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If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another: One Poet’s Thoughts on How We Describe What We Do

I was asked recently by a friend to offer, as best I could, my thoughts on what the definitions and differences are when terms such as slam poetry, spoken word, and “traditional on-page poetry” are the center of the conversation. She and I agreed that there are lots of folks out there burdened by misconceptions about these terminologies. I certainly agree that when people forget to hold terms to the original meaning (to say nothing of holding others accountable for knowing and sticking to those original meanings) that lines can get blurry quite quickly.

I think a lot of the confusion that comes about when people pass around the term spoken word is that people have this idea that the term relates to only one kind of art being shared, whereas I think that the Wikipedia entry on spoken word actually – incredibly - has it just right: “Spoken word is a performance art that is word based”. And that means of course, that this can include any kind of art that has as its basis words being spoken aloud, including hip hop music, open-mic poetry, “jazz poetry”, the competitive art of the poetry slam, as well as those events associated with the lectern and the college hall amphitheater that are considered generally “traditional” (or “academic”, if you will) poetry readings.

Please bear in mind as you read this that your author here strides into this discussion with his own set of pre-judgments and biases. I have not a small amount of experience and performing on stage, having been a member of six city poetry slam teams that competed in as many national competitions, as well as having logged hundreds of hours on stage in addition to having hosted an open mic night and poetry slam event on a regular basis for close to eight years when I resided in Delaware. It's probably not possible to have had all these experiences and emerge on the other side completely free of Earnest and Important Notions of what is Best and what is True Art. In other words, take it from me, but don’t take it all from me.

An additional word about value judgments at some length might be in order here: during the course of this we will be acknowledging - no matter which form really turns us on - that the poetry slam is kin to the traditional poetry reading which is kin to Hip Hop which is kin to storytelling which is kin to fireside cowboy story camps which is kin to ghost stories which is kin to hip monologue festivals which is kin to that time your Dad described in detail what would happen to you if you brought his car back home with a scratch on it. It’s all Spoken Word. So as you get deeper into the weeds in your conversations at Starbucks or at the beach (or wherever these crucial and crucially mild-mannered debates take place), hold in your back pocket that reminder that whether you’re talking about a Poet Laureate’s lecture or whether you’re talking about a freestyle hip hop cypher at one am on a summer night behind a hotel in Atlanta or whether you’re talking about a hotly-contested regional poetry slam at a cafe in Kalamazoo, Michigan, all of these events are rightly filed under Spoken Word. Know your terms - but of course discover for yourself which scene “works” best for you. Don’t let anyone tell you that the poetry you hear at a poetry slam is “lesser” than what is commonly referred to as “traditional” poetry. By the same token, don’t let anyone tell you that the poetry you might read or hear that is traditional or “academic” is somehow “lesser” than what is trotted out in slam competitions.

I know there are some things that are typical of each branch of the Spoken Word wheel, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. Sure, when we think of the definitions, we recall that slams are often at bars and cafes, and “academic” (or, non-slam) readings often happen at podiums, but I think (and hope) that as organizers continue to look for ways to shake things up at events, we will see a positive and pleasant growth and development across the Spoken Word spectrum. The Middle School Haiku Death Match. The Business Proposal Slam that takes place in the boardroom where the winner gets a bonus. That wild and future year where Poet Laureates will be required to only offer their lectures by the beach. The way forward, I’ll add, in my opinion, is always for participants in all the forms to really start to look for each other and to listen to each other. Full disclosure: I stopped going to slams in my city primarily because it got exhausting listening to competitions where everyone sounded nearly identical because the field of competitors only ever watched Button Poetry videos on YouTube and never (if my ears were to be believed) actually read any published poetry. I’ve noticed, too, that “traditional” poetry readings generally tend to offer audiences and poets more time to breathe and digest things, as the time limit per poem function in a slam is absent. Local slams can learn from this, in the same way that the folks who run traditional poetry readings sure can learn a thing or two about sound and mic technique (in twenty years, I have NEVER witnessed a traditional reading or open mic night where there wasn’t at least ONE person who seemed completely at a loss on how to adjust the height of a microphone) from the folks who are regular participants and audience members at the slams. You see where I am going with this, I’m sure.

But I (enjoyed very much that moment when I chose to quite willfully) digress. Back to the bottom line. Do you like going to open mic nights or lectures offered by visiting poets at University? Do you know a fella who really likes hip-hop and talks about the artists he likes all the time? Do you have a friend who puts all her free time into organizing storytelling events at the library on Sunday nights? Guess what - you and that hip-hop loving fella and that promoter of the storytelling night all have at least one thing in common: you all enjoy and support the Spoken Word.


Rich Boucher resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His poems have appeared in Cultural Weekly, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Soft Cartel, Gargoyle, Gravel, The Nervous Breakdown, Apeiron Review and Menacing Hedge, among others, and he has work forthcoming in antinarrative journal, MoonPark Review and Your One Phone Call. For more, For more, please visit He loves his life with his love Leann.

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