David Silverberg on Performance Poetry

It’s the poetry you hear leaking from coffeehouses, pubs, gritty clubs, maybe a music festival stage. I’ve been to both the U.S. National Poetry Slam and the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word; each time I marvel at how powerful words and a microphone can be in front of an audience of 600. Where is performance poetry going? As it becomes more popular, its social responsibilities get micro-examined. There is tremendous power in what a poet can say on stage, and at a slam anyone can take the mic and speak gold or bullshit for three minutes and ten seconds.

Here are five posts recognizing spoken word’s progression, and a few questions about its future.

David Silverberg is the founder of Toronto Poetry Slam. He’s led teams to the U.S. National Poetry Slam and is the editor of Mic Check: An Anthology of Spoken Word in Canada. He is managing editor of DigitalJournal. Find out more online at torontopoetryslam.com

1. Map of poetry slams in North America

Although this Google Maps mashup is due for an update, it’s a great visual of the reach of spoken word in Canada and the U.S. Almost every state has at least one poetry slam, and Canada gradually catching up. It’s wild to see the opportunities for a touring poet, an almost unthinkable idea 20 years ago. Clicking on a marker leads you to detailed info about when, where and how the slam goes down.

2. Poems go high-tech

Instead of rallying against the pervasive technology creeping into our lives, some poets celebrate it. In the first of Toronto-poet Eytan Crouton’s double-bill series on mobile phones, he lauds the landline over the cellphone (“I just wanna have a nap, is there a motherfuckin app for that?”) and in the next poem he flips it on us: he ditched the home phone and bought an iPhone 4.

3. Into the classrooms

Teachers are finally getting turned on to spoken word, and more poets are conducting performances and workshops in schools across the world. A friend of mine in Singapore told me that even there students are getting some slam love. This 2009 article from Edutopia.org breaks down how a few New York schools are embracing spoken word to give students a voice they never thought they had; it’s especially powerful to read a few of the kids’ poems included in the article.

4. Is slam a safe space?

This question comes up often at spoken word fests in the U.S. and Canada. Because the slam stage is open to so many voices, it allows some questionable arguments to be blasted to the masses. So is it free speech? National Poetry Slam director Scott Woods addresses this thorny issue in a recent, heavily-commented Livejournal post. Note that the post was inspired by a particular incident, so don’t feel bad if you feel a little lost.

5. When poetry goes commercial

“Show us something we ain’t never seen before.” It’s the last line to this ad spot for the 2010 NBA Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, but it’s also a good tag line for a new trend in spoken word: selling stuff. Aside from basketball, there have also been poems for iPod skins and Maxwell House coffee. Is poetry getting commoditized? Or are poets just looking for some long-awaited scratch?