In defence of slam and what we make with it

Slam poetry. The term isn’t so much loaded but more what other people have loaded it onto it, a gun with whatever ammo you want to shoot out of it, but regardless is very much a major part of poetry and spoken word in Melbourne. I see it as attached to a revival in contemporary poetics around the world, particularly for popularising poetry amongst young people. Love it or hate it. You have to respect it and what it does.

In Melbourne, we have Slamalamadingdong, Word SLAM?!, the new Slam of the Century, poet IQ hosted a bunch of slams years back and we’ve done a Drag Slam and have a special slam event on later in the year, as well as compete in the Australian Poetry Slam every year.

I’ve been thinking a bit about slam, my own approach to it in my own writing and performance practice, and in relation to how people approach it following Bill Moran touring Melbourne last week. We billed him as a “US slam poet” and I did wonder at times whether some people didn’t turn up to the gig due to that term, that they’ve attached what they think of slam to what they expect Bill to be like. The thing about Bill though is that if you want to call ‘slam’ a ‘genre’, then Bill has some hallmarks of what slam is perceived to be, but also incredibly experimental in his use of language and pushes the boundaries of those tropes. He is loud and punchy but probably without the usual story arc or intensity arc that a lot of people would point to to say it’s all the same.

This debate came up during The Dirty Thirty Poetry Month, when Abdul Hammoud (sorry to single you out!) set a prompt one day to write ‘a slam poem.’ It caused a bit of controversy with many refusing to do the prompt, and arguing about their issues with slam, or whether or not it’s a genre. Is it a genre or is it simply a format for a poetry event? I think Marc Smith’s original intentions were the latter, and I think there is an argument that the former has developed, a style as such, organically but not intentionally.

The point of this piece though isn’t to say what I think is good or bad about slam, to definitely settle that above debate, but as we had into Slamalamadingdong’s return, at their new venue, I think we should acknowledge and take control of what we want to get out of slam and how we want to intervene into it. I don’t think it’s inevitable that only one style of poetry, one slam formula will always win slams, always be the ‘most worthy work’ at a slam (whether it wins or not, that’s not the point), and that people can’t do something totally different. The thing that matters is what you choose to do on that stage, and that goes for open mics, feature gigs too. It is a container, a beautiful, sometimes imperfect container.

I think Robert James Conlon is a good example of this. He is not your stereotypical slammer and I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t perform your conventional slam poem. He’s placed a few times but he has owned his own style and his own voice and he does it whether he’s getting scored out of ten or whether he’s on stage somewhere else.

I have been thinking about entering more into Slamalamadingdong myself this year and I think I will. I’ve never placed well but I’ve always been proud of what I’ve produced and performed on that stage and I’ll continue to do so, pushing my own voice and words outside of the box, and trying to defy the accusations that all slam is the same.

There’s a few simple rules. No props, no instruments, no costumes, and it must go for less than three minutes. The rest is up to you. You can memorise the words or read off the page. You can do something loud and angry, or you can do something introverted and careful. You can tell a story, you can create a collage of images, or you can do whatever you want. It’s up to you.

We’d be very keen to hear what people think. I’m sure people have lots of opinions and feel strongly about them but please keep it respectful. We all love poetry. We’re all on the same team, we just play different positions.

Photo courtesy of Slamalamadingdong

Annie Solah