Monday, December 12, 2016

Call and Response

The Twin Cities of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

Where (and How) to Hear New Voices

An array of spoken word artists, who rarely come together to share a stage or an audience, performed at Honey Lounge in Northeast Minneapolis on November 10, 2010, at Minnesota Microphone’s Talk Story Spoken Word Sampler. Artists’ performances included Neil Hilborn’s impassioned lament for a punk rock mentor, Linda Vang’s measured litany of the challenges of being a queer Hmong woman, and Jake Virdan’s rhythmic reflections on the gentrification of Northeast Minneapolis, punctuated by many expressions of Twin Cities pride from a variety of poets.

Cole “Inky” Sarar, executive editor of Minnesota Microphone, commented that although poets don’t often share a stage, there is a sense of mutual respect among spoken word artists and slam poets. In preparation for national competitions, members of local slam teams critique each other’s work. Other poets facilitate writing workshops, such Writing in Circles, Desdamona’s monthly group at Intermedia Arts.

Balancing her support for the state of the scene with a desire to push it to grow, Sarar observed, “One of the things that struck me at the Talk Story Spoken Word Sampler is the friendliness between everyone, but also the huge rift in philosophy between most of the slam poets and most of the activist poets. The audience’s attention and the respect of their peers are the ways slam poets measure their own successes. [Activist poets] see spoken word as a tool towards a greater end.” Desdamona also cited differences in philosophy among performance poets: “Sometimes there’s a division between people who are really hard core into slam and the people who are say, ‘I don’t care what score you’re going to give me. I’m just trying to express myself.’”

Self-expression can certainly be found at a slam competition, but that may come secondary to the objective of winning over the crowd and consequently deter explicit activism.  For slam poets who try to incorporate activist messages into their slam pieces, the challenge is to get the audience to take in a message that people may not want to or be ready to hear. In tackling topics such as rape, sexual abuse and catcalling, Sierra DeMulder said, “I tend to write on a leash where I hold myself back, just a little because—and I think this goes for any gender—you don’t want to scare your audience. You don’t want to make your audience feel like you’re yelling at them or isolating them.”

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