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The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry

Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America

Susan B. A. Somers-Willett

Publication Year: 2009

Finally, a clear, accurate, and thoroughly researched examination of slam poetry, a movement begun in 1984 by a mixed bag of nobody poets in Chicago. At conception, slam poetry espoused universal humanistic ideals and a broad spectrum of participants, and especially welcome is the book's analysis of how commercial marketing forces succeeded in narrowing public perception of slam to the factionalized politics of race and identity. The author's knowledge of American slam at the national level is solid and more authentic than many of the slammers who claim to be. ---Marc Kelly Smith, founder/creator of the International Poetry Slam movement The cultural phenomenon known as slam poetry was born some twenty years ago in white working-class Chicago barrooms. Since then, the raucous competitions have spread internationally, launching a number of annual tournaments, inspiring a generation of young poets, and spawning a commercial empire in which poetry and hip-hop merge. The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry is the first critical book to take an in-depth look at slam, shedding light on the relationships that slam poets build with their audiences through race and identity performance and revealing how poets come to celebrate (and at times exploit) the politics of difference in American culture. With a special focus on African American poets, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett explores the pros and cons of identity representation in the commercial arena of spoken word poetry and, in doing so, situates slam within a history of verse performance, from blackface minstrelsy to Def Poetry. What's revealed is a race-based dynamic of authenticity lying at the heart of American culture. Rather than being mere reflections of culture, Somers-Willett argues, slams are culture---sites where identities and political values get publicly refigured and exchanged between poets and audiences. Susan B. A. Somers-Willett is a decade-long veteran of slam and holds a PhD in American Literature and an MA in creative writing from the University of Texas at Austin. She has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Texas and is the author of two books of poetry, Quiver and Roam. Visit the author's website at: http://www.susansw.com/. Photo by Jennifer Lacy.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: Slam and the Search for Poetry’s Great Audience

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pp. 1-15

On or about August 1988, contemporary American poetry changed. The relations between poetry and its audience—between academics and their venerated tomes, MFA students and their assigned readings, rappers and the rhymes they busted—shifted...

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1. On Page and Stage: Slam Poetry as a Genre

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pp. 16-38

In trying to isolate its appeal to contemporary audiences, scholars have mainly focused on the orality of slam poetry—on the transmission of an original poetic text through speaking. For example, in his 2004 essay “Disappearing Ink,” Dana Gioia characterizes the reemergence...

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2. Poetry and the People: The Cultural Tensions of American Popular Verse in Performance

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pp. 39-67

In America, the use of the term popular verse has a varied history. It has been used to describe the lyric formality of rap, the nomadic and hip strain of the Beats, the militant vernacular assumed by Black Arts poets, the populist practice of poetry, and even the jingles of radio stations and television commercials. When literary critics speak of American popular verse, they imply a poetry...

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3. I Sing the Body Authentic: Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity

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pp. 68-95

As places where authorship is consciously performed, liberal political ideals are shared, and diversity is celebrated, poetry slams are venues where poets come to express themselves. When I say “express themselves,” I mean more than “to say what’s on their minds.” A frequent mode of address...

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4. "Commercial Niggas Like Me": Spoken Word Poetry, Hip-Hop, and the Racial Politics of Going Mainstream

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pp. 96-133

Although the slam proper began over twenty years ago at a grassroots level, national attention to slam poetry has been paid only in the last decade. This attention has manifested itself across several different media; representations of slam poetry have surfaced in theater and ‹lm, on CDs and MP3s, and on streaming video on the Internet,...

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Epilogue: "Designs for Living"—Notes on the Future of Slam Poetry

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pp. 134-138

It is time for the relative critical silence about slam poetry to be broken. In its life in the public sphere, both as a grassroots practice in local slams and as a larger commercial practice in the genre of spoken word poetry, slam poetry exhibits many of the qualities of other performance poetry movements in America. These include...


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pp. 139-152


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pp. 153-168


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pp. 169-178


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pp. 179-191

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027088
E-ISBN-10: 0472027085
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050598
Print-ISBN-10: 0472050591

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 654103844
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Poetry -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Identity (Psychology) in literature.
  • Oral interpretation of poetry.
  • Poetry slams -- United States -- History.
  • Performance poetry -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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