] is Indigenous or Arabic in Australia can be heard by millions.
I started writing when I was in high school on the prompting of my English teacher who convinced me that your notebook can be a place where your expression can be a lot more free. I had a lot of things written in my notebook that I someday hoped to get out to the world. One night in 1996, my partner encouraged me to get up and perform at an open mic. After that performance, someone came up to me and said, “Can you do that at my pub? I’ll give you $50”. So I went the following Monday night and performed with three other poets, one of whom was also from Chicago.
After a few weeks, we sat around at the bar afterwards and said, “How are we going to make this interesting?” It’s the same four guys every week and the same audience. The guy from Chicago and I said, “What about a poetry slam where the audience actually tells us what they think?” So we started doing Australia’s first poetry slam at this hotel in Newtown. Now it’s a national event. It happens every year with 1000 poets and a live audience of over 20,000 and the winner tours China, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia.
There needs to be a development of the industry. When you consider being a musician, a writer, an actor, a journalist, you can safely say there’s an industry to support you, albeit sometimes subsistence. But with something like performing writing, we are seeing the development of a lot of artists, but there aren’t a lot of second to third tiers of industry – not that many performing writer organisations, managers, promoters, agents and all of the things that you would expect to see if you were playing a guitar and singing a song. I’m hoping that spoken word becomes as commonplace as a lot of the other more omnipresent art forms.
In order to be successful as an artist, you need to develop some entrepreneurial skill. It’s kind of scary to admit, but business acumen is not the antithesis of being an artist – it’s kind of a part of it. In the end, you’ve created a product. It’s so closely aligned with your personality and your emotions and the deepest darkest parts of your soul that you’re often kind of frightened of treating it as though it’s a product and a separate entity that has to go out into the world and fend for itself, but that’s what has to happen. I don’t think we’re at a stage anymore where we can just be thinking, ‘I write for myself and someday someone will discover me’.
My motivation to foster spoken word poetry is to create opportunities for people to be heard who wouldn’t ordinarily have a voice. I worked with one high school student in Parramatta, Sydney, who was a Sierra Leonean refugee. At first he wrote poems on his phone like, ‘I’m gonna be a millionaire entrepreneur by the age of 23/ Ain’t nobody gonna stop me.’ Three months later he was performing a poem at the Riverside Theatre as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival that went, ‘This is for my mother/ Because you carried me through the refugee camp on your shoulders/ Feeding me teaspoons of food while you starved/ I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen you kneel to pray/ Taking off your headscarf to wipe the tears away.’ When you see a transformation like that happen in a person’s ability to express themselves, and they can do it in front of 300 cultural aficionados, that to me is a motivating experience.
‘Rain Song’ by Miles Merrill – an excerpt
Sky carries a cattle prod
that cracks like a ripped electric cable on a wet highway.
White light veins stretch across the dark bosom of heaven. Lightning and thunder
makes me think the world’s ducks
are quack, quack, quacking overhead.
The world’s hands are clap, clap clapping overhead.
For more community initiatives check out the story of Helpfulpeeps. Can Karma really be the new economy? These Entrepreneurs think so, and are building thriving online community where members can both seek and offer help for free.