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Slam Poetry: Poets who take the world back

By Denebola
Published: November 2008

By Dan Friedman

Junior year was truly the worst year of my life. Between standardized testing and AP US history, I came to dread school. If you ask anyone who knows me, they would probably say I survived the year on medium caramel iced coffees with cream and sugar. How else would I have been able to stay up till three in the morning taking notes on Seward’s Folly or the thousands of different government programs FDR decided to form to attempt to get us out of the depression?

These people, however, would be wrong. Another addiction fueled me. What you may ask? Slam poetry.

Slam poetry is rising in popularity across the country. It was started by Marc Smith, affectionately known as “Slam Papi, the American born poet who started performing poems at the Get Me High lounge in Chicago in 1984. The style gained popularity and momentum until a national poetry slam was created in 1990.

Another majorly influential person involved in the rise of slam poetry is founder of hip-hop Russell Simmons. At the same time Smith was popularizing slam poetry, Simmons was creating the hip-hop movement that dominates the music industry today.

More important than creating the hip-hop industry though, was Simmons’ contribution to slam poetry. Along with his friend, record producer Rick Rubin, the two launched HBO’s hit series Def Jam Poetry.

The show, hosted by Mos Def, provides a forum for up-and-coming slam poets to perform their pieces. Powerhouse poets like Shihan, Gemineye, Anis Mojgani, and Alvin Lau have all appeared on the show.

The list of poets above introduced me to the way the English language should be spoken. Yeah, I guess I would have to concede that a guy like Shakespeare was pretty good at writing stuff like plays and sonnets, but the effort that goes into trying to decipher what the hell he is saying is a pretty big deterrent when trying to read his works for fun.

And yeah, some of those poets we learned about last year in English were kind of good. Specifically, I have a special place in my heart for “Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe. Poe claims, “For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams of the beautiful Annabel Lee/ And the stars never rise but I see the bright eyes of the beautiful Annabel Lee/ So all the night tide I lie down by the side of my darling, my darling, my life, and my bride.

With the exception of that genius passage, however, the poems we read last year were good, but a little flat. I prefer something that has a little zip. This is why last year, for our final poetry presentation in Mr. Jampol’s class, I decided to take a chance.

The assignment was to memorize and recite a poem we had read in class. None of the poems, except for “Annabel Lee of course, caught my interest, so I went ahead and memorized the poem “Poetic Bloodlines by Gemineye. I thought it was very relevant to our poetry unit, as the poem describes a man who is injected by God with all the poetic knowledge of the past 200 years or so. As I said, I prefer if things have a little zip.

But in all seriousness, I truly sat for hours last year on YouTube, watching these incredibly smart people churn out these incredibly smart poems. Poetry can be fun and exciting to listen to, if kids can relate to it.

Shakespeare may have been the best poet ever, but the inability of most kids today to relate to him makes his works far less interesting. Instead, there are hundreds of hours of poems on YouTube that kids everywhere can relate to.

For example, two-time national slam poet Anis Mojgani claims that his “fingers open up like gates when I type and the wind is swinging in the wake, motherfu**er. I lift bridges with poems. I don’t know about anyone else, but I just get so pumped up when
I hear lines like that.

I feel the same way when Gemineye says, “You are a poet. You command the attention of large groups; you ready the troops for evolution. You write words that can commend or condemn, turn boys into men, make other poets push pens, and you must be about something more than a slam score based on ten because YOU ARE A POET. Again, those adrenaline pumpin’, heart thumpin’, pulse jumpin’ lyrics inspire me.

I have saved the most exciting news, however, for the end of this article. If you have made it this far, well, that’s expected because you are probably captivated by my clever turn of phrases and razor sharp wit. But I really do have exciting news. On April 14 and 15, National Slam Poet winner Taylor Mali will be coming to South. It’s especially appropriate because the poem that won him the slam final is about teaching. I know that I will be waiting eagerly for the  next four months until that day comes.

Ironically, slam poetry is described in a comment left on a YouTube video of Shane Koyczan, a brilliant Canadian slam poet. The person, in response to another person who wrote something negative about slam poetry, says, “[Slam poetry] transcends one form of art or another. This is poetry, this is performance, this is acting, this is writing, this is comedy and it’s a tragedy, it’s a song, it’s a hymn, it’s a cry for attention and a cry for help, a wish to be a friend and a wish to develop. Any man who cannot see this should walk away.

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