I’ve been involved in the slam scene since I was a junior in high school, and in that almost six-year span, I’ve managed to have incredible experiences, from being a part of something as large as CUPSI to seeing a friend perform a poem I knew they had been afraid to for the first time. The great thing about slam is that slam is a game that rewards courage. Because of this, people write incredibly intimate, courageous pieces. Poets tell tales, share histories, express sides of themselves or those close to them that they’d probably keep secret in any other crowded room, and while they’re judged in either environment, the crowd of slam greets these statements and stories with wild applause rather than reproachful murmurs. And in a time when myself and the friends and family around me feel down for a variety of reasons be they financial, socio-political, or otherwise , when security concerns and public violence make me more hesitant to know, or sometimes even talk, to other people. I find it increasingly important to have a place where I can not only see people be vulnerable, share incredible personal experiences of both themselves and the people they love, and be celebrated and applauded for it, but where I have a chance to do it myself.
This comes with its own set of issues because, as I said before, bravery is rewarded, and in slam it isn’t uncommon for poets to capitalize on this fact. After listening to and competing in slams for six years I’ve picked up on patterns of subject matter and doing so sometimes makes me feel almost desensitized. I’ll find myself becoming so focused on the competitive aspects of slam that I’d begin generalizing and categorizing types of poems or creating strategies based around expected clichés. It’s easy to get jaded and cynical in slam, and that’s something I am incredibly guilty of, but topics that are considered slam clichés have become such for a reason. It’s important not to forget that slam provides an outlet to people who might not feel comfortable sharing this information much anywhere else. Slam isn’t only a community that supports expression, but it’s a community whose very existence is an expression of support, whatever that word might mean to you.
And don’t get me wrong; this isn’t an argument against the competitive nature of slam because that’s part of what keeps slam unique, entertaining, and exciting. Beyond that, the competition aspect can act as a motivating force for slam poets, inspiring them to keep pushing their writing and performance, to continue exploring different subjects, to try and find new ideas through word. I mean, it’s this exact drive to find new routes of expression which led me to form Welch & Penn with Penn. The competition itself is necessary; I’m just afraid that it’s shifting from necessity to priority at the sacrifice of sincerity. Nothing is more frustrating, or even terrifying in terms of the future of slam, than hearing poets talk about tailoring their writing to fit a formula, to meet an expectation, in order to score points. When I started playing sports my dad always told the cheesy, old, adage: “win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Slam is the same as any game in that regard. Sure everyone, even a poet, likes to win, it feels incredibly vindicating and fulfilling, but that’s not what matters. Slam poetry has always represented a kind of safety to me. It instilled in me the belief that the stage is a safe space to share not only whatever I want, but whatever I need. As slam begins growing in popularity, I hope poets, including myself, don’t forget it’s beginning or our own. It’s important to remember where you came from, even if that somewhere is a bar game.