(Re)presenting Ourselves: Art, Identity, and Status in U.K. Poetry Slam
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(Re)presenting Ourselves:
Art, Identity, and Status in U.K. Poetry Slam

Introducing Poetry Slam

Poetry slam is a movement, a philosophy, a form, a genre, a game, a community, an educational device, a career path, and a gimmick. It is a multi-faced creature that means many different things to many different people. At its simplest, slam is an oral poetry competition in which poets are expected to perform their own work in front of an audience. They are then scored on the quality of their writing and performance by judges who are typically randomly selected members of the audience.

The story of slam reaches across more than two decades and thousands of miles. In 1986, at the helm of “The Chicago Poetry Ensemble,” Marc Smith organized the first official poetry slam at the Green Mill in Chicago under the name of the Uptown Poetry Slam (Heintz 2006; Smith 2004). This weekly event still continues today and the Uptown Poetry Slam has become a place of pilgrimage for slam poets from across the United States and indeed the world.

While it parallels poetry in remaining a somewhat marginal activity, slam has arguably become the most successful poetry movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Its popularity is greatest in its home country, where the annual National Poetry Slam (NPS) can attract audiences in the thousands and where it has spawned shows on television and on Broadway. Beyond this, slam has spread across the globe to countries as geographically and culturally diverse as Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Poland, and the U.K. Slam reached England in February 1994, when the first U.K. poetry slam was held in London by Farrago Poetry (2007). Farrago still holds monthly poetry slams today in the foyer bar of the Rada.

Despite the prevalence of slam and the number of intriguing research avenues this phenomenon presents, it has nonetheless received very little attention from academic researchers. Further, the few texts that do exist focus almost entirely on slam as a North American phenomenon.1 This paper aims to begin to redress this imbalance.

Method

The idea for this paper arose from an ongoing study into poetry slam, which seeks to analyze the re-creation of slam within local, translocal, and transnational communities. The study takes an interactionist stance and operates on the understanding that art should be viewed not as a disembodied product, but as a collection of dynamic social and interactional processes.2 In line with this epistemological position, the research draws on tools of ethnographic inquiry to produce a rich, in-depth account of slam that aims to be sensitive to the situated meanings of participants.

The data on which this paper relies is derived from 44 semi-structured interviews with poets, promoters, event organizers, and educators involved in slams,3 as well as participant observation of 22 slams over the course of 12 months. This is supplemented with participant observation of other poetry events and of workshops geared toward slam, and the analysis of materials used in slams, video and audio recordings, promotional materials, and articles discussing slam published in newspapers, magazines, and on websites.

This paper focuses primarily on data that relates to adult slams in the U.K.; however, research on U.S.-based adult slam will also be referred to at various points in order for certain cross-cultural comparisons to be made. An in-depth exploration of U.S.-based adult slam, and of youth slam in these two countries, is beyond the scope of this paper.4

There are clearly difficulties in generalizing from observations obtained in just two cities to a country as a whole, and the reader should bear in mind that this paper is based on research largely conducted in London, Bristol, New York, and Chicago. Where slam in the U.K. or the U.S. as a whole is concerned, the discussion reflects the work of other authors or, more commonly, participants’ discussion of slam on the national scene. Further, although my research focuses specifically on English sites, I decided to refer to the U.K. rather than to England. This decision echoes the discourse of...