Елена Пренџова. УЧЕСТВОТО НА ПУБЛИКАТА НА ПОЕТРИ СЛЕМ НАСТАНИТЕ

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Авторка: Елена Пренџова

Наслов на текстот: УЧЕСТВОТО НА ПУБЛИКАТА НА ПОЕТРИ СЛЕМ НАСТАНИТЕ

Јазик на текстот: англиски

Јазик на резимето: македонски

Клучни зборови: национален поетски слем натпревар, слем публика, Марк Кели Смит, Поезин–Белград, Поетариум–Нови Сад

Број на страни: 69-80


Според бројни релевантни дефиниции слем поезијата е повеќе перфор­манс/­изведба отколку само поезија. Секоја изведба подразбира присуство и на изве­ду­вачот/изведувачката и на публиката, па така ни поетските слем настани не се исклучок. Основоположникот на слемот во САД, слем папито, Марк Кели Смит (Marc Kelly Smith), во својата книга Stage A Poetry Slam („Постави по­етски слем на сцена“) од 2009 година ги набројува главните принципи на слем по­езијата, од кои клучниот е: „Поетот на сцената не е поважен од публиката што слуша“ (Smith, 2009a: 20), изедначувајќи ја публиката со поетот/поетесата по важност. Секако, тоа е така поради активната и партиципативна улога што ја има слем публиката за време на слем изведбата. Меѓутоа, малку академски и неакадемски текстови посветени на слем поезијата ја обработуваат темата за слем публиката. Трудов ја обработува токму таа тема – улогата на публиката при слем изведбата и се обидува да одговори на прашањето каде е границата на важноста меѓу поетот-изведувач/поетесата изведувачка и публиката, до­кол­ку таква граница навистина постои.



Introduction

Poetry slam events take over the world with the speed of light: poetry slam competitions, poetry slam national finals, slam poetry in the workshops and the classroom, and slam poetry in the protests. To some, poetry, to others performance, slam poetry borderlines between the two. However, two more things slam poetry borderlines, i.e., bridges – the poet and the audience. Na­me­ly, if we agree with the definition that slam poetry is a performative act of poetry, we reach the inevitable fact that once there is a performance, there must be both a performer and an audience. Thus, the paper concerns the issues of the importance of the audience as an integral and inseparable part of the slam poetry performance as well as its multiple roles.

 

The Big Definition of Slam

In The Big Definition of Slam chapter in the Stage A Poetry Slam book, the author, the founder of the poetry slam movement, the Slam Papi, Marc Kelly Smith, states that:

 

Slam poetry is performance poetry. It’s the marriage of a text to its artful presentation onstage to an audience that has permission (and perhaps the responsibility) to talk back. The audience is the primary judge of the quality of the poetry and its presentation. (Smith, 2009а: 17),

 

thus, clearly defining slam poetry as a bridging art of writing and performing[1], and making a note of the presence of the audience as an integral and in­se­parable part of the poetry slam performance. In Poetry and Performance chapter in the same book, the author clarifies that [s]lam strives to invigorate poetry by giving as much weight to the performance as it does to the text and later adds that [t]he goal of performance poetry is to couple the best possible text to the best possible performance—to compose superior poems and perform them with razor-edged precision (Smith, 2009a: 18). In Take the Mike. The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word., the sa­me author dedicates a whole chapter titled What Slam Is and Isn’t that provides an extended definition of slam poetry and a list of what slam poetry is and isn’t, to quote but a few:

 

Some people think slam poetry is (merely) competitive verse performed in front of an interactive audience. For some, it's a way to bring classic poems back to life through passionate performance. For others, it’s a vehicle for creating a new community centered on the celebration and articulation of performance poetry. Five things are clear about slam poetry, no matter what hilltop you’re crying from:

 

• Slam is poetry. It’s not essays, novels, or short stories. At times it in­corporates storytelling and rhetoric into its mix of many forms, but the basis of its appeal (and its root) is poetry.

• Slam is performed. Poems are presented with as much precision and professionalism as can be found in any of the performing arts. This is slam’s primary distinction within the realm of Poetry (with a capital P—the mer­ging of the art of performance with the art of writing poetry.

• Slam is competitive. Competition may not be the point, but it’s an essential ingredient... What’s fresh about slam is that the audience (not your professor or the Council on Deciding What’s Art) has the biggest say about what’s deemed good or bad.

• Slam is interactive. It encourages audience feedback. Slam makes the audience an active partner in everything it does…

What slam isn’t may be just as important as what it is:

• Slam is not just text on a page.

• Slam is not a formalized poetry reading during which the audience listens passively and applauds politely regardless of what they really feel and think.

• Slam is not an art form that lets an elite few decide what’s of value and what’s not.

• Slam is not meant to be a serious determination of who’s the mightiest poet. A slam competition is a theatrical device for focusing an audience’s attention on the art form—performance poetry. (Smith, 2009b: 5–6)

 

In the same book’s chapter Poetry and Performance, Kelly Smith em­phasizes that [t]he goal of performance poetry is to couple the best po­ssib­le text to the best possible performance—to compose superior poems and per­form them with exquisite precision (Smith, 2009b: 7). Naturally, as so much effort is put on the performance, a compatible reaction is expected, and reactions are the thing of the audience.

Subsequently, as slam poetry is as much of a poetry as it is a per­for­man­ce, the role of the audience is but an integral and inseparable part of it.

 

Slam Poetry and the Audience

When writing the history of the beginning of slam poetry, the U.S. Slam Papi mentions the birthplace of slam poetry, Get Me High Jazz Club in Chi­cago, where the poet performers adopted and lived by the key prin­cip­le—The poet on the stage is no more important than the listening audience (Smith, 2009a: 20)—thus equaling the importance of the audience with the importance of the poet. Other key principles that he mentions are—1. If you’re speaking onstage you have an obligation to do it well; after all, you’re competing with all other forms of entertainment. and 2. …poetry is not to glorify the poet, but rather to celebrate the community around the poet (Smith, 2009: 20). It is evident that when dealing with slam, the audience is but an inevitable part of it.

Kelly Smith, however, makes a clear-cut distinction between the role and importance of the poet and the role and importance of the audience, both as the two sides of the same coin. According to him, the pioneer slam poets “groomed their texts for performance with the goal “to communicate, and if the room’s response was poor, they reworked the text, polished the per­for­man­ce, and gave it another sounding when the next opportunity rolled aro­und (Smith, 2009b: 21). On the other hand, “[t]he audience learned (Smith, 2009a: 21). First of all, the audience learns that it is expected to take an active part in the performance, react to it, and vote. Second, it learns how to do that, i.e., it learns the consensus of the typical reactions of its local audience. Additionally, Kelly Smith emphasizes the distinction between the audience of page poetry, i.e., the readers, and the audience of stage poetry, i.e., the listeners and viewers:

 

At a poetry slam, you don’t sit at a table with a text in front of your down-focused eyes following along as the poet drips and drabs his words. You lock your line of sight on the poet and tune in to what she’s saying and how you’re hearing it… Attending poetry slams gives folks a chance to practice the art of listening, to appreciate and comprehend the richness of our language and the inventiveness of performing wordsmiths. (Smith, 2009a: 21)

 

The previous quote emphasizes the active role of the slam poetry audience as opposed to the passive role of the reading public. So, what does an active role imply? In my opinion, there is more than one role of the slam au­dience: 1. elective role—at poetry slam competitions, when there is a voting jury to select a winner; 2. catalyst role—when the role of the audience is to reward the poet for what the audience finds likable or to diminish the poet for what the audience finds insulting or politically incorrect, or to liven up the performance by enhancing it by rhythmical clapping or chorus re­pe­ti­tion shouting, for example; and 3. the role of participation in the performance act itself—when poets themselves invite the audience to be part of their act, again by rhythmic clapping, repeating certain lines, making desirable sounds, etc. It should be emphasized, though, that there is no clear-cut line among those roles, and the audience can switch from one to another in the nick of time, and go back and forth, as well.

 

The Elective Role of the Audience

When in a competition, the audience votes, and this is the prime and most popular role of the slam poetry audience, i.e., the elective role.

The voting is sometimes carried out by a jury selected out of the au­di­ence, and sometimes the whole audience makes the jury. In the former case, the voting is done by numbers, i.e., points, making it more concrete and pre­ci­se, and in the latter case, the voting is done by noise, i.e., by cheering, shou­ting, etc.; the former voting manner is common for poetry slam finals (usu­ally national and international), and the latter is common for casual and local poetry slam competitions and events—the former aims to choose a definite winner, the latter aims to identify the audience’s favorites.

Many poetry slam organizers promote their own rules on voting; some differ, some are similar, and some overlap. For instance, the most common Eu­ropean style of voting is the one using points, from 1 to 10, including de­ci­mals, given by a preselected jury of 5 members. The interesting part is that the lowest and the highest points are annulated to avoid degrading or glo­ri­fying the poet performer[2]. The same style of voting is embraced by the or­ga­ni­zers of the Macedonian national finals. On the topic of voting in the U.S., Marc Kelly Smith, for instance, quotes the Berkley slammaster Charles Ellik, stating that:

 

In Northern California, organizers use many different formats: haiku, li­me­rick, freestyle battles. In the dreaded “Canadian Bucket Match,” two poets per­form while two buckets are passed around. The audience votes by pit­ching money into their favorite poet’s bucket. The poet with the most money wins. Other changes in rules include ballots instead of scores, themed slams, different time limits, even returning to the head-to-head bout format from which slam originated“. (Smith, 2009a: 42)

 

Although the rules on voting may be similar, probably, the biggest dif­ference in the voting style can be noticed in the European versus the Ame­rican style.

 

Audience as Catalyst

         The same applies to the consensus on the meaning of the audience's reactions. Namely, the same reactions and howls in the States may convey a com­pletely different message of (dis)like than in Europe. A great example of this is finger-snapping which in Europe indicates that the audience par­ticularly likes what it hears, but in the U.S., as Mark Kelly Smith points out,

 

At the Green Mill, the first sign of trouble is finger-snapping… If the snap­ping doesn’t clue in the poet that something has gone awry, folks start stomping their feet. When all else fails, they groan like grizzlies—a low, nasty, threatening groan (Smith, 2009a: 22).

 

As Kelly Smith puts it, [s]lam audiences are allowed, encouraged, and sometimes prompted to be brutally honest, to react and respond to what they like and dislike. And they’re not stupid., and adds that [a]udience participation is a key ingredient in the slam recipe (Smith, 2009a: 22). The­re­fore, what does Kelly Smith mean by the audience being honest, reacting, and responding? In Stage A Poetry Slam, he lists some of the strategies the audience employs, like booing or hissing, one of which being the so-called feminist hiss, used to gently slap a male poet down for using one too many sexual references in a lonely-hearts poem (Smith, 2009a: 23)[3].

Other mentioned is the so-called guess-the-rhyme, used when a poet’s rhymes are too predictable, so the audience chimes in by announcing the rhyming word just as it trickles out of the poet’s mouth (Smith, 2009a: 23). This happens when the poet uses the so-called parallel or crossed rhymes, and especially in the so-called hip hop slam.

The guess-the-rhyme technique is the best example of the role of the audience that I call a catalyst. By catalyst audience, I mean an audience that takes part in the performing process by enforcing it—making it more fun, more sonorous, more energetic, and more powerful—yet not affecting the per­former's act in the structure of their performance. Other similar catalyst au­dience examples I might add are chanting along with the performer poet should they incorporate lyrics of famous songs in their poems, or clapping hands and humming while keeping up with the beat of the poem[4].

Audience participation is essential to a slam performance’s success; as Kelly Smith notes, [w]ithout a backdrop of honest audience interaction, it’s not a slam (Smith, 2009: 24). Thus, poetry slam audiences must be pre­viously trained and competent (as Umberto Ecco would put it), an audience that Kelly Smith calls audience with attitude (Smith, 2009a: 22). The audience with attitude is but an honest audience, expressing their likes and dis­likes shamelessly and not waiting for the critics to tell them if a poem per­for­mance is good or bad, enjoyable or not. Fascinating, but in almost all of the cases, the audience unanimously decides, sharing the same taste for good, bad, enjoyable, offensive, etc.

In addition, there is a benefit of the catalyst audience, once we con­si­der the audience’s reactions as honest feedback that may be of use to the poets to better themselves. However, by no means the performance poet should be con­sidered an audience servant since they are not there to mold themselves according to the audience's wishes, yet this does mean that the audience's reactions and feedback may be useful to the poet in order for them to sharpen his or her skills (Smith, 2009a: 12).

 

Audience as A Part of the Performance Act

Interestingly enough, all the aforementioned audience reaction techniques can be used as part of the performance act as imagined by the performer poet. The difference between what I call audience as catalyst and audience as a part of the performance act is that the former is spontaneous and the latter requires an invitation for participation by the performer poet. Indeed, in certain cases, the poets themselves invite the audience to clap in-between the speech pauses, or to hiss or howl after they hear a certain line, or to repeat a certain chorus along with the poet or after they hear it, like an echo, etc. These techniques add to the charm of the performance, keep it li­ve­ly, and the audience remain active, engaged, and ecstatic.

Comparing the two, it can be noted that although the relationship poet–audience/audience–poet is kept active and mutual in both cases, yet, they function counter-wisely. Namely, in the audience as catalyst reactions, it is the will and the judgment of the audience that is the driving force, and the relationship between the two moves from the audience in the direction of the poet. In the audience as a part of the performance act technique, it is the will of the performer poet that is the driving force, and the relationship between the two moves from the performer poet in the direction of the au­di­en­ce. The commonality between the two cases is that both act in the name of the performance itself.

 

Audience as a Part of the Performance Act: A Funny Example

In October 2022, I performed in Novi Sad and Belgrade, Serbia, with not a single-day gap between my guest performances. Those were not my first performance acts in these cities as I was welcomed to guest perform by the same organizers several times in the previous years. Both poetry slam events are regular events that are organized once a month with a few months breaks during the summer holidays.

Firstly, in Novi Sad, the host organizers were Poetarium Novi Sad NGO and the poetry slam event took place on the premises of Rusinski kul­tur­ni centar Matka (RKC Matka). Poetarium is the leading Novi Sad poetry slam organization, and RKC Matka is the city's favorite avant-garde and un­der­ground cultural center/pub where the alternative youth of Novi Sad gat­hers. A mixed audience attended the event, aged late teens till late 40s, and almost the same in number of men and women. It was an all-night event as 20+ performer poets took the floor in 3 rounds. In the first round, I performed a series of 18+ comical short poems on sex, dating, and male-female relationships. The reactions of the audience were natural and favorable, and they all appreciated the humor and laughed. I was sent off the stage with loud laughter and cheers. In the first round, I performed a écriture féminine love poem of 3 cycles. The poem was translated into Serbian and English, so I decided to invite two individuals from the audience to recite the poem along with me. Luckily, there was another Macedonian among the present people, so we decided that the two individuals would read the first and the second part of the poem in Serbian and English, and I would conclude with the third part in Macedonian. The challenge was that while reading—they had to read the poem since that was the first time they encountered it—my two 'helpers' would have to keep up with the tempo I kept with the rest of the audience, all together whispering the chorus line. After the act, the two poets received my book as a gratitude gift. This act, too, was welcomed cheerfully by the au­di­ence and the applause and cheering were loud and intense.

Secondly, the following night, I performed in Belgrade, in Tuliz Lot­rek klub, an alternative nightclub near the city center. The organizer was POE­ZIN poetry slam group from Belgrade. Here, the audience was also mixed, ranging from university students to adults, with almost the same num­ber of men and women. The show was similarly structured – three acts with drink breaks in-between the acts. I prepared the same acts for Belgrade as I did in Novi Sad, but even though they were the same acts, the audience reac­ti­ons were completely different. As I began with my 'sexual' comical poems in English, the audience was completely numb and non-responsive. They stared at me in silence which made me wonder if they understood English at all. My doubts increased as they did not laugh at all, not even smile. After the first short poem, I stopped and addressed them. I asked them if, perhaps, they fancied a poem 'in Cyrillic', implying poems written in the ex-Yugoslavian languages, which they agreed on. So, I performed my best poem, the poem that marked my career as a slam poet. Luckily, it worked. For the second round, I decided to repeat the 3-cycle poem with the help of the audience, yet, this time, performing it in Macedonian and Serbian only. It was difficult, though, because I found it almost impossible to find a volunteer from the au­dience. Instantly, I made up my mind to try a different approach. I told them that I would tell the first cycle of the poem in Macedonian and I asked for a volunteer to read the next cycle in Serbian afterwards. I also emphasized that the volunteer would get a signed copy of the book as a token of ap­pre­ciation. Finally, a school teacher resorted to taking the floor with me, but he failed to keep up with the beat I was giving him and the audience resolutely refused to keep the beat with me by repeating the chorus line in a whisper. Indeed, I liked the fact that the poet read the poem in his manner, however, I was a bit disappointed that my idea of the performance did not work out.

Some weeks later, upon reflecting on the whole situation with my fellow slam poets from Belgrade who were present at the event that night, I tried to understand the outcome of the circumstances. It turned out that the key reason was no other than the audience itself. Namely, the Novi Sad au­di­en­ce was younger, open-minded, easy-going, non-judgmental, and prone to fun and amusement. Quite the contrary, the Belgrade audience of that night was close-minded, traditionally oriented, and prone to prejudice and ex­clu­ding the ones not alike. The late adolescents present there were under the in­fluence of the adults who were teachers to most of them.

This personal example makes me believe that audience participation and audience feedback are indeed crucial in the poetry slam performance, to the extent that if the audience fails in it, the whole slam performance fails, too. Naturally, as the Slam Papi notes,

 

The best slam poets know that they are audience servants, not sycophants... The poet should serve the audience not only by entertaining its members but also by challenging them. The line is very thin, but performance poets who successfully straddle that line turn in brilliant performances. (Smith, 2009a: 25)

 

Failing to do so means a lack of synergy between the poet and the au­dience, which brings us to a new topic—is every slam suitable for any kind of audience, and vice versa, of course, is every audience suitable for all sorts of slam performances?

 

Conclusion

Slam poetry is poetry, performance, activism, protest, etc. The crea­ti­ve process of creating slam poetry begins with the poem written on the page, but by no means ends there. It then continues with the rehearsal process and then the public performance act. However, when on stage, slam poetry is not only the poem and the poet but there is a third party to be added—the au­di­en­ce. There is the audience’s applause and voting that follows, and during the performance act, the audience’s cheering, booing, hissing, finger-snapping, etc. The response of the audience makes the slam poetry performance act comp­lete.

Thus, audience participation is as much slam as is the poem and the performance of the performer poet. Moreover, audience participation is also very much slam. Hence, the role of the audience and audience par­ti­ci­pa­tion is crucial to the poetry slam performance act; no doubt the audience is but an integral and inseparable part of the slam poetry performance act. No au­di­ence, no slam!

 

 

References:

 

Hedayati-Aliabadi, M. (2018). Slam Poetry. Deutsch–US-amerikanische Studie zu den Ansichten und Handlungsweisen der Akteure. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH

Smith M. K. and Kraynak J. (2009). Stage A Poetry Slam. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Smith M. K. and Kraynak J. (2009). Take the Mike. The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Somers-Willett, S. B. A. (2009). The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. The University of Michigan Press / Ann Arbor

Schweppenhäuser, J. & Stougaard Pedersen, B. (2017). „Performing poetry slam and listening closely to slam poetry“. SoundEffects - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience: 7(1): 63-83

___________. (2023). „Running a Poetry Slam“.

https://readingagency.org.uk/children/M4T_running_a_poetry_slam%5b1%5d.pdf (Accessed on 15.9.2023).


 



[1] In his sequential book Take the Mike. The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam, and the Spoken Word., in the first sentence of the same quotation, Kelly Smith emphasizes the word "per­for­mance" by marking it in italics (Smith, 2009b: 5).

[2] Even though I personally know of voting juries of 3 members, should this be the case, there is no annulation of the highest and the lowest points.

[3] I would have to note here that, having in mind that Kelly Smith has been active on stage since the 1980s, he might have made this observation during the early years of his presence on stage, since, now, in the 2020s, feminist awareness increased significantly and, thankfully (also partly due to the rise of the political correctness), there is almost no need for the use of the feminist hiss. Moreover, as slam poetry has become more activism, there are numerous performer poets, mostly women, who deal with feminist topics in their poems, such as women's rights, menstrual health, the mental health of rape victims, etc. Similarly, there are fewer male performer poets whose poems deal with sexist subject matters or who write sexist ver­ses. In my experience, in the past decade, as both the performer poet and audience in poetry slam finals in Macedonia, the region, and the EU, I have never encountered sexism in European slam poetry, apart from several exceptional cases in Macedonia and Serbia. Having in mind the patriarchal and misogynist culture of the Balkan, what surprised me even more was the disapproving reaction of only a few women from the audience, including myself. 

[4] In Stage A Poetry Slam, there are more strategies that audiences employ listed, mostly fo­reign to our local culture. For instance, Kelly Smith lists Jerusalem, where slammers serve up their poems onstage as fodder for an open discussion by audience members about the me­rits and failings of the poem, after which they present an edified version of the poem and receive a score from the judges who’ve heard both the poem and the discussion. The au­th­or also lists the city of Wiesbaden in Germany, where the entire audience scores the perf­­ormances on ballots passed out at the beginning of the evening: one to five for content, one to five for performance. Included at the bottom of the ballot is a space for comments and criticisms (Smith, 2009a: 23).