Monday, December 12, 2016

Call and Response

The Twin Cities of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

Spoken Word vs. Slam: A Tutorial

Spoken Word is an art form which accentuates the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem––thereby expanding the texture, the context, and possibly the meaning of the work. You can accentuate these rhythms either through your verbal delivery or you can add music, or both. The work can be created by the individual poet or with a group of poets, and musicians, either improvisationally or through conscious arrangement.

e.g. bailey, Wordlife

Ask a variety of poets how they define spoken word, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Some define spoken word as “performed poetry.” Ed Bok Lee, author, writer and performance poet in the Twin Cities recalled his first performance in 1992 for the Walker Art Center’s Out There series: “It was a poem with drumming, but back then there was no name for spoken word. And the thing I wrote was a poem to be performed.”  For others, spoken word is not limited to poetry, but any conversion of the written word to a performance, including monologue or prose and incorporating dance or music. Desdamona subscribes to this definition: “If you go to church and they’re reading scripture, to me, that’s spoken word.”

Tracing the origins of spoken word, nationally and locally, can be just as complicated a task as defining its terms. Although oral storytelling has been part of human culture for thousands of years, spoken word as we know it today began to take shape nationally in the 1990s and early 2000s, mainstreaming with television shows devoted exclusively to the form on MTV and HBO. Around the same time, the Twin Cities saw its own growth of its spoken word scene and was set to become a leader in the spoken word community with its strong literary tradition, vibrant performance art scene and underground hip-hop, according to Lee.

Around the same time that spoken word was beginning to grow as a genre, the slam poetry movement started in Chicago in 1989 by a construction worker named Marc Smith, according to slam tradition. Poet Diego Vasquez brought the competitive poetry phenomenon  to the Twin Cities in 1996, with the first Minnesota slam at Kieran’s Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis, Lee said. Slam could be considered spoken word’s sibling—slam is spoken word, but spoken word is not necessarily slam—adding several rules, a competitive element and the explicit incorporation of audience participation to the art.

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