Word-Up or Get Out

by by Michella Fitten

illustration by by Martha Grant

At Brown, it begins like an AA meeting. We “check in.” It’s a way to talk about your day, your life, your problems, the gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Everyone’s turn is bookended by the phrases check in and check out. It builds trust.
Next, someone interprets or reads aloud this mission statement:

“WORD! is a spoken word poetry group. The group was conceived in 2002 by Sage Morgan-Hubbard ’05 as a space where marginalized groups, especially people of color, could find alternative ways of speaking their truths. We hold weekly writing workshops in Rites and Reasons Theater and spread our words at venues on campus and around Providence.”

For the last seven years, WORD! has held fast to this credo, but some things are beginning to change. Usually, after the mission statement, the members stretch out; the floor’s open for anyone to “spit” poetry, to a soundtrack of snapping and grunts. But Wednesday, February 10, the wordsmiths had to wait. There was another item on the table, one more pressing: the question of whether to add a new term to WORD!’s vocabulary. The word was slam; the group had some reservations, but change was already underway.
And so Brown’s first-ever Poetry Slam, hosted by Boston poet Jared Paul, took place at the List Arts Center on Wednesday, February 17. Twelve poets competed for the five spots that will comprise the Brown Slam team; this team will attend the CUPSI (College Union Poetry Slam Invitational) at Emerson University this April.
A Slam, is in many ways, a beautiful thing. It’s a poets’ competition; their arsenal is the alphabet. Their ammunition is any sort of trope—simile, assonance, onomatopoeia, conceit. They sculpt words into daggers, make armor out of metaphors; they battle head to head for the title of lyrical liege. The losers must write their own obituaries. But the move to slam may have been hasty. As the WORD! poets catch their breath after the inaugural Poetry Slam, they’ll have to reflect on some of its broader implications. But first, the basics.

Spoken Word emerged as a new literary-performative genre in the 1980s, remixing traditional forms of theater, oration, narrative, poetry, and music. The genre converges with counterculture movements based around popular verse—in particular, the Beats, the Black Arts poets, and early rap. What they all have in common: that elusive villain, the Man. If, in the 1980s, a criminal profile artist had asked the Spoken Word poets to describe the culprit, the sketch would have resembled a many-armed mythical brute—the face reminiscent of Reagan and in the style of a sci-fi beast. Abstractly put: the dominant culture, white male patriarchy, capitalist greed.
Spoken Word evolved in the trenches. Open mics took root in community theaters, lounges, coffee houses, and universities. What flowered was an ecosystem of poets and non-poets who spoke their often politically charged truths. Police brutality, the prison systems, poverty, and exclusion were among the topics they addressed. They simultaneously reclaimed agency and moved their audience—sometimes to action, and sometimes to tears. But these poets also spun tales of love, courage, rainbows and butterflies: a world shot through with beauty.
Slam Poetry was founded in a Chicago jazz lounge by poet and construction worker Marc Kelley Smith. It is a performance poetry contest; judges are randomly selected from the audience and asked to rate each performer’s poem on a scale of one to ten. There are three rules: the poem must be originally written by the performer, it must be delivered in under three minutes, and the human body must be the only instrument—no props or costumes permitted. The poet Shilanda Woolridge calls it “a lyrical boxing match.” The poet with the highest score is declared the winner and awarded a title or cash prize—not unlike ancient Greek poetry competitions.
Today, the Poetry Slam Inc. holds four formal Slams a year. At the National Poetry Slam, up to 84 US and Canadian teams compete for the North American title. The Individual Poetry Slam decides a Slam poet, the best in the world. The Women of the World Poetry Slam showcases the top female voices, while younger poets compete in the Youth Poetry Slam.
But, like a well-groomed fraternity brother, the art form has been initiated into the mass media system. Slam has debuted in big budget cinema and aired as a hit program: Russel Simmon’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO. The organization’s name itself—Poetry Slam Inc.—suggests that it’s been incorporated into capitalist society, into the Man that Spoken Word had tried to suckerpunch. They’ve recently been spotted at the bar, Slam and the Man, downing tequila shots together. So if I might have a word with the press—has Slam poetry sold Spoken Word’s integrity to the highest bidder? Back at Brown, we might be able to get some answers.

Eight years after its inception, WORD!’s demographics have changed. The group is freckled with members who might not identify with the mission statement’s “marginalized groups.” What I’m trying to say is—yes, there are white poets in WORD!, but the breadth of topics poets tuch upon eclipses issues of identity and race. At its core WORD! remains a space for weekly writing workshops—but will competitive poetry compromise the group’s vision?
Critics of Slam argue that the form excludes voices it was intended to amplify by placing a numeric value on art. You could argue that Slam fosters better poetry: more is at stake. The pressure of the game makes poets train harder, produces better poetry and better poets. You could say that Slam attracts a larger audience; that the microphone becomes a megaphone, and that the words go farther.
But at the same time, as Laura Lavoie, a senior leader at WORD! argues, women can fall by the wayside in the Slam environment. “In every Slam I have attended,” she says, “the funny, the loud, and the male voices always win. Women and men both win, but the women who win usually have some serious swagger and power up there, and it’s great to see, but that’s only one kind of poetry. The really successful poetry, point-wise, is […] much more aggressive.”
The issue seems to hinge on one concept: the point system, which has always been a heated topic. The Slam scene has adopted, as a coolant and mantra, the words of Seattle poet Allan Wolf: “The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.”
Even so, a look at Slam’s champions shows a surprising trend. Spoken Word expert Susan Somers-Willet says: “A canvas of New York City Slam venues over nine months revealed about 65 percent participation by poets of color. Almost 84 percent of the finalists were of color.” Why the skew?
Spoken Word is based largely on the the first-person confessional voice—and the aura of authenticity that it engenders. In Asian America Where Have You Gone?, Chicago Slam poet Alan Lau exclaims: “In this coloring book of skin I’ve got to draw within these lines.” Such frustration with the politics of poetry and identity is a common sentiment in Slam. As Sommers-Willet puts it, “More often than not, marginalized gender, class, sexual and racial identities can be especially rewarded.”
The point is: in a competitive environment, authenticity can become an aesthetic. Spoken Word fosters the marginalized voice—Slam, on the other hand, can sometimes encourage the branding of marginality.

Let’s consider some poetry.

There once was a page, that rested upon a desk. There was once a quill that inked voluptuous letters that formed lofty words, that orbited into complex sentences. There once was a man. He leaned into the bark of a tree and his words became stars freckled across unmapped galaxies. There once was a stage, peopled by bodies masked in fiction. They told other peoples’ stories. “That is why the masks are crying”, says the woman, who got up from under the tree and marched onto the stage, naked-faced. She opened her mouth and let falling stars rain from her lips. The audience drank it up; like moonshine whiskey during prohibition.

And so begins my attempt to tell the tale of Spoken Word poetry. I confess: I dabble. I would never read this at a WORD! performance, but I would in the basement of Rights and Reason Theater on a cold Thursday night.  Sometimes I write really crappy poetry. Okay, most times, I write crappy poetry. But that’s okay because at WORD! all the other self-deprecating poets make me feel better about myself. Sometimes they even snap along with my words.
For Laura Laovie, “WORD! operates on the premise that everyone has something valuable to say, everyone is capable of speaking beauty, and that ideal is realized in WORD! Someone finds a kernel of beauty in your work every time you speak, and the next night you go home and write; just the fact of believing you are capable of writing something beautiful makes you write something even more beautiful, and that is what is really revolutionary about WORD! It doesn’t attract great poets—it creates them.” A-men, Laura. Spoken Word isn’t about finding the best poet, but about helping all poets get better. Let’s hope that, despite the competition inherent in Slam, WORD! will keep this ethos alive.