From Stage to Page (and back again?)

I started doing competitive slam poetry at the age of 14. I didn’t have any actual poetry background, as teachers in school just told us to write poetry without explaining anything about craft or what makes a poem effective. I learned through watching others slam that all it took was a compelling subject (usually with some controversial aspect involved), vivid imagery, and some passion to weave together a piece. Add the “poet stance” (always rocking forward to your tiptoes), a cadence that could be identified as your own, and some deliberately placed dramatic choreography, and people were telling me that I was a promising poet. I won some local competitions, slammed in a regional bout where I beat people from big city teams like Baltimore and D.C, and found myself part of Delaware’s 6-person team in the quarterfinal rounds at Brave New Voices 2011, performing in venues all over Oakland and San Francisco and included in an HBO documentary. While the slam poetry scene diminished in my area as I finished up the rest of high school, one of my few goals for college was to compete (and make a splash) at CUPSI.

Fast-forward to today, and I haven’t performed in 6 months and haven’t written a slam piece I’m actually proud of in over a year. I realized that I was too obsessed with “being good” and winning. I started writing certain things into my poetry just because I knew they would get points (talk about domestic or sexual abuse, use ribcages, hang yourself from a noose, get emotional on stage) instead of writing poetry for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I love acting, but poets are supposed to reveal their true selves, coaches always told me to be vulnerable on stage. I realized that I was only pretending to do these things, shying away from topics that actually affected me in the name of securing 10s and high placements. I decided to take a break from slam to reevaluate why I was actually writing. When I took creative writing here at Geneseo and entered the world of poetry in an academic setting, I started looking at everything differently. At first it was really hard for me to make the transition back to page poetry from slam. In slam, as long as what you’re doing evokes feeling, nobody cares where your line (or rhythm/cadence) breaks are or whether you rely on abstractions. Seeing page poetry from an academic setting has just made me that much more critical of slam. I want to return to the world of slam competitions, I met some of the most intelligent, diverse, and accepting people through slam communities, but sometimes I feel like I’m so critical and jaded at this point, that I don’t know if I ever can return to that community that grew me.

Does anyone else have trouble taking slam seriously after focusing on the nuances of page poetry? Any advice for reconciling the two?

2 Replies to “From Stage to Page (and back again?)”

  1. Codie,

    I understand on some level where you’re coming from. Although I didn’t really get into slam poetry until I got to college, I really adore it now. When you say that studying page poetry has made you feel jaded with the slam style, I can especially relate. We seem to dive into the poems on a much deeper level when we can see them and digest them instead of just hearing them and experiencing them once. Since slam poetry is performance-based and is meant to be seen and not heard, the page style often feels deeper and more academic.

    I don’t know if you were there when Buddy Wakefield came to campus last year, but he said something that really stuck with me. Buddy explained that he got to the point in his poetry career where he knew how to write to please the judges, that he could produce a piece that would get a perfect score. He went on to say that he did do just that for a while, but eventually ended up just writing what he wanted to write. Personally, I find myself struggling to write to please the crowds when I write a slam poem, while also staying true to what matters to me and what I actually want to write about.

    On a different note, (and hopefully I won’t be flayed for writing this) sometimes it bothers me that we seem to get so caught up in punctuation and line breaks and white space in class. Somebody once told me that he doesn’t like poetry because it sounds pretentious to him. I can’t say I share this opinion (why else would I be in this class?), but again I can see where my friend was coming from. The words and content and the story the poem tells, as well as the rhythm and sound of the poem have always been so much more important to me than the line breaks, which always seem like the go-to critique of page poetry.

    Anyway, there’s a spot for you on the slam team to go to CUPSI next year if you decide to come back to slam poetry. Many of the current members of the team are graduating, and from what I remember of your time in the club, as well as what I have seen of your work in class, I know you would do an amazing job. While I’m here, I might as well tell you that the stuff you shared with the poets in the club over a year ago has stuck with me even up until now and has influenced my own writing. I’m not sure if I exactly answered your question, but from one performance/page poet to another: never stop writing!

  2. Personally, I do not have any experience with slam poetry, although it seems like something that is really fun to both write and perform. My impressions of it are that the images/subject matters function much the way that they function in music. In music, there are more factors than just the lyrics that “make” the song–there’s rhythm, loudness/softness, key changes and chord progressions that all play a part in how we respond to the piece (Read: have you ever listened to a song and when the music, not the lyrics, changes in some way, you just get a chill/overwhelming feeling of “YES, that was great”?)
    Because of the many factors that all play into our perceptions of a song, writers can get away with more conventionally cliché lyrics such as “I want to spend the rest of my life with you by my side, forever and ever.” Pretty sure if anyone read that in a poem, they would vomit all over it. While this lyric is definitely an extreme example of a cliché, it works in songs, as I’m sure something similar would work in poetry slam. In poetry slam, you’ve got what you called “the poet stance,” voice inflections, more pronounced pauses and any other aural quality that affects how we listen to poems versus see them.

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