by Ami Maxine Irmen
In 2014, NPR asked, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” —noting that despite “more poetry being published than ever before,” “people are reading less and less” of it. As a writer of poetry, as a teacher of poetry, as a friend of people who also write poetry, I realize my worldview is a bit skewed – but it seems maybe NPR is asking the wrong question.
Perhaps what we are seeing is a shift away from traditionally printed poetry – poems contained within the four walls of paper, bound, and shelved. Maybe people are reading less poetry—but can we really say they are consuming less poetry?
The other night, I curled up on my couch with a pile of blankets, a hot cup of tea, and a kitty on my lap. I opened up my laptop and tuned in via YouTube to Button Poetry Live —a slam poetry competition in St Paul, MN. I found Danez Smith as MC, and I couldn’t help but think how different poetry was for me these days: out of the classroom, away from the library or local bookstore. I could nest in the comfort of my own home and yet still be an active participant in a live performance four hours away.
Times sure have changed. And along with it, the way we consume poetry has changed, too.
Spoken word or performance poetry is not new. After all, poetry has had an oral tradition pretty much from the moment poetry was invented, long before it was ever called poetry. Today, this format of poetry fills a niche because sometimes the page is just not enough to hold a poem in place – sometimes it requires intonation and movement and bright lights and a microphone.
And sometimes it asks, begs, requires an audience to clap and snap and mmhmm. In these environments, poetry becomes a conversation. Add an audience member with a good camera on their phone, and these poems become viral Internet sensations and the poets become rock stars (like Neil Hilborn and his poem “OCD” – which went viral not just once, but twice, and has been viewed almost fourteen million times).
While oral/spoken word/performance poetry has been around for a long time, the competitive nature of this brand of poetry is often credited as having gotten its start in Chicago in the 1980s. According to Javon Johnon’s Killing Poetry, construction worker and poet Marc Smith argued that for him, “traditional poetry readings were boring and self-serving because they had poets reading to only hear themselves” (5). Smith wanted to breathe life into these poetry readings – he wanted performance, and he wanted an engaged and active audience. So, in 1984 at the Get Me High Lounge, Smith started such a reading. The reading grew in size and soon moved to its current home Sunday nights at Chicago’s Green Mill Cocktail Lounge.
While Marc Smith’s readings were not originally competitive in nature, many sources credit his endeavor as the roots of what is known as Slam Poetry. While there are many variations to how slams are run, a Poetry Slam is typically a series of three rounds, starting with eight poets. The MC will choose five members of the audience to act as judges. Half of the poets are eliminated each round based on these judges’ scores. The poet with the highest score in the last round wins the competition.
Fast forward thirty-four years from its original inception, and I’m watching a live Poetry Slam from the comfort of my living room.
The venues may have changed, but the poets definitely have not left us. They are still on the front lines. They are just also in coffee houses and bookstores and bars and concert venues and on YouTube. They are everywhere—sharing their stories, motivating action.
NPR asks, “Did they stop speaking, or have we stopped listening?”
Well, I’m listening. And I’m clearly not the only one.
And in April, you’ll have a chance to listen, as well.
From the moment Danez Smith took the stage as MC during Button Poetry Live, they were cracking jokes, taunting the audience, and hyping the poets that would be competing that evening—all things a good MC should do. And Smith is far more than “good”. Their voice is instantly familiar to me as I’ve devoured countless poems online, have read through their collections several times. If you’re looking for a political poet reminiscent of days past, look no further than this poet.
When asked during an interview with Publishers Weekly if Smith considered their own poetry political, they said, “every poem is political and can teach us something about being a better citizen of the world… If I write a poem for someone slain by our senseless and legalized violence, it’s political. If I write a poem about the neighborhood rapidly being emptied of its history and people, it’s political. But so is the poem about my grandmother cooking.”
While they may not be actively seeking the political, they believe that “Black people, and surely the people of any marginalized, systematic oppressed community, don’t have the privilege of being idle citizens” (Critical Mass), and “I’m a capital-B Black, capital-Q Queer, HIV-positive, weird, strange, funky, loud American” (PW).
The poets have not left us.
And this April, Danez Smith and so many other poets are coming to Green Bay to share their work with us.