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Slamtime (+video)

Jessica Mariglio.
Renee Liang muses on the nature of Poetry Slams and interviews international documentary maker Jessi


Renee Liang muses on the nature of Poetry Slams and interviews Jessica Mariglio, a US poet who last year travelled the world ‘poeticking’ and filming a documentary called "Speak".

"Poetry is needed for the same reasons language is needed; for communication and survival."

* * *

As I write this I’m starting to get my energy back.  Producing plays is tiring (some would say addictively masochistic), but since the lovely monster wrapped I’ve been finding my bliss again in the little things.  The spread of the morning paper.  The kettle waiting to boil. Email (ok, I never stopped being addicted to that).

And, of course, Poetry.  There’s something to be said for wandering into a warm pub full of friends and friendly strangers on a Tuesday night, finding a seat and getting out that new poem to read.  With Montana Poetry Day only three weeks away there’s even more than usual on offer, but this city isn’t too bad in terms of poetry.

People go to poetry for all sorts of reasons, I think.  Some go to listen, others go to be heard. Still others go to share their latest work with other poets, to talk and dream and hatch up new projects in the haze of smoke (regrettably, the usual outside climate at such events).  Others expect to be entertained or moved.

This last function of poetry is what I want to address in this blog.  For the last few years I’ve been one of a handful of people in Auckland running Slams. What is a Slam? It’s competitive performance poetry, loved and hated in equal measure by people who call themselves poets.  Those against say that it downgrades poetry from art into entertainment (heard this argument before?).     Those for point out the full houses, enthusiastic audiences and the fact that it draws many previously unknown talents out of the woodwork (as well as a few who should have stayed in). Obviously, I agree with the latter, and I freely admit my bias.

But who am I to talk?  I’m only from little old New Zealand.  It’s not like we know about performance poetry or anything.  So I’ve interviewed Jessica Mariglio, a US poet who last year travelled the world ‘poeticking’, and filming a documentary called “Speak” that is being released in episodes on Youtube. Her insightful blog remains one that I go back to. Not because she named Auckland (yes, us!) as her personal favourite… well, OK, maybe that does give me warm fuzzies…..but also because  she’s got something to say about why poetry appeals to us all. And not purely for the hard-edged ‘performance’ aspect, or the equally one-sided reason of ‘intellectual engagement’, but for deeper reasons.

Renee: How did you get into performance poetry?

Jessica: well, I started writing poetry when I was very young, six years old, and I continued throughout my childhood, just writing little sonnets and trying to copy rhythms from classic nursery rhymes and later Shakespeare. I was really interested in rhythm, even back then.

But as I got older, I became discouraged because I realized that poetry had such a small audience. I strayed away from it a bit in middle school and really started getting interested in the 1960s civil rights/antiwar movement that we had here in the US. It just seemed like all the great speechmakers were from that era. I studied people like Martin Luther King Jr, Gloria Steinem, Malcolm X etc, and I wished that people would start speaking their minds that way in modern culture.

Then when I was 14 years old, I was taking a poetry class that introduced the beat generation. I really loved what they were all about. From there, I began to study the Last Poets, and how they combined jazz with words. Then finally, when I was at summer camp one year, studying all this older performance poetry, I saw a spoken word (performance poetry) group perform, and it totally changed everything.

Because here was my answer: a combination between great speechmaking, the rhythm and symbolism of traditional poetry all mixed with musicality and storytelling.  And it was even more incredible because I felt immediately connected with the artists, because their stories were so honest and genuine. I felt like I could understand the world from their perspectives, even though their perspectives were so different than my own.

So after the performance, I asked them to teach me to do what they did. And they did. And the rest is history….

Renee: So what pushed you into travelling the world to see performance poetry in action?

Jessica: Well it all goes back to the storytelling aspect. To me, good performance poetry really has to have that genuine story telling aspect to it. When I was at university, I was trying to think of some way to travel and meet other people like myself. I applied for a few grants, and eventually received one to study spoken word and performance poetry as a reflection of political and social climate in different cultures.

I chose poetry because of that storytelling aspect-- people write about what they know, they write about their daily lives. In addition to the storytelling aspect, I’m also fascinated with the idea of oral communication. The internet, wireless technology, cellphones etc, have made it possible for us to get in contact with people all the way around the world, but they've also separated us in a different way. People would rather text than call each other, and they'd rather call than see each other in person. The thing I love about performance poetry so much is that it brings the humanity back into communication. It allows us to make a personal connection, between poet and audience, that really can't be achieved any other way. I was really interested to see how this phenomenon was being used in other countries, because I saw how popular it was in the US.

Renee: What did you find? Was there more difference, or similarity, in the way the ‘spoken word’ was being used in countries outside of the States?

Jessica: Well, it's interesting.  When I first embarked, I was very prepared to study the differences between the scenes. But I quickly learned that the more interesting story was the similarities. I think there's a universal quality that comes along with spoken word, and I think it has a lot to do with the need to be heard and understood; the need to document our stories in some way. 

My favorite example of this is that I met a young artist, about 17 years old, while I was in Ottawa, Canada who was performing in French and English. He was talking about youth engagement, getting kids off the streets and into classrooms, challenging the norm, challenging the government, human rights etc. When I went to Mexico, I met an artist who was performing in Spanish. His pieces were had the exact same themes. In fact, not only were the themes similar, the delivery and actual stories of these two artists were so similar that if I had translated them all in English, anyone would've thought the pieces would be written by the same author.  But these movements formed organically, just out of the necessity of getting the message out there.

That's just one example, but these common themes were popping up all over the world. People, despite language, cultural, religious, ethnic barriers-- despite all these barriers we've created out of society-- are really very similar, and it comes through in their art.

Now in some countries, spoken word was more political than in others. In some places it was more genuine than others.  But generally, there were similar themes everywhere.

Renee: I think that's what I find with poetry.  It might sound very touchy-feely, but there's a bond that comes with being a writer or performer of the spoken word.  Even if there's difference in style or themes, there's a feeling that we're all part of one very large family.

Jessica: Ha ha, exactly. I call it ‘slamily’ - even though we're not all slam poets.

Renee: How much of that feeling of ‘slamily’ is due to being on the fringe, so to speak?   Though you  come from the country which has, to a certain degree, commercialised Slam Poetry and incorporated it into mainstream entertainment.  Even if that's only in a vastly diluted form.

Jessica: A certain aspect certainly can be lost due to commercialization.  Commercialization is a double edged sword.  It's great because it means we, the artists, can reach a broader audience and inspire people to get out there and be heard, tell their stories and educate the world on their perspective.  But at the same time, I think there's a very distinct danger to it as well and we definitely feel that here in the US.

It exists with any art, but especially with spoken word, I think perhaps due to its proximity to rap and hiphop culture.  In fact, just yesterday I interviewed this poet/emcee from New York City and he told me about this piece that his friend wrote called "don't let it happen to poetry", referring to what happened with hiphop.  The commercialization and eventual development of an ‘industry’, which concerned itself with fame, money, cars and women and as a consequence, lost its original soul.

I mean, so the US has a distinct style due to this commercialization. And some people like it and others don't. Personally, I have a preference for more organic, smaller spheres because the story remains genuine. The artist isn't up there to get famous or be noticed, but really is just up there to spread the word.

Renee: I think it's a danger with all genres. I guess some of it is up to personal artistic choice.  Some artists just like to tell entertaining stories which are more about feeling good than making some sort of deep statement.  For others there's no point in doing it unless there's deeper layers to it.

Jessica: It's funny really, a lot of artists would say that Slam is to blame for the commercialisation. But when Marc Smith first created the slam in Chicago, the prize for winning would be a twinkie or something equally frivolous.  But now they have Slams that give away thousands of dollars, so it changes the game.

Renee: Money is a double edged sword as well - we're always battling to be paid decent rates.

Jessica: Yeah, I agree.

Renee: But the people holding the purse strings have expectations and other people to answer to too, so sometimes it can feel like everyone has to compromise.   Don't think there's an easy answer though.

Going back to what you say about genuine story though, I think some artists do get corrupted.

Jessica: Yeah I do think so. I mean, it's tempting.

But Ritallin always tells me, this guy from Ottawa, he says that spoken word artists are the most talented and underappreciated artists because you have three for the price of one.  You've got a performer/actor, you've got a writer/storyteller, and you've got a musician. And we get paid less than any individual one of those.

Renee: That's true.  In NZ, poets are often invited to perform at events, but it's rare for them to be offered payment up front. Except for the big literary festivals of course.  Mostly they find they are getting a book voucher or something and the musicians on after them are getting paid full rates.

There’s talk that poets need to get a lot more bolshy about being paid and respected as artists.

Jessica: Yeah, it's definitely a struggle. Most of the artists I've met have had two jobs-- one being the artist and the other, usually some kind of educator or journalist of some sort.

But the big advice that I took away from asking them about the money was "don't quit your day job."

There are very few artists that I know of who make a living on their art alone.  This is especially true of performance poets.

However, one of the biggest sources of income I found for artists is the teaching poetry in schools program.  That's something we've got an advantage on, because we are, above all, poets  - and we can make poetry cool again.

Renee: I've noticed that the slam poets we've had visit from North America are a lot more ‘professional’ in that they talk about preparation time, they know how to market themselves and they do always check about the money. I think we can learn from them.

Jessica: Definitely. I think that goes back to the commercialization thing. Because spoken word has become so commercial now (there are two HBO shows that I know of), artists need to protect themselves.   They need to make sure they're not being taken advantage of, and they know how to ask for money, if they think it's necessary.

Renee: Though there is also something of great value in poetry that is non professional, ie written and performed purely for those root reasons you mentioned - love of words, of storytelling or of some deepseated need to make people aware of something.

Jessica: Yes.   And I think it's important for me to acknowledge that there is a balance between those two worlds, people can do both if they're dedicated enough.

Renee: How do you define performance poetry?  What makes it a "performance" rather than a reading?

Jessica: There's a few things that distinguishes spoken word from simply reading poetry. First of all, it's important to acknowledge that a ‘good’ spoken word poem can stand out on the page as well as the stage (and I actually feel this applies to page poems as well, but that's a widely debated view). The big difference between the two really lies in the way that the piece is written. The main difference is that a spoken word poem is written to be read (and performed, which I'll get to in a bit) aloud. This impacts the length, wording and execution of the poem.

Though there are spoken word pieces that go on for a long time, the majority of spoken word artists will write 2 or 3 minute pieces. This of course, was originated by ‘slam culture’ where the artists compete against one another within a 3 minute time limit (3 minutes because usually slams take place in crowded bars or cafes, so people aren't going to have a longer attention span). Pieces that go longer than three minutes do exist, but the artist tends to be cognisant of the fact that the audience might get bored, and so it's usually supplemented with either music or video or a super-dramatic performance.

But within that three minute time limit, there's another obstacle-- the artist has to get her point across in a poetic (but not too abstract) way. Page poetry has the advantage of being permanent-- so that if the reader doesn't understand something, she can just go back and read it again. Spoken word is much more fleeting, so the writer needs to check herself and make sure the audience isn't totally lost. So that's why many spoken word artists will think twice before using complicated vocabulary words (unless, or course, they sound good. because sound and rhythm is more important than comprehension in a lot of cases)

The most distinguishing part of spoken word or performance poetry, in my opinion, is the performance aspect. There can be an amazingly well-written piece, but if the artist doesn't present it in a way that it comes alive to the audience, it's just going to bore people. The idea is, ultimately, to make the audience feel like the artist just got up there on a whim and is talking directly to them, not reading off of a piece of paper. As you know, most artists will memorize their work to enhance the performance aspect. In that way, I suppose it's kind of like the difference between reading a story from a book aloud, and making the story come alive with your voice (intonation, different voices for different characters etc). In that way, a good spoken word artist can take anything, even the Canterbury Tales (which someone has done) and perform them in an engaging way.

Renee: So it's like you say.... it's poetry, it's performance, and it’s music/rhythm, but most of all, a story that engages.

Jessica: Exactly, it's got all these elements that come together and engages the audience, really draws them in. It breaks down that barrier between artist and audience and almost creates a dialogue.

Renee: Though I have also seen some purely lyrical pieces win - I mean, ones without a clear narrative.

Though often such pieces are declarative instead.

Jessica: yes, that's true, and that's sort of where the distinction between "slam" and spoken word come in.  I think it's an important distinction, because slam poets are a type of spoken word/performance poet but not all performance poets are slam poets - if you catch my drift.

In slam, the audience- poet dialogue gets heightened, and the poet has to be super aware of her audience.  And since audiences vary greatly, sometimes those lyrical pieces will do well because they sound good but don't necessarily mean much.

The responsibility to talk about something very deep in performance poetry is widely debated.  Some people think because you have the mic, you have a responsibility to talk about something, to tell a deep story, but others say that there's nothing wrong with art for arts sake.

In slam, I think it really depends on the audience.  Some nights you'll get an audience that favors light fluffy feel good pieces and other nights you'll get an audience that craves a message. It really depends.

And the best part is, you never know.  That's what makes it a game.

Renee: Yes. The thing the gets me about running slams is that it's impossible to tell in advance how the night will go. Or who will win.

So, what makes a good slam?

Jessica: Well, from my own personal perspective, I think the biggest thing that makes a good slam is a collection of genuine, diverse poets and an enthusiastic, diverse audience.

I think the more diverse both the artists and the audience is, the more chance there is for intense dialogue.  Often, slams can fall into the "same 20" problem, meaning the same 20 artists are preaching to the same 20 audience members.

So, I think it's very necessary for artists and organizers to figure out ways to diversify the reach of slam.

Renee: I agree with you. So... having seen some examples on your travels...what's the best way to diversify an audience and attract new audience or artists?  For poetry as well as slam.

Jessica: It's definitely on the agenda of all the artists I've met. It's the challenge of an art form-- how do we keep the evolution moving forward?   There are a couple of ways to diversify that people have thought of.  My favorite one was actually in Australia.

I was in Sydney, and though there's an active spoken word scene there, most of the artists (the "big" ones, anyway) had been around the scene for a long time, so someone decided to create a You-tube slam competition (for Australians only) and the winner would fly into Sydney and perform it at the Sydney Opera House at the Night Words festival.  Well, as you guessed, they got a ton of new entries. and the kid who won was FANTASTIC.

Not only was he very young, and virtually unknown, his sound was completely different to anything else that was going on in that part of Australia.  When you bring new blood into the scene, it challenges the old artists to step up their game and I think that kid did it.

Another thing that the Canadians noticed, was that their slams were all held at 18+ locations bars etc  so it locked out a certain demographic.

Finally, one of the things I think might be pretty effective is actually inspired by your FOB (Funky Oriental Beats) show.  By organizing shows that target a certain demographic, you create a ‘safe space’ for people to be honest and get used to telling their story in front of an audience.  And after a while, you could merge the scenes, encourage them to perform at other spoken word venues etc.

Renee: that's true.  We're seeing that gradual evolution now - groups like the South Auckland Poets Collective.

Jessica: Yeah, I mean it's rough (performing).  And for the first time, as a white woman, I can understand the need for a ‘safe space’ to talk about my perspective. Here in DC, I think I'm one of maybe a handful of white female performance poets.

People are starting to recognise me.  And at first, I was terrified of performing, because so many of my pieces are political  and I was afraid to alienate my audience, or worse.  But after going to so many shows, I realized that they needed to diversify the scene, and if they were going to judge me based on my skin color and not my poetry, then that's their loss.

And it's turned out surprisingly well, of course.  Because, like we said before, it's a slamily!

Renee: I think fearlessness is one of the defining characteristics of slam poets I admire.   It's one of the things that makes them mesmerising to watch.

It's kinda crazy what happens when we get on that stage, eh?

Jessica: Yeah, I think it definitely takes a certain type of person to be able to get up there, tell their personal stories and then give it to the audience to pick apart and judge.

Renee: Have you noticed that often the most fearless slam poets are the ones who seem really shy offstage?  They get onstage and bOOM!

Jessica: Oh absolutely. I can't even tell you how universal that is.  The stage personality is so much more dynamic and fearless than the offstage personality.

Renee: I'm not sure what it's like in the States but here we seem to get all ages - up to people in their 80s.

Jessica: really? in the US, I'd say it's mostly an under 30 crowd. Wow.

Renee: They seem to really relish it too. And they win.

Jessica: Wow, that's incredible.

Renee: Ok…so one last question and it's a warm one.    Why is poetry needed?

Jessica: Poetry is needed for the same reasons language is needed; for communication and survival. If you really look at it, every culture and every society has a history of poetry. Before there was the written word, there was the spoken word.   And the spoken word had rhythm and it rhymed so it would be easy to recite and remember.

Poetry is needed because history is needed. It was originally used to tell the stories and histories of a people, to guarantee the survival of that culture. And even in modern times, it definitely has not strayed far from that mission. That's actually why I don't really think poetry is ‘needed’. The necessity of it is inherent, like eating or breathing. Where ever there is a story that needs to be told, where ever feeling takes precedence over logic or fact, wherever there is conflict or passion, wherever there is a need to communicate and connect, even beyond the constraints of culture and language,  where ever there is language and breath, poetry exists. It always has, and it always will.

When I first heard him speak

It was as if god himself was breathing between his lips

And I cried out in a whisper too bold

To behold

A man so different than I

But so clear to me was

That burnt beneath his eyes

Were the same words which haunted mine

Every time I tried

To close them

Written by

Renee Liang

1 Jul 2009

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.

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