Breaking Down Barriers in the Poetry Community

Written by Carrie Maya

I’ve only been involved in Spoken Word Poetry for about two years. That’s nothing in comparison to many of the poets I’ve seen gracing stages and pages with their words; some of them have been at it since before I was a zygote. It’s for this reason that I am a little hesitant to make the following claim, but it feels necessary nonetheless: there are a few elements within this community that have been detrimental to the creative health of poets of all shapes, and sizes, and genres.

Indie v. Mainstream

This seems to be one of the most toxic attitudes in the community. At least from my perspective. In all honesty, I’ve been guilty of it, myself. If someone takes the stage with a stylised, slam style, they get labeled ‘mainstream’ or ‘sell out’ . I’ve had my issues with slam, for sure. But I also recognise the role it played in creating a platform through which I had the opportunity to build confidence and receive prizes which facilitated my professional development. Things I am genuinely grateful for. But, during the time I was more heavily involved in the slam scene, or if I experienced a degree of popularity and success, it was hard not to listen to self-proclaimed ‘indie poets’ or ‘real poets’ say things like “I’ve been doing this for ten years. You’ve done this for two and you’re more successful than me. That’s not fair.” I’m like: okay, sorry about that.

Then there’s the flipside. There are incredible poets who don’t attend slams, and who stick mainly to readings and page poetry. And because they’re not engaging with slam culture, they get labeled ‘snobs’ or ‘elitist.’ Totes not cool, bro.

Here’s the dealio-yo: there are good and bad poetry apples in every basket. And it’s just not fair to pit them against each other out of some sense of allegiance to a ‘scene’. We are all poets and that is what should count in the end.

But how can we talk about Indie v. Slam without addressing the underlying issues…

Competition and Jealousy

This is where my personal struggle with slams have popped up. Although I have been lucky enough to win and place at multiple slams, the heart of the matter is: poetry, infused with a performer’s heart and soul, is being scored on a scale of 1-10. And, separate from a few special souls, most of us can’t escape the direct hit our self-esteem takes when we don’t do well. Or the inflated sense of our own importance if we’re a crowd favourite. Also: totes not cool, bro.

The reality is: slam is a competition so competitiveness is a given. But, despite the fact that I’ve only been doing this for two years, it’s been enough time to see that competitiveness and loving community cannot co-exist. But healthy competition and loving community can. I am still trying to detoxify myself of that nasty thing inside of me that feels slighted if I don’t succeed. But, gradually, as I train my self to think differently, I am able to feel like another slammer’s win is my own. Because the whole point is that whoever takes the stage is taking their turn to nourish the souls of our listeners. And if we step up to the mic with that intention, there is no room for unhealthy attitudes.

How can we see the breaking down of walls in the Melbourne poetry community?

Well, it starts with people like Benjamin Solah – founder and editor of this here Melbourne Spoken Word website. Through his hard work and kindness he has created an avenue of free exposure for poets; young and old, stage or page. In my experience, I have not witnessed any bias toward a specific genre or toward specific performers. Benjamin is a great ally to poets in this city for the above, and many other reasons.

It starts with conveners like Amanda Anastasi who runs La Mama Poetica. She aims to select a mixture of styles and performers in her quarterly line-up so that there is a diversity in poetic representation.

And it continues with the broader poetry community waking up to ourselves and stepping outside of our generic bubbles. It would be so cool to see more slammers heading over to poetry readings! And it would be wonderful if people who’ve bagged slams out without even experiencing them to go check one out! Younguns seeking out the older, more experienced poets with humility. Not just to glean from their expertise, but also to truly appreciate styles of work that we aren’t necessarily accustomed to. Older poets taking interest in we younger guys because, hey, we have a unique view of the world from down here.

We are at a tipping point. I totally confess to being one of the grumblers and complainers about the state of Poetry Land. But it gets boring after a while. And I know other poets who are sick of the energy drain that maintaining bad attitudes causes. So, my New Half-Year’s Resolution is: I’m going to cross back and forth across the invisible border in our community until I forget it’s there. It’s high time we start truly supporting each other where it counts: the moment we step off stage. CM