Sunday, December 11, 2016

Call and Response

The Twin Cities of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

Michael Lee at the St. Paul Soap Boxing slam competition
Michael Lee at the St. Paul Soap Boxing slam competition, September 13, 2010, photo by Steph Pituc

We stimulate the same areas of our brain when we view others’ facial expressions of pain as when we experience pain ourselves, according to
a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study. Merely observing an emotion—fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust—triggers neurological empathy. How we react to our brain’s empathetic response varies, but the emotion is there whether we like it or not.

Maybe that’s why we respond to a spoken word or slam poetry performance: a poet expresses a range of emotions with her face, her body, her voice and her words. According to St. Paul Soap Boxing team member Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, the art “can be awkward, it can be powerful, and it can be transformative.” Through active expression and a confessional style, both spoken word and slam poetry  engage the audience physically and psychologically.

At the National Poetry Slam finals in St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium on August 7, 2010, Shane Hawley elicited laughter and drew momentum from the audience as he boomed into the microphone,

My name is Wile E. Coyote, and I am so fucking hungry.
Inexplicably stuck in this lifeless desert,
my only companion,
a mindless blue bird who I am forever doomed to chase,
to whom all laws of the universe bend and then break.

Eventually Hawley slowed down the manic rant, soberly stating, “It is the curse of an addict to chase the thing that destroys you.” Such a manipulation forces audience members to reconsider the last two minutes and twenty seconds. The turn, Tran Myhre said, has become a signature style of the St. Paul team, which won the National Poetry Slam in 2010.

Hawley’s performance of the same poem in the semifinals:

It’s difficult to tease apart the patterns and the politics among what is most valued at a slam. Is it the voice that is the most articulate? The loudest? The poem that elicits the most critical thought? Perhaps the more relevant question is: What is motivating the audience to be here? In the case of Hawley’s wildly successful “Wile E. Coyote,” a populist approach that offers some comic relief from the difficult content of other poems is just the right balance of comfort and dissonance for many audience members.

Spoken word, from which slam is derived, focuses less on competition. Desdamona, a prominent Twin Cities hip-hop artist and five-time Minnesota Music Award winner for Best Spoken Word Artist, said that spoken word helps to preserve individual stories, personal and popular: “Oral tradition is still important to us today. And I think that if we lose that we really lose our voice in history, in our own lives. I want to encourage people to participate in every way, as a listener, as a presenter. I think that telling your story is probably one of the most important things you can do in your life because if you don’t tell it, it dies with you.” Whether that story will continue to live on, depends largely on the intimacy between the listener and the presenter.

Lewis Mundt, founder of the Hamline University Poetry Slam, reflected, “So much of slam poetry is personal. And for me it’s been the willingness of myself and other people to stand in front of a group of strangers who intentionally don’t know your work and they hear, ‘Here’s me. Here’s part of me.’ And I think it’s hard not to feel communal and connected to people in that situation.” Like the Observer effect in physics, which explains that mere observation changes the phenomenon under watch, both the performer and the audience member have the opportunity to be changed by the experience.

Steph Pituc is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota.