“You cannot kill a monster / until you are willing to see it in the mirror / until you recognise its shape in your own skin.” These are the words that slam poet Dylan Garity spits out at the end of his performance of Friend Zone. He steps away from the mic and the entire crowd bursts into applause. This is the growing art of slam poetry, or performance poetry, as some like to put it.
Slam poetry is defined by Urban Dictionary as being “A type of poetry expressing a person’s personal story and/or struggle usually in an intensely emotional style.” This is an accurate description of slam poetry, yet Dylan Garity goes further to describe the actual competition. “[A poetry slam] is a competition where people perform their own writing, generally with a three-minute time limit to avoid that dude rambling on about anarcho-communism or that lady describing each of her twenty-five cats. Most of these competitions are judged by five random members of the audience that the host chooses, the idea being that your job, as a poet, is to be able to connect with anyone who’s listening, not just people ‘knowledgable about poetry’ (whatever that means).
“The reason I describe the competition itself, rather than ‘slam poetry’, is because I don’t think there is a good definition of ‘slam poetry’. Performance poetry is simply that: poems, performed aloud by the author, generally for a live audience. Often the poems are very personal in nature, but that’s by no means a requirement; I’ve seen people perform pieces that are essentially theatrical monologues, pieces that are purely comedic, pieces that are deeply emotional or political. The only defining feature is that the writer is performing their own work, which is relatively unique in the arts, and one of the things I think people really connect to about all this”
Often people attempt to attribute some specific kind of style to slam poetry. This is illogical, as there is no preferred style to poetry. You can get poems that are lyrical and then others that are purely storytelling. The poems do have to stick to being roughly 3 minutes in length due to competition rules, which does result in a few similarities in structure. “… but even within those bounds I never feel like I’m just seeing the same thing over and over again.”
Garity has been writing for as long as he can remember but intentionally started writing poetry in high school. He began performing in slam after he graduated from high school. He really started delving into the slam scene when he moved to the Twin Cities, where the slam poetry scene was a lot stronger. His first performance was a poem about unrequited love for a girl he had had a crush on for 5 years. “She was actually the person who introduced me to slam poetry, and she was there in the audience, so that went well.
“I think, in my writing now, I’ve grown a lot in terms of structure: how to tell a story, a narrative; how to pull people into an arc rather than just having individual flashy lines of writing. The first performance poems I wrote were more lyrical but less refined. I would often pull them together from a million different notes, scraps of paper, and files of random writing until I had something I thought was coherent. Now, I tend to write more toward a specific idea or goal. I’m striving to bring back more of the spontaneity of that earlier writing to combine with how I write now, as I think that will produce work that’s stronger.”
Friend Zone is one of the poems that gained Garity a lot of popularity on the slam poetry circuit and all over the internet. The poem begins with self-mocking humour and progresses to being a deep and serious criticism of modern society’s views on the friend zone and on sex. It is a viciously cruel and beautiful poem, as it lulls you into a false sense of comfort before rapidly transitioning from humorous to serious and entirely blowing your view of the friend zone out of the water.
“A lot of the jokes at the beginning were things I’d written for another piece that never really panned out. And I still really wanted to use that material, but wanted to make the piece have some gravity to it as well. So I combined it with some writing I’d done on the topics of the back half of the poem, and then just spent a lot of time working on making it all fit together, and transition smoothly from humorous to serious. Though the poem obviously takes poetic license, combining stories or expanding them where necessary, it’s generally all drawn from my actual experience growing up and coming to terms with the issues I present in the poem.”
Besides being a poet, Garity is also one of the directors of Button Poetry. They are an organisation which travels around the USA, filming major performance poetry tournaments and then broadcasting these videos, usually through the medium of Youtube. They also host poetry events, publish books, make albums and go on tours. “That’s a really terrifying question actually, because it makes me think about how my job is actually about fifteen different jobs wrapped into one. All of which are pretty exciting and amazing, to be fair.
“Overall, our main goal, our main purpose, is to showcase the power and diversity of voices in the performance poetry community. By encouraging and broadcasting the best and brightest performance poets of today, we hope to broaden poetry’s audience, to expand its reach and develop a greater level of cultural appreciation for the art form, and for the art form as one that is profoundly alive, that lives in theaters and bars and schools and college basements and the internet, not just old, dusty books filled with dead guys.”
Slam poetry used to be like indie music: underground. But in the past year or two, it has rapidly grown in popularity. It seems like one day the vast majority of people knew nothing about slam poetry, but then somebody shared Neil Hilborn’s “OCD” and the internet exploded. Slam poetry videos started flying all over the place. Sites like Upworthy began regularly featuring various poets on their site. The reason for this rapid growth can be attributed to many factors, but maybe the most mundane of reasons can be noted: the sheer brilliance of the poetry.
“I honestly think it was mainly a matter of visibility. Most people had either never heard of slam poetry, or if they had, they thought it was either beat poetry (bongos and drums and berets) or hip hop with no music and less talent. When they see what it actually is, the variety of incredible performances and pieces of writing it encompasses, everything changes. Sam Cook (Button’s Executive Director) and I had been going to slams and poetry tournaments for years, and watching audiences both old and new be deeply affected by what this art form has to offer, by the stories and performances of these poets. We figured if in a room of a hundred people who have never seen this before, and witness a great show, fifty of them leave in love with a new art form, what would happen if we could show it to a thousand people at the same time? What about a hundred thousand? A million? And I think this last year has really shown that panning out: that when millions of people are exposed to this art form, it turns out that it truly does have a broad audience, a broad popularity. It’s so exciting to watch, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next few years.”
Maybe one of the reasons why people didn’t know about slam poetry is because with the growth of the distribution of music, people have forgotten that poems were often delivered in a spoken word format. They weren’t aware that there were modern spoken-word poets and when they thought of poets they thought of songwriters and rappers, or they thought of a bunch of old dead guys like Milton, Dante and Keats. Being a student myself, I can attest to the fact that within the classroom a lot of students in school do not care about these old poems. The poems lack relevance to them, as they were written a few centuries ago. Slam poetry, on the other hand, is incredibly relevant, as it is written by people within their century and close to their age. Also, these poems often deal with issues that students are faced with on a regular basis The logical conclusion to draw from this is that slam poetry should be incorporated into school curriculums alongside the poets of old.
Garity thinks that “modern poetry, and modern performance poetry, should be taught alongside the ‘traditional canon’. We actually have a playlist of classroom-friendly poems that we’re really excited about getting into more schools. A lot of teachers are already using it, and poems from our channel in general, in high school (and even middle school) classes, and from what we hear the effect has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s such a great way to show poetry to students as something they could actually enjoy and even do, today, now, as opposed to some distant, historical thing.”
A lot of slam poets tend to take the route of being the poetic version of punk rockers and opt for a style of poetry which is steeped in activism. “I think the reason people write activist work is because those issues are deeply important to them, and it’s a particularly effective method of communicating that importance. It’s easy for people to ignore statistics, politicians, articles, etc. It’s a lot harder to ignore someone who’s telling it like it is, directly to you, from their own experience. Performance poetry facilitates that. It facilitates a conversation between the performer and the audience, whether that audience is just the people in the room or thousands of people watching and responding online.”
Although, with that being said, not all poets go for that activist route. “If you take a look at the most popular poems on Button’s YouTube, for example, I think you’ll find a wide variety of work, from the more purely activist (Denice Frohman’s “Dear Straight People”, Alex Dang’s “What Kind of Asian Are You?”) to poems that either mix activism and very personal narratives (Javon Johnson’s “cuz he’s black”) or contain minimal to no activist narratives at all (Patrick Roche’s “21”).
As with most art forms, there is that fickle question of: “Can you even make money in this career?” This is such an indictment of modern capitalism. The concept of doing something because you’re passionate about is lost on the majority of society. Sure, you’re not going to be driving an Aston Martin anytime soon, but you’ll make enough money to get by on.
“I’d say that making a viable career in any art form is exceedingly difficult. It’s not something you just stumble into, and it’s not something that even extreme talent and hard work is guaranteed to achieve. At the same time, I like to think that the work we’re doing with Button will hopefully open up more avenues for poets, as the audience for the art form continues to expand. It’s certainly a real career for me.”
Fun fact: slam poetry is a lot more popular in Germany than in the United States, which is interesting because a lot of the current focus is on America with regards to this. This is not a bad thing as more people internationally identify with things coming from America and with the internet; it really does not matter what country a poet is from. It is the simple matter of recording a performance and then posting a video. The internet will pick up on it and the poet will go viral, much like Dylan Garity went viral with the likes of Friend Zone and Rigged Game.
“It is really exciting hearing from some people that they’re starting slams for the first time in their home country after seeing the poets we’ve broadcast through Button. It’s an art form I deeply believe in, and the thought of constantly more people in more places experiencing it fills me with a really undeniable joy.”