December 14, 2013
Comparing American and Australian Poetry Slams
I was very honored to be featured on my friend Elena’s blog! I wrote my thoughts comparing and contrasting US poetry slams to Australian. You can click here to see her blog and read my post, and/or just read below! (Here’s a picture of me performing in Newcastle.)
A strong black man speaks boldly of food deserts and how he likes it when his girl calls him “daddy.” He stands on stage and speaks with a tremor in his voice that makes me feel like I’m about to cry. He never consults his notes, and he looks past the audience, like he’s talking to God. At the end of the poem, my friend Jean and I are standing immediately, applauding incessantly. Busboys and Poets is having a typical poetry slam in the district, and everyone is feeling the emotions. There is an atmosphere of being on edge, a feeling of not knowing what will be said, and the question hangs in the air, who is going to cross the line tonight? What lines are going to make me squirm, who’s going to spit words and make me cry and when is someone going to talk so dirty I get goosebumps?
This is slam poetry at its finest, in the nation’s capital. The people performing are going to give you everything they’ve got.
Often, you need to be in a big city to hear really amazing things. I found a few open mike places in Kentucky, but it’s much more guitar music. I was first introduced to poetry slams at my university (a small college in North Carolina) and this was where I began to understand the point of difference. Poetry slams are no poetry readings. At poetry slams, people rate you and give you points. If you compete, you best bring a few poems, because you just might make it to round 2. A battle of not just content, but charisma. A competition of articulation, creativity and emotion.
At a poetry slam in Canberra (Australia’s capital), I met Daniel, a slam coach from Chicago (where the art of slamming first originated), who ended up living down under. He and I talked for an evening about the things we missed about America, one of them being drip coffee, the other being the passionate, powerful poetry slams, where most performances are typically a result of carefully practiced rhythmic recitation, which must be under three minutes. The performance is just as important (if not more) than the poem itself.
I’ve been to poetry slams in Melbourne, Canberra and Newcastle, and not once have I felt the same sense of tension and passion that I felt in Washington DC. But this is not a criticism, merely an observation. I’ve attended poetry slams in Australia that have left me dying laughing and also borderline offended. My time exploring spoken word in Australia (over three years now) has demonstrated to me that there are many many ways to effectively deliver a poem.
My first poetry slam was at Melbourne at a fantastic pay-what-you-feel vegetarian restaurant called Lentil As Anything. A middle-aged woman with short hair, looking very respectable stood up and spouted in an almost nursery-rhyme-like way her pure love of “fat boys.” To sleep with them that is. It’s not so much that the concept itself was so surprising, but to see a woman so earnestly describe her love for fat lovers, and looking at the audience with a sneaky little smile is something I’ll never forget. I’d just arrived as well, so her accent made it extra enticing. I thought about how so much of American poetry slams are left for a younger audience. Have I ever seen a woman over 30 perform a poetry slam in the States? I’m not sure, and it’s such a shame. Surely there are a few American women in their 30s or older who have some secrets they could share with strangers. Secret which said strangers could appreciate for years to come, as I still do with this Australian woman.
The other memorable poetry slam I recently observed happened in the city I’m living in now. In Newcastle, I’ve become a regular at the Word Hurl Anti Slams, where there are no rules and no point scoring. One of the only similarities to American poetry slams is that a member of the audience is selected to be the judge. And just a few months back, a really crazy man began performing regularly. I can honestly say the only word I understand him say when he performs is “Berlin,” but he gets the mic and starts rambling on, crazy undiscernible brooding ranting; perhaps he is a reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe. He has this kind of ‘Nam veteran look to him. Man’s crazy, and he gets on stage, and truly, the audience is a little afraid of him. If it were in DC, he might have been searched for weapons or drugs before he even got through the door, but at the Terrace bar, all he does is intimidate the rest of the crazy people in the audience, and sometimes he even takes off his pants. Now I don’t believe that this is a key to a good performance, but I do know 1. He couldn’t get away with this in the US 2. I will never forget it.
Now, before I end my post, I want to clarify that there are some truly incredible Australian poets that have moved me, just as much as the rhythmic performers in the US. And plenty of Aussie performers do get really into the slams, and perform with just as much passion as they do in America. The main difference is this is not expected. Dare I say it, the bar is not quite as high. This is great, as I am lazy, and have started performing poems I’ve written but not yet memorised, because I know I will not get judged as harshly. However, because there is a slightly lower expectation placed on performance, perhaps it encourages people from a wider variety of backgrounds to perform. As a believer that competition and judging can sometimes hinder creativity, I’d love to see Australia’s laid back attitude to sharing poetry encouraged throughout the world.