a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder…

Charles Bukowski - a poem is a city

When people speak of Slam Poetry these days, they don't speak of a fun, competitive, live poetry event. They speak of a specific type of delivery, social attitude and subject matter. In the popular imagination, American Slam is not a format but a genre.

Luckily, we have a good document of the early days of Slam, via anthologies such as The Spoken Word revolution and that ever reliable museum of ephemera, YouTube. What we uncover from these is a much more varied catalogue of styles and attitudes.

In this video Marc Smith – filmed back in the 80s, not long after his inception of the first ever poetry Slam – performs one of his signature pieces, The L Train. I first heard it when I performed at a Slam in Denmark ten years ago and I had the honour of playing the spitting old man.

Using concrete language such as "push a button, flick a switch", Smith opens the poem with a trope that all oral cultures use – the call of the bard for the audience's attention. When he stamps time with his foot on the ground, he echoes the oral traditions that keep a simple rhythmic or melodic accompaniment to the words of the bard.

While the poem focuses on how a train journey conveys the sounds, scents and spectacles of Chicago, Smith's habit of performing it as an invocation makes it an Ars Poetica – a poem about poetry. Echoing Bukowski's dictum that a poem is a city, Smith uses the language of the city to make an argument about what a poem can be.

But this poem is not just a list of urban tropes. It is just as much about Smith's energy and how it reflects the city's energy. A student once told me that it reminded her of an old drunk shouting in an urban park. I have a feeling she wasn't being complimentary. That said, there's a point to be made within that. The crazy old, shouting drunk in the park is a much more accurate portrayal of the chaotic character of a city than the more elegant modernist odes that spring to mind.

Sometimes Smith parrots the vernacular voices of the characters that frequent the train (the old man and the stop announcer). Sometimes he comes across as an over eager tour guide. But when he tightly shuts his eyes and groans loudly after repeatedly shouting the word "whistle" he is performing a state of unbearable tension. This is the noise that accumulates between the shoulders, manifests as a dull ache behind the eyes, a buildup of steam that needs a release valve to keep it from exploding.

While we may immediately think of Kate Tempest when we imagine spoken word, most of it follows a calmer, more conversational pattern. Be it Sarah Kay or Holly McNish, there is more of a sense of cosiness and intimacy to spoken word. If someone started to perform like McNish of Kay in the middle of the conversation at a coffee shop, we'd probably think it a tad strange but keep listening with one hand on our coffee mug and the other on our cheek. If someone started performing with the passion of Kate Tempest or Shane Koyczan in the middle of a conversation in the same coffee shop, we'd ask them if they were feeling okay. If someone started performing like Marc Kelly Smith or Lydia Lunch in the middle of the same conversation we'd dart for the exit, knocking over a few tables on the way.

I find it interesting how it has become an unquestioned tenet of spoken word that what happens on stage should be synonymous with civilised behaviour. While the subject matter of Spoken Word can still be provocative, the style of performance can often be more Ed Sheeran than Iggy Pop. At the heart of this is the sense of authenticity that advertisers have recently found so appealing. Intimacy can help an audience let down their guard. Intensity does the opposite.

Smith's poem is not a refuge, it relishes all of the noise of the city. It takes poetry outside, much like Smith's early performances did. In his book, Take the Mic, he describes the raucous early days of Slam:

We brazen experimenters in this new style of poetic presentation gyrated, rotated, and spewed our words along the bar top, dancing between the bottles, bellowing out the back door, and busking on the street corners, turning uptown Chicago into a rainforest of dripping whispers on one night and into a blast furnace of fiery elongated syllables, phrases, and snatches of script on the next.

This is a man who bellows lines of poetry across a busy street corner in the same way he once bellowed across a building site.

When I met Smith at that festival in Denmark, I was still working blue collar jobs and was incredibly cocksure of myself as a poet and theorist. We were still a few years from the arrival of YouTube and social media. Most British Performance Poets had formed their ideas about US Slam from what they saw of visiting American and Canadian Slammers. Even from this, it was obvious that the Slam was beginning to calcify into something generic and predictable, in contrast to its wilder origins.

During one of these conversations, Smith told me that the first Slams weren't even competitions, he simply handed out scorecards to initiate an honest and unflinching dialogue between the performer and their audience. Even when a competitive element was introduced to the Slam at Chicago's Old Green Mill, the prize remained the same: a twinkie.

The Slam is now big business, in many ways it has become the establishment. Audiences know what they want and what to expect and the poets strive to give it to them. The addition of coaches reflects the anxiety that performers have about misreading the audience and stepping over the line. But none of it would have happened if Smith hadn't done something scary – bellowing out loud wherever he could and trusting the audience to be uncompromising in their response.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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