Poetry on MTV? Slam and the Poetics of Popular Culture (Essay‪)‬

Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 2006, Winter, 22, 4

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New York City's first-ever "Teen Slam" took place in April 1999. Thirty high-school aged poets competed in a mock-Olympic war of words, each poet's performance ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 by judges picked from the audience. In keeping with the principles of slam poetry, the poets used neither props nor musical instruments, relying instead on the expressiveness of their bodies and voices, and no performance could exceed a 3 1/2 minute time limit. The crowd actively participated in the poetry competition by hollering its approval and disagreement with the judges' scoring. The teen poets paraded on and off the stage, dread-locked and pony-tailed, braided and buzzed, some squeezed into stretch pants and baby T's, others, in the words of slam poet Patricia Smith, "drooped in drapery." Iolet is tall, head-wrapped, and regal and told of police brutality. A boy from New Jersey dedicated his poem about being "surrounded by a raging sea called heterosexuality" to "anyone who has ever felt left out of societies' categories, or been to a really boring sweet 16 party in Westchester county." There was a Puerto Rican nationalist poem, an ode to a mother and another to a brother locked up, and many tales of sex and heartbreak. Asheena McNeil, winner of the Teen Slam with a perfect score for her "125th Street Blues," credited rap music, and hip hop culture in general, as having made poetry "cool." Rap is the most widespread and commercial branch of a larger movement known as "spoken word," a category used to describe forms of poetry and performance in which an artist recites (rather than sings) poetry, often to musical accompaniment that might range from a jazz ensemble to a bongo drummer. While spoken word had been confined principally to coffee houses and street corners, in the early 90's it went mass-market and--media as MTV and Much Music began to televise performance poetry, broadcasting clips of poets in-between music videos. Spoken word continues to take new forms: in December, 2001, HBO began airing Def Poetry Jam (co-produced by Russell Simmons and rapper Mos Def), a half hour of spoken word poetry hosted by Mos Def that featured in its first few episodes eminent African-American poets Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, slam poetry veteran Taylor Mali, and celebrities such as Jewel. In 2003 Def Poetry Jam took shape as a Broadway play. Performance poetry also hit the road, touring the United States and Canada with the music festival Lollapalooza and as the star of MTV's "Spoken Word Unplugged" concerts. This phenomenon of popular poetry is well documented journalistically; (1) media interest has focused on the dynamic and competitive slam poetry movement. Started in the mid 80's at the Get Me High bar in Chicago, poetry slams now take place across North America, and culminate each year in the National Slam. In 2004, 270 poets in 69 teams from cities across the United States and Canada met in St. Louis to vie for the title of Grand Slam champions.

Professional & Technical
December 22
Caddo Gap Press
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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