Sunday, 18 May 2008

Rant: Why I hate “Spoken Word” poetry

Call it whatever you want – spoken word, performance poetry, slam poetry – but you know what I’m talking about. Who hasn't experienced something like the following scenario at a reading? Someone is spouting a string of tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms into a microphone. But that's okay; he's "performing." His speech isn’t just exaggerated, it’s over-exaggerated; the metre is a contrived hodgepodge of forced iambics and something that is trying desperately to resemble hip-hop, but isn’t. The idea, I suppose, is that the flailing, stylized vocals will be interesting enough on their own that no one will notice how bad the actual writing is. The oral traditions of poetry are in trouble, and a performers like this are to blame, performers who believe that as long as words are being performed, they don't have to be well written.

This performance style, and attendant lack of concern for written craft, seems almost to self-propagate. Newbies are quick to copy the mannerisms, and literary quality, of the performers they see. Soon, a homogeneous and predictable performance style develops. If this kind of performer is a serious practitioner of this ‘art form,’ he has to constantly move his hands about, for example, mostly to count the syllables of his speech. Essentially, this gives the impression that the syllables, with their forced rhythm, have been arranged this way on purpose, and that he must carefully ‘conduct’ the words coming out of his mouth, perhaps as Leonard Bernstein would conduct the New York Philharmonic. Occasionally, his hand movements change from syllable counting into a kind of illustrative mime, some clever action to help demonstrate a particular word’s significance to the audience. Usually the important word that requires this kind of illustration is a first-person singular pronoun, and the clever performer mimes this by pointing to himself or perhaps by thumping his chest.

Now, when I say, “tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms,” I mean the writing is unoriginal, old-hat, and boring, something that generally indicates that the author of the work in question hasn't read very much poetry (the work of his friends doesn't count), and this causes the author to mistake hackneyed truisms and platitudes for insight and cleverness. So banal, so bromidic, is this doggerel that the “performer” must jazz it up with all kinds of forced rhythms and hand signals to make it “entertaining” enough for an audience. In my experience, the audience members (at least the enthusiastic ones) are largely the performer’s friends, and the shittier his "poem" is, the louder they will clap. And the more familiar the clichés are, the louder they clap still. They like the familiar, and they are in luck. This genre is quickly developing it's own cheap short-cuts and recycled conventions. Before long, I suspect all of this kind of spoken word artists will be performing the same composition, likely the very same way, and no one in their audience will bother to notice.
Now, when I say the meters and rhythms are forced and contrived, I mean that if you could see the words written out on a page, and if you applied the most basic principles of English scansion to the composition (I’m loathe to call it a poem), you would find that almost all of the stresses in the delivery of the composition are not naturally there in the writing. In short, the rhythm of the piece as performed is quite different to the rhythm of the piece as written, thus, the rhythms, while over-exaggerated, are also forced and contrived, probably because the author lacks the skills required to get the meter of his own writing the way he wants it.
Sadly, many of the compositions in this genre carry with them a message of social or civic outrage. This is kind of noble, I know, but the delivery is usually intended to scold the audience for their implied complacency in, or culpability for, some on-going social injustice. When the message isn’t born of social consciousness, it’s generally born of self-aggrandizement and cocky posturing. Either way, it’s fucking horrible to watch, even worse to listen to, and does it a disservice to actual poetry by calling itself “poetry”.
My message to any aspiring poets out there is this: if you want to read your poem to an audience, read your poem the way it is written. If it is well written, it will sound just fine, and if it has something to say, it will be said. And if it isn't well written, then I recommend you keep working on your writing. "Performing" a poorly written poem, no matter how well you "perform" it, isn't going to make the poem less poorly written.


Anonymous said...

Finally, someone said what I've been waiting to hear for years now. Thank you

Robert Earl Stewart said...

Here, here. I'm impressed you managed to write this without mentioning the practitioners' obligatory/omnipresent wallet chains.

Sadly, embarassingly, this is really the only kind of literary event to be found in Windsor on a regular basis.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Thanks, Bob. I've meaning to write this for years. I'm glad I finally got around to it.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to hear this from your point of view. The "spoken word" performers find the non-performers to be very dull and wish they would emote a little more.

Mozart Guerrier said...
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Paul Vermeersch said...

It's true, oh nameless one, there are many poets out there who are terrible readers of their own poetry. I haven't written about them here, but that might come yet. But here's something to consider: if some emotion or powerful idea isn't already there in the written words of a poem, it can't be shoehorned into the public reading of it with a bunch of put-on, phony intonations and cheap theatrics. Oratory is a very subtle craft, one that involves the most delicate nuances of human speech, and the best poetry makes the most of those subtleties and nuances. Poetry isn't usually an art form of simplistic, bombastic gratification, nor should we expect it to be. Poetry is reflective, dense, wily, and sometimes difficult. It often requires some effort, and patience, on the part of the audience. We have to trust that our audience is at least willing to wade through the depths with us, and that they don't require a loud bang at the end to let them know when to clap. Why else have they come to hear poetry, I wonder? Why not a rock concert, or a wrestling show instead? Why should they want poetry to be as easy and shallow as a pop song? And why would they want a florid, splurgy performance of it hurled in their faces?

Mozart Guerrier said...
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Paul Vermeersch said...
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Jogindra said...
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Jakub Stachurski said...

A friend of mine once said, "I hate slam poetry. It's just a bunch of white college kids trying to sound like 45 year old black women." This was his blunt way of addressing that dubious social and civic outrage, as well as some of the poets' insistence on a forced and contrived cadence, some of which is simply a poor copping of patois and African American slang syntax. I've judged a poetry slam in Toronto and have attended a few in Montreal. The majority of performers are mediocre if not abominable, but there are always a few who make it worth my while, as with any other literary event.

I think Canadian poetry is at an interstices. Straightforward formalism doesn’t suffice to convey an expansive, nebulous cultural identity, but neither does a formless idiomatic approach. Thus we are seeing collections such as Babstock’s Airstream Land Yacht, Lee’s Yes/No, and Connelly’s Revolver, to name a few, which are voice driven and in which the voice in itself provides a strict form. I see the rise of slam events in Toronto and Montreal as another example of this trend of voice driven poetics, though I certainly agree that form must be paid attention to, and that dubious socio-political battle cries need thorough research and a better argument than sloganeering and fists pumping through the air.

Poetry slams are here to stay and evolve. Despite the abundance of information technology, there are little to no venues for dissent, social criticism and genuinely interactive community forums. Slam poetry is not without merit, though I am admittedly hesitant about reading my own work in this style. Some things to think about:

“Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death…Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. “ –Leonard Cohen, “How to Speak Poetry”

and my favourite ‘slam’ poet, Saul Williams:

Paul Vermeersch said...
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Paul Vermeersch said...

All poetry is about voice. Connelly, Babstock and Lee are not "spoken word" or "slam" poets, and you shouldn't use them as examples of spoken word poets. It's dishonest.

Jakub said...

I was referring to a greater trend of voice-driven poetics, and did not refer to any of them as slam poets. Read closely before you call someone a liar.

And no, it's not all voice driven. It can be image driven, language driven (wordplay), propelled by metre and form above all else...

Paul Vermeersch said...

Jakub, you seemed to be suggesting that Babstock's, Lee's and Connelly's books exist to satisfy the same impulses as slam poetry. I think you were using them to justify slam poetry in a way, and I think that is disingenuous.

And yes, all poetry is about voice. It is about words, and the sound of words. Images and the rest are part of it, too. Certain things come to the fore in different poetics, but the sound of words, thus voice, is integral to all.

GM said...

Here's what I posted on Zach's blog, where I ganked this article for Bookninja:

Someone just asked me in an interview about the relationship between printed poetry and spoken word and whether it matters in my work, and I said:

This doesn't really affect me much, because I write my poems for the mumbled voice. I write for the page, and for the voice of the reader tasting the words for his/her own pleasure. I don't write for the stage, and in some cases think what's most successful on the stage is almost a completely different art from poetry written for the page. I don't think it's a lesser art, just a different one. I have yet to see a poem that's won a slam competition stand, as a work of poetry on the page, against any good poem written specifically for the page, and vice versa. This makes me suspect one of two possibilities: a) I haven't seen the right slam poems, or b) I'm comparing apples and oranges. I think the latter.

tomy said...

While I write both (poetry for the page and pieces for the stage) I urge you to consider this: Spoken Word does what literary writing cannot; engage an audience, inspire by example and create interaction within differing social communities. Not everyone can and /or will read books and "Slam" opens the ears of those who would otherwise snub anything calling itself poetry. Can the performers be better writers? Hell Yeah! Could those so-called "real" poets learn a thing or two about living out loud from performing in front of a slam crowd? I don't know: ask yourself Paul. Generalizations aside, sometimes these contrived performances are far more liberating and offer the artist their own form of release that getting cut-up by an editor cannot. I ask this? If poetry for the masses is not an enviable goal, how about simply sharing with the world around you and not hiding behind your medium? How about reaching someone that otherwise would never know that others feel the same? How can you quantify the value of inspiration... that chill you can only get when you are caught up in a moment, whooping for the girl who told off her boss (because you wish it was you)... That exhileration, that rush, that risk of putting yourself out there for judgement: that is poetry. So please; next time you want to dismiss a whole genre based on the work of a few, consider thatthe next time someone writes about a shitty experience, it could be after they just read something by you.

Paul Vermeersch said...
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Paul Vermeersch said...

Tomy, if you think literary writing can't engage an audience, inspire by example and create interaction within differing social communities, then maybe you haven't read enough. I don't think "literary" is a bad word. In fact, I would like to preserve it in favour its alternatives, which would be... what? Un-literary? Anti-literary?

Books are not bad things, Tomy, even if there are a lot people out there who would turn their noses up at books, maybe they are simply missing something wonderful, and lowering poetry to their anti-intellectual level doesn't really do poetry any favours.

Anonymous said...

For those who are mentioning slam poets like Yusef Komunyakaa and Saul Williams, those are the exceptions. Very few people can pull off slam poetry like them. There are so many poseurs who have totally failed as true poets and so see slam poetry as a venue for their rants and raves about the social injustices in their lives. Yusef and Saul are slammers but they still follow the format of poetry. Hello??? Alliteration anyone? Rhyme? Personification? Hyperboles? Assonance? Stanzas? Rhythym? Diction? The clever, witty use of words?

Yusef and Saul don't just come on stage to shout nonsensical pieces of prose and pass them off as poetry. That is the problem with slam poetry. The best emotists, shockers, actors and shouters win the show, not necesarily the best poets and so they KILL it for the rest. Poetry is an art. The originality is being lost by all these cookie cutter, copy cat, have-no-originality-or-creative-bone MC's. This is the reason we all remember the Yusef's and Pauls and not the 40 other slam artists we have ever listened to...because poets like them have the art form pegged down to a T.

Now everyone thinks they are a poet, just like every black male under the age of 25 thinks he is a rapper. Basically if you can stand in front of crowd and shout out a piece of prose with demented theatrics that makes you a poet. Hell no! I repeat Hell to the no!

Many slam poets will never be able to sell books because when their words are actually on paper...they look whack and are not good as they sounded at 50wpm reciting speed. (perhaps the reason some "rhyme" so fast is in order not to give the crowd a chance to sink in the fact that there is no message/talent and to only have them only focus on the theatrics.) There is a reason why interest in poetry is's the whack slam poets.

This is the reason why I no longer go to slam poetry shows. They should be called for what they really are. Slam prose shows. Better yet prosody shows. I got tired of having whack, non- talented, non-poetic, rapper wannabees yelling their messages so I'll pass. I'd rather just go to Chapters and BUY a poetry book with real poetry in it.

Another thing slam wanabee rappers...Ok poets...take some constructive criticism and know your crowd. Know what topics to give to your crowds. Crowds (esp Canadian ones) are too polite to boo you off, but perhaps the fact that they dwindle will give you a hint? Stop copying each other and come up with some original stuff that will blow our minds.

Thank you Paul for this article. It was MUCH needed. Someone needed to tell it like it is.

Yea, I told it like it is.

TDot Poetry lover.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Oops...posted thrice..Had to refresh twice. Pl'se delete other two entries Paul.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Done. And thanks.

KB said...

"Someone is spouting a string of tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms into a microphone."

What a generalization. That's like saying all indie cinema is an excuse to be quirky and self-indulgent. Not that there isn't any indie cinema that isn't, but not all of it is, just like not all spoken word isn't "spouting a string of tired clichés and bargain basement poeticisms into a microphone."

Anonymous said...

If this does not apply to you then there is no reason for offense is there? Most of those hollering are doing so because they know it's true AND APPLIES TO THEM. They know that they ARE medicocre and have been exposed. Those who know that this does not apply to them will just read on without offense and know that he is not quite generalizing, although this applies to a huge percent of slam poets.

There is no denial that there are good slam poets. It's just that good ones are few and far in between. And what's up with everyone trying to be African American? What the hell?


Anonymous said...

Uh, 1993 called and they want their complaints about the slam poetry scene back. I mean, I agree with you (though it's not like non-slam poetry isn't also overflowing with poorly-written rubbish), but why post this now?

Anonymous said...

Whether it applies to me or not I take offense and defend the art form because it helped me and millions of others, it's the community and the diversity that you can't find in a stuffy old poetry club that will continue to grow the spoken word movement.

"There is a reason why interest in poetry is's the whack slam poets."

Last time I checked the interest in poetry is growing thanks to Slams in the City.

In Toronto their are 3 monthly series averaging audiences of 50-150 bodies... does that sound like any of the "literary" reading series?

The reason that general interest in poetry is dying is due to the "holier than thou" attitude of page poets who believe they are holding the standard for this elitist art form.

And the word you were looking for Paul is "illiterate"... not everyone can read and I'm not suggesting that you downplay your intelligence for the crowd, but consider that just because a person doesn't read doesn't mean they have no intellect and just because you have white privilege doesn't mean you should look down your nose at those who do not. (Thanks for taking a shot at my personal reading habits btw).

Slam Poetry bridges a gap that page poetry cannot touch. When I say it engages an audience I mean I have had people in tears after a performance that touched their hearts, I have seen people gain confidence in their self that never knew they had (prior to performing and being accepted), I have heard 200 people clapping furiously and seen standing ovations for brave recitals of personal trauma... you cannot equate this experience with a "reading series".

For future endeavours; using words like "hate" will always get you negative feedback.

and for the DMC; who's trying to be African American?

Matt Toth said...

This sounds like a similar argument to what happened in the art world (and continues today) when photography began to appear in art galleries.
"That's not art" purists would reply. "There's no craft in pointing and clicking".

So still arrogant minds want to narrowly define what art or poetry is. I nor any other writer here can claim to know what poetry is. And if you do well that's just your ego blowing bullsh#$ bubbles.

Are there terribly written formulaic poets that win slams... Yes.

Are there terribly written formulaic poets that get published... Yes.

Yet to judge any art or person by the worst of their kind is a sterotype (and when applied to race is RACIST Mr. "just like every black male under the age of 25 thinks he is a rapper.")

Some of the posters who have done their research (unlike Mr Vermeersch) know that Slam as an art form is 20 years old and has had more than it's share of poets who have had an effect on the stage, page and in their communities. As the author said (but did not do) pick-up a book you'll find them.

The author of this article merely stated an (ignorant) opinion which he has every right to. Not everyone will like Slam but if you do enough research no doubt you will find at least 1 slam poet(maybe even more) whose work you will enjoy.

lips to the mike said...

I will say, as a fan of performance poetry, not everything you've said, Mr. Vermeersch, is entirely false. I will admit I've sat in the audience heard someone who had a poorly written poem that was nothing more than a cliche-filled rant against this issue or that government agency and was granted high scores and left me saying, "You have to be kidding me."

At the same time, I regularly attend more "highbrow" poetry readings, hear the impressive credentials of a reader, hear them read their book published by a more prestigious publisher and think, "Who did you sleep with to get this book published?"

While "spoken word" poetry, or if you'd rather, spoken word "poetry," does little to appease the purists, it does help the art form. It does help the art gain recognition and and keep many younger people interested. I remember several months back reading an essay in Commentary Magazine talking about how the New York Philharmonic needed desperately to reach out and attract a "middle brow" audience the way Leonard Bernstein could in the 1950s and 60s. I'm not sure if you have sat through more than one slam and if you have we were not at the same one. Slam audiences are generally more intelligent than to let some rapper wannabe wearing a chain wallet tugging on his shirt who says, "yo," win. I have seen very good performers do some "gangsta" style poem and finish poorly because of it.

Also Spoken Word expands an art you may not wish to have expanded, but art cannot live in a vacuum in order to survive. Creativity must be there. Having certain very strict rules as an iron box that will not let the art expand cannot suffice forever. Purists were perplexed at best and annoyed at worst when Miles Davis began to incorporate electric instruments and musicians like John McLaughlin and Lenny White in the late 1960s. To me, Bitches Brew is my favourite album of all time in any genre. Many purists to this day turn their nose up at that album, but Miles Davis will still hold a huge place in the history of jazz. My point with that is, traditional literary poetry is not going to go away. It will still be there for you to enjoy, Mr. Vermeersch. It will be there for me to enjoy. But there is nothing wrong with someone trying to do something different. No one is forcing you to go to the Slam this Sunday. If you don't like it when a performance-based poet gets up on stage at the Art Bar, go to the front room and write or watch hockey. We made disagree that Quattro Books' newly released spoken word anthology, Mic Check, is great reading, though I encourage you to read it before judging it if you have not done so. As the Yiddish proverb states, if we all pull in one direction the world will keel over.

As for one of the anonymous posters here, if you are going to come here with so much racially charged opinion, at least have the guts to show your name instead of your cowardice and don't hide behind the name Anonymous. If the shoe were on the other foot and you were ranting against white people, I would say the same thing.

Mike Lipsius

White Noise said...

"Either way, it’s fucking horrible to watch, even worse to listen to, and does it a disservice to actual poetry by calling itself “poetry”."

Oh god, tell me about it.

And while we're at it, I'm betting I'm not the only one who would like to know what the fuck was going on at that Stravinsky show last night. Who even lets these roughnecks near a metronome? Am I right? I mean, Rite of Spring? That noise nearly made me eat my powdered wig. Straight up. What's with the kids these days? You ask me, it's those new-fangled gaslamps, is what it is. Makes the humours go all apeshit.

And Matt, you don't even want to get me started on Man Ray. Upstart punk. Give a man a box with a hole in it and he thinks he's an artiste.

Anonymous said...

This entire rant is meaningless drivel. It comes across as so insecure as to be almost comical. Are you afraid that the spoken word art form is going to replace your precious page poetry?

It isn't. It is a separate form of expression. It just so happens that it is a form that is more accessible and interesting to more people than page poetry is. I admit that it is a shame that more people don't read poetry, but that doesn't change the fact that slam (or slam style) poetry can be engaging and captivating.

If you don't like it, fine. Throwing our exaggerated and overwrought statements like you have here just makes you look foolish and out of touch. If you don't enjoy spoken word then stay away.

No one will miss you.

Rusty Priske

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

Note: I saw Paul's comments at bookninja, posted a response there, and then worked my way back. But the conversation (read: screaming and dancing) seems to be happening right here, so I'll repost what I originally wrote. Here goes:


I’m really glad this is becoming a topic of conversation. While I wish Paul had used a slightly less apocryphal title in his blogpost, I agree with a lot of what he said. Mostly, though, I appreciate that he started a conversation (debate? riot?) about spoken word poetry that doesn’t use any of the typical shouting-off points that characterize that discussion (see: race, class, the big evil A word–academia). I want to add a couple of points that maybe approach from a different angle but are my major reasons for being eternally suspicious of the spoken word world.

1. Ownership
As a “page” poet, I really like the idea that once I write a poem, put it in a book, and have the book go out in the world, I lose intellectual control over it. Ideally, a written poem is a kind of blueprint for a possible experience. If the blueprint is well constructed, then the reader can unpack it for themself and experence a personal rendition of what the poet was trying to communicate. It’s as close as we’re ever going to get to telepathy. But a poem whose value is intrinsically tied to its “performance” demands that the audience (he or she is no longer actively involved enough to call themselves anything as important as a “reader”) only experiences the poem the way its creator wants you to. To use the same metaphor, the poet makes his or her blueprints, drives to your front lawn, tears your house down, builds the house displayed in the prints, buys all your furniture, then waits for you to applaud. There’s no personal experience and no intimacy. This is why people tend to hate film versions of their favourite novels. People don’t like to have their imagination translated into some dictatorial, communal, experience. What I love about writing poetry is there will always be a time when you say to a readership, “Here, have this. I don’t own it any more. It’s up to you to say it’s good.” The spoken-word equivalent of that statement appears to be “This is mine. All mine. And only I can show you how it’s supposed to be said. I’ll let you stand in the same room as I recite it, or listen to it on a CD, but that’s as close as you will get.”

And all this from the art form of “power to the people”.

2. Propaganda. I’m always hearing spoken worders complain that a good poet with good ideas will always lose out to a good performer with no ideas. Some people are voicing those complaints in the comments section of Paul’s blog right now. If we can regress a few years to the old idea of poetry being the combined application of the dimension of sound and the dimension of sense, then it bothers me that the former always wins out over the latter in spoken word-art. Certainly, this happens sometimes in written poetry, as well (and as it should, we’re not essayists or journalists, at least not outside of our day-jobs), but the effect seems to be more complete in spoken word. So complete, in fact, that it’s gone beyod the point of sound OVER sense and into the far more extreme territority of sound IS sense. The prosaic equivalent is probably the equally-ridiculous mantra of the ethic IS the aesthetic. I remember going to a show and seeing a performer who regularly lost his train of thought, seemed to have confused the definition of the word dogmatic with the word secular, but could find a natural rhyme for any word (even “dogmatic” and “secular”) and knew how to build to a strong conclusion. So, he received an impassioned applause and I remember thinking, This sucks. Who are these people? I just think that there’s a real confusion happening in spoken word right now where elevated sound is being mistaken for elevated thought. Where the visceral reaction (and probably the mob mentality) of being carried away by a public performance is acting as a replacement for real, considered, intellectual experimentation and emotional honesty. So often the politics are just a restatement of the speaker’s identity, and the conflict is just a list of things they dont like. Using sound as a smokescreen for a dearth of ideas is dishonest, unoriginal, and, let`s just come out and say it, politically reckless. I know that not everyone in spoken word does this of course, but it’s inset with the culture of the art. What matters that everyone could do it if they wanted to.

So, thanks to Paul for saying this stuff out loud. I hope nobody shows up to heckle you (in perfect 4/4 time) at your next reading. This kind of debate is always prone to shouting matches, but I think it’s worth talking about. I’d ike to se Bookninja donate some magazine space to hearing from many sides of the story.

-Jacob McArthur Mooney, Mississaug-why?

Mozart Guerrier said...
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White Noise said...

Oh god, here I go again.

Three quick things.

I feel like I need to dispel a myth that's come up here again, and is even being perpetuated by some of my fellow slammers: Page poetry and spoken word are not inherently separate art forms. I'm a page poet. Have been for years. In fact the majority of what I write is page poetry. And without it I wouldn't have any performance material. And without my performance material I wouldn't have been able to travel over the last few years and meet some of the most inspiring poets in the world, who have made me a better writer.

And Jacob -

On "ownership." It's an interesting thought but I don't see it playing out as you seem to think. Covers and cross-collaboration are pretty common in the slam scene. If anything, the mature spoken word artist feels even less rigid about their work because it is completely ephemeral, a string of unrepeatable one-time occurrences, leaving their mouth and then not even finding continued life on the page, but only in people's memories and emotional reactions. (...Except for those with chapbooks.)

And as for this: "I’m always hearing spoken worders complain that a good poet with good ideas will always lose out to a good performer with no ideas."

Always. It happens all the time. Every single slam, ever, anywhere, always results in the worst poet winning. No exceptions. In fact if you know the proper use for the word "sadly," or can define "bromidic," you're likely to get shanked before you reach 3 minutes 10.

I mean, come on. Yes, sure, it is an inherent weakness in the form that you can sometimes slip a mediocre poem by on a polished performance, but it's not a trick you can do too often before people start noticing.

And are you trying to tell me that no one in the literary world ever gets published without really deserving it? I doubt it, since I've been to a bookstore lately. Try to imagine the page-focused equivalent to all the complaints you've "heard" (which, by the way, is different than actually making them as someone who is actively involved in the art form and sees it for all its beauty and its warts) about slam. You know - the nepotism, the pettiness, the backbiting, the plain boring poets who never take a hint. Does it turn you off of poetry? No. Why? Because everything is an alloy, and you know that.

The potential for abuse of the slam form is a bit higher, I'll not deny. But the potential for brilliance, I'd say, is all the greater for it. The first time you experience someone getting up and delivering a truly astoundingly well-written piece with a blindingly tight performance, then you realize you've only ever had a mere inkling of what poetry can really be until that moment.

Some of the best poets on the continent are currently working in the spoken word medium. I don't know if some people are ignorant of this fact, or jealous of it, or what, but denying it doesn't make it untrue.

And of course some of the best poets on the continent are working in the page medium.

And some are working in both.

And in any of those cases you have to slog through a lot of crap to find them. And in any of those cases they have a lot to potentially learn from their doppelgangers, so let's stop fighting about things that 1% of the population cares about anyway... so we can get that up to 2% ;)

(...those three quick things ended up being not so quick. And not so three.)

Anonymous said...

I DO think that page poetry and performance poetry are seperate artforms.

That doesn't mean they aren't related.

Think of it in musical terms... are Jazz and Blues seperate artforms? I think so. That doesn't change that they are both music. Along those same lines page poetry and performance poetry are both still poetry. (And some poems can be both, but many cannot.)

Rusty Priske

Dave Silverberg said...

I couldn't resist commenting, especially since I feel responsibility for helping build this incredible spoken word community in Toronto.

Paul, I'm glad you spilled your guts about spoken word because it got us talking, and that's invaluable. I've always known about your position on slam poetry and I've been keen on talking about this with you in public but looks the new "public" is online.

Sure, there are poseurs in spoken word as there are in any art form. Yes, they might not be strong writers. But you are taking a short-sighted perspective on an art form that has been inspiring and amazing audiences for decades, and for several years in Toronto.

At TOronto Poetry Slam, 170 people pack the Drake every month to listen to poetry. That just boggles my mind sometimes. What brings them there is the invitation of something energetic, something they can relate to. There are kids sittin next to grandma's sitting next to Sean Cullen sitting next to Raine Maida. You won't see them at Art Bar, most likely. Why? Probably because they want to be part of a movement, and spoken word is that movement.

I guess I'm saying spoken word goes beyond the poetry on stage. It's building a beautiful community right now in Toronto, something I've never experienced before, and it's truly changing how Torontonians view poetry. Paul, you might say that's detrimental to "page poetry" but I don't think so. Anything that promotes poetry to the masses should be embraced.

Spoken word poets are doing school gigs now. Featuring at writers' festivals. Opening up for bands at Massey Hall. And I think it's just the beginning. Arts lovers are just starting to realize that the best spoken word combines excellent writing and engaging delivery. A lot of poets reading at series have tons to learn from spoken word artists.

Lastly, I'll relate what I find appealing about spoken word: it exists for that moment only (my Mic Check book notwithstanding). In 3 minutes, the listener hears a poem and can't predict the ending, can't retrace his "reading" because the listener travels downhill by sled with a spoken word piece. There's something special about poetry that only exists in a certain vacuum of time, only to be repeated when the poets wills it so. Maybe it's just me, but that unique quality gives spoken word a polish I find appealing.

Art Durkee said...

Finally, someone has posted an opinion regarding the Spoken Word and Slam scenes that I have been thinking for years, as participant and observer. That Slam has come to be dominated by hip-hop and rap style rhyming (I won't call it poetry) is a loss to the rest of the poetry world, who don't write in that style but still read their poems. I can't tell you how many times I've seen Slam prizes go to the performers with the best hip-hop rhyming performance, with no connection to the best poetry of the evening. It does make one believe that Slam poetry and written poetry are not the same, but that's a red herring. Spoken Word poetry and written, literary poetry don't have to be isolated from each other, yet they often are—by choice. There's something wrong with that. Similarly, when you pick up and read a collection of Slam poetry, such as the Nuyorican anthologies, the words just sit there on the page and don't do anything; they are flat, and do not read as poems on the page. (For that matter, neither do most popular song lyrics; but that's another issue.)

That said, a lot of "fine art" poets really do kill their poems at readings. (Talking about poetry readings here, the sort of things that happen in bookstores, not presented as Slams.) Most have no sense of reading, of acting, of timing, and most are shoe-gazers and mumblers. Most have no onstage presence. But then, the vast majority of writers, including poets, have no onstage presence, and spend their lives in their heads, not in their bodies.

But things don't HAVE to be this way, and aren't always. I've been in two or three bands (as a musician AND a poet) that featured poets as key members of the ensemble, the guitar soloist if you will, and I can tell you that a sonnet, if properly performed, will out-compel any obviously-rhymed Slam-style poetry. Great performance of "fine art" poetry is perfectly possible, perfectly feasible. The chief poetry performer in my band Dangerous Odds could pick up a physics textbook and make it a compelling read at a gig; so his own poems were even more so. I usually liked to not read my own poems at Odds gigs, so I had Ron read them and I played bass or Stick as usual. We have hours of recordings of this material, BTW, as well as a CD or three.

The idea that poetry performance and written word are separate genres is a lazy excuse for, on the one hand, bad writing, and on the other, bad performance. A great poem will be great BOTH on the page and read aloud. A poem that cannot survive in both formats, recited AND written, is a poem with a problem. (I'd say that most written Language Poetry suffers from the opposite problem as most Slam poetry, but the fact is, both are incomplete AS POETRY.)

The best poems will survive and thrive on the page AND read aloud.

One of the basic definitions of poetry, which began as a verbal art, a bardic and skaldic art, is telling the news, telling the stories, telling the myths. But the bard and the skald were expected to tell the news with their utmost art. The problem with Slam poetry is that it's all tell—and mostly it's self-display and ego-display—and very little art.

Rusty Priske said...

Doesn't this try to force art into a box? Some art is meant to be heard. Some is meant to be seen. Some is meant to be felt (or smelled or tasted or whatver.)

By saying that poetry MUST be able to be both performed and read limits the artist. Some things are created for one, some for the other (or both).

Placing limits on art creates very little advantage (mostly the ability to judge it objectively, which for all of the claims of Slam Poetry, it doesn't really do. It judges, sure, but not objectively).

We are speaking of poetry, but this same argument is made in all fields of art. "Is this art...?"

White Noise said...

"That Slam has come to be dominated by hip-hop and rap style rhyming..."

Except it hasn't. I don't know where geographically the various comments along this line are coming from, so I can't comment on the applicable local scene. Maybe where you are, Art, that's true. And I'm sorry to hear that any single style has dominated a scene. But the Toronto Poetry Slam '08/09 team only has one poet who might fit the description above.

(Incidentally I agree with pretty much everything else Art said).

Slam poets do take a lot of their cues from performance arts, that's true. But just as hiphop is an influence, so is theatre, cabaret, standup, punk rock, and dance. And these are just containers, mind - I've seen them filled with all sorts of incongruous writerly content, often with beautiful results. And sometimes people just get up and recite, and that's beautiful too.

There is a certain element within the slam scene which favours style over substance. But many of those most active in the form are actively trying to isolate the effect of that. And anyone who's actually concerned about it, and not just looking down their nose at the plebes, consider this a personal invitation to come on out and help us by putting more poetry on stage at poetry slams. Yes, you'll have to look up and speak clearly when you do it at the very least. But that certainly can't hurt you.

Art Durkee said...

White Noise, I haven't been to a Slam or "Spoken Word" gig in over ten years in the Midwest that was NOT dominated by rhyming hip-hop Slam-style poetry. Ditto San Francisco, Portland, and everywhere else I've travelled, where I've looked into the scene. I haven't heard anything BUT that style at Slams in a very very long time. Maybe your experience, or mine, stops at the border, but it is an interesting difference, ennit?

Rusty, if anyone's trying to put things in boxes, it's not me. I said that poetry was BOTH/AND, you're insisting it's either/or. IMHO, if anyone's trying to put matters in categorical boxes, it's you.

And you're darn tootin' I'll stand by my comments about great poetry. You can object all you want to about someone saying "poetry must be this or that," but be careful you're not doing exactly what you object to. Saying poetry doesn't have to be good on the page can be the same thing as saying poetry doesn't have to be good, period. And that's a very slippery slope. I have no problem with having high standards in poetry. But then, I've been reading and writing poetry for a very long time, and have also translated poetry back and forth in a couple of other languages. My problem with a lot of Slam poetry is that, like many other sub-scenes, people who are heavily into The Scene know almost nothing else. Their ideas of poetry are too small, not inclusive enough, and downright parochial. I never said there was NO good poetry coming out Slam; nor did I say there never could be. What I said was that I haven't run across any as yet that holds up on the page as well as at the mic. And that IS a problem for greatness in poetry.

Valentino Assenza said...

Uh...oh Paul, don't look now, but there is a spoken word artist that is actually sitting on the committee that runs the ArtBar, the longest running reading series in Toronto.

As someone who has had some minor successes both on the page, and stage, I have to say that there are so many positive aspects of spoken word and performance poetry, and your blog entry comes off like a jazz musician talking about rock and roll.

While I think most of your blog entry was more than a rant using an extremely wide brush, I have to ask you this question...what are you so afraid of? It wouldn't be the notion of people showing up to slams by the hundreds, and actually staying quiet during a poem would it? It wouldn't be the exposure of poetry to people who normally wouldn't want anything to do with poetry would? Enlighten me, what is it about spoken word poetry that scares you so much?

I am both a fan of page poetry, and performance poetry, and expose both at my reading series, and encourage people on the ArtBar committee to do the same. I think both forms of poetry are both inspiring, and there is something to be gained with exposure to both.

Like it or not Paul, suck it up my elitist friend, spoken word poetry is here to stay. It's a movement that is undergoing an evolution, and growing, and no matter how many wide brush stances you take on your blog, no matter how many times people like yourself kick and scream, chances are a spoken word artist will be screaming back, and actually have people interested in what they have to say.

-Valentino Assenza

Paul Vermeersch said...

I've never seen such abysmal punctuation! Take some pride, guys. Would it kill you to proofread?

I'll bet if I had written "Why I hate New Country music" or "Why I hate baseball," no one would be up in arms. I'm not afraid of spoken word. I just don't like it. I think it's a poor showing of a great art form, and, as someone has said, a justification for bad writing.

Elitist? Maybe. I don't think you have to be an expert to enjoy a poem, but I do think you need to be an expert to write a good one. Spoken Word and Slam have created a climate where anyone feels they can make poems without knowing the first thing about poetry. It's perpetuating a culture of naive art that devalues the hard work, study and devotion of more serious practitioners. Not everyone with a digital camera is an Ansel Adams. Not everyone with a an handycam is Eisenstein.

Chris Banks said...

Valentino, Paul is not scared of the spoken word….ahem, movement. Nor is Paul waving a flag and prematurely announcing the death knell of the spoken word scene. In fact, he is doing the very opposite. He is publicly decrying the sad fact that spoken word IS HERE TO STAY. He is upset that people still call spoken word A MOVEMENT when it hasn’t moved anywhere in the last twenty years - it is still being performed in the same little bars to big crowds of patrons who don’t really read or buy poetry books. And no, Bukowski and Ginsberg and Jewel do not count. He is rightfully frustrated that people confuse spoken word-slam-Chuck Barris-style-Gong Show ravings with the long humble apprenticeship and sharp longing to make true art that is poetry.

This was the gist of Paul’s RANT. On his BLOG. But what perhaps is most telling is that Paul writes his long rambling diatribe on how most spoken word artists all sound the same and then all these voices come out of the woodwork who have never written comments on Paul’s blog and in this strange “Army of One” communal keening voice start saying how dare he write that while still trying to forcefully yoke spoken word and poetry together. Weird. Honestly, if some spoken word performer were to write a big rambling diatribe about page poets or poets of “Serious Poetry Land” on his blog, you know who would take offense? NO ONE. Certainly not me. But I forgot how spoken word is a movement and as one, people like to mobilize and write rallying cries.

Matthew said...

Art said:
"White Noise, I haven't been to a Slam or "Spoken Word" gig in over ten years in the Midwest that was NOT dominated by rhyming hip-hop Slam-style poetry. Ditto San Francisco, Portland, and everywhere else I've travelled, where I've looked into the scene. I haven't heard anything BUT that style at Slams in a very very long time. Maybe your experience, or mine, stops at the border, but it is an interesting difference, ennit?"

Ironic statement Art, White Noise and myself just came back from the Mid-West Regional Slam. And guess what the dominant team didn't have a "Hip-Hop/Slam" style among them. Not only that but they (Columbus's Writer's Block) had won by the second of three rounds. It's the same poetry series that has won 5 of the last 10 years of the event.

I'm sure if you were there you may have said one of the 2 indie champs (there was a tie) Dee Matthews had a "hip-hop/slam" style cause she's from Detroit, but as I know the woman well I know she has a love of the rhyming quatrain as a poetic device which I'm pretty sure came before hip-hop.

And while there is no doubt about the fact that there is A LOT of that "hip-hop/slam" style in the mid-west, I wouldn't say it's the style that the dominant slamers and best poets of the mid-west use. Yes they are influenced by it, but all poetry is influenced by it's time, but the best poets incorporate and transcend their influences.

I know this because I started performing my poetry at slams in Detroit in 2004, and have been regularly attending the Mid-West Regionals since. But you don't have to take my word for it. Judge for yourself next year when the Mid-West Regionals will be in Toronto.

Editor's Note
I know you REALLY won't like this Paul but my poetic style incorporates thumbing my nose at the rules of punctuation


Matthew said...


no mean DUDE!

everything I said I take back I just read your blog post again.... out loud this time.

Wow, it's the perfect slam poem!
well as you define it:
full of self-aggrandizement... no wait that's your bio.
well then a rant trying desperatly to be a serious cultural critique but failing due to a lack of real research and facts.
it's kind of noble, with a delivery intended to scold the spoken word artist for their implied complacency in, or culpability for, some on-going poetic injustice.

Man I think you got a future

Zachariah Wells said...

Einstein invented relativity AND made movies?! Damn.

Pauly, I will personally give you shit if you write a post about how you hate baseball.

I've only been in anything resembling a slam once, when I did the CBC Poetry Faceoff a few years ago. That night, the worst poet did indeed win. I'm not just saying that because I didn't win, but because the two other losers were also much stronger than the winner. But the winner brought her votes with her. Because I knew that all three of my competitors were more typically "spoken word" than me, I memorized my five-minute poem. The winner, rapped and beat-boxed her way through a turgid piece of politically predictable doggerel--reading it from the page.

Anyway, as I said on my blog post responding to Paul's, there are some people, particularly associated with the spoken word scene in Montreal (especially Catherine Kidd and Corey Frost), who do pretty damn compelling work. Shauntay Grant in Halifax is really good, too (and I seem to remember her doing a pretty good lampoon of the sort of thing Paul and others in this discussion have, with just cause, bemoaned).

Valentino Assenza said...


Upon having a discussion with other people on what you wrote, and reflecting on how I responded, I feel bad for me to shell out the "elitist" word, it was dismissive, and reactionary. I think the fact that you acknowledged the art form, and brought about dialogue is an important thing.

However, I still feel the attitude with which you made your observations was indeed wide brush. The types of poetry that you described that you feel predominantly dominates a slam, I just honestly haven't seen as much of here in Toronto. I have seen some amazingly well written, charismatic, and powerful pieces be performed, and who knows how much it really says, but it did inspire me greatly, as well as many others.

I have read your stuff before Paul, and admire your writing, I just felt that there could have been a little bit more perspective when it came to your observations on performance poetry.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

Everyone who has used the word "elitist" in this thread needs to fax me the document that tells me they're a 14-hour-a-day manual labourer and not, you know, some urban lothario hoping for notice above the par of the herd.

Why is spoken word inherently more democratic? You tend to need to live in a big city to hear any (access problem), you need to experience it in a group setting exactly how the performer wants you to experience it, so it's not a purer or more intimate interaction. I'm confused. In what way is spoken word a more people-centred medium?

And that guy a few posts back who said he was from Art Bar will know better than anyone that spoken word doesn't outdraw the written kind. His reading series (a weekly, not a monthly or a "whenever the hell we can get it organized"-ly) draws at least 50 a shot, and it's one of dozens of such regular occurences around the city. And all this from a medium whose primary interaction isn't even through public readings, but in the beautiful intimacy of page and words and eyes.

Valentino Assenza said...


First and foremost I retracted the "elitist" comment, agreeing that it was unnnecessary.

Secondly, I mentioned my involvement with the ArtBar because in addition to myself there is also another performance based poet on the committee. Also, the ArtBar is not "my series" I am on a committee of nine thathelp to run it. I do run another series apart from the ArtBar.

The reason why I mentioned my involvement with the ArtBar is because in addition to being the longest running reading series in Toronto, it was also widely known to attract a more literary crowd. However in the last year or so performance, and slam poets have been featuring there on the same bill as say Pier Giorgio Di Cicco.

You and Paul, share your perspective as to what poetry should be, fine, I disagree and it, would seem I am not alone. But I just think it's interesting that a reading series which has been reputed for more of a literary crowd over the years can be open minded about spoken word or performance poetry, and take the time to pick out poets that don't exhibit some of the wide brush characteristics mentioned here.

I just remark that if someone like say Allan Briesmaster can appreciate select spoken word or performance poets, why can't someone whose work of comprable caliber like Paul Vermeersch not allow themselves to be open minded in the same way?

Paul Vermeersch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Vermeersch said...

A lot you seem to be missing the point of my rant... which is just that, a rant, a screed, a diatribe. It is about what "I" don't like about spoken word. It is my opinion, my confession. It was something I needed to get off my chest, and I feel better. And I'm glad it has got people talking about these issues, because -- Christ -- it's been getting so bad, someone had to bring it up! And I stand by it.

Frankly, Valentino, the spoken word performers who have performed at the Art Bar in the past year, the ones that I have seen anyway, which has been a large number of them, have been among the worst offenders of the kind of poor writing bolstered by paltry theatrics that I have ever seen. I could name them, but I won't; that would be needlessly cruel. It's my belief, nay, it has been my observation, that the recent trend which seems stipulate that there must be at least one "slam" style poet featured at the Art Bar every Tuesday night has been detrimental to the quality and reputation of that long-running series. And, you might rightfully ask, are there other kinds of bad poets reading there, too? Yes, and they all share the delusion that you can be a poet without really knowing anything about poetry.

I can admit that there are some people who do spoken word better than others, and there are some people who do it very well, but even when they do it well, I still don't really like it, and I still think the theatrics (not to be confused with the enthusiasm and ebullience of George Elliott Clarke, for example, but the put-on, unnatural rhythms and contrived gestures), are trying to make up for something that is missing in the writing. You know what? I don't like dill pickles, either, and no amount of foot-stamping from the dill pickle lobby is going to make me change my mind.

For those of you who think I am some neophyte who "hasn't done my research," I have organized, hosted, done, and seen more poetry readings than a lot of you put together. I have made a lifelong and committed study to the art and craft of all kinds of poetry, not just the kind that I write. It is a difficult and life-long apprenticeship, and one that I believe should be taken seriously. As for my "cred," I founded the I.V. Lounge Reading Series in 1998. I've been a regular contributor to the Globe and Mail book section for ten years. I've been a professional poetry editor for seven years, and I've written three books of poetry (and number four is on the way). Oh, I have done my research, boys and girls. And I actually do know all about the evolution and devolution of the spoken word movement, from the influence of the Beat poets (not to be confused with the thousands of their beatnik imitators, with their silly sunglasses and black berets, reciting doggerel to the accompaniment of a stand-up bass), to the first appearance of an angry young Maggie Estep on MTV, to the hideous proliferation of "poetry" as a some kind of boastful, garish competition in the form of "slams" throughout the 1990s. And I'll tell you all something: poetry is not an art form that is 20 years old; it is many thousands of years old, and its literary traditions, formal complexities and intellectual rewards have helped to shape civilizations and the course of human life. Now I would suggest that you guys do a little "research" on some that "boring" page poetry. You might not find it so boring once you actually read some of it.

Valentino Assenza said...


I find it rather interesting that your blog entry that sparked all this debate, came about on the same day that an anthology of Canadian spoken word poetry published by Quattro Books called "Mic Check" garnered a wonderful review in Now Magazine from Robert Priest. I understand it is the first book of poetry to be reviewed by Now...but that is neither here nor there.

I'm wondering where exactly I said I found page poetry boring? Perhaps you were not directing that at me, but at others, because while I am a proponent of performance poetry, I started out first and foremost, and still practice being a page poet. I wouldn't be on the committee of the Art Bar if I found page poetry boring.

Paul, I have to say, I actually appreciate you for writing such a thing, and you don't have to rifle off how immersed in the craft you are, I don't even know you on an acquaintance basis, but am familiar with your reputation as a writer and your work. The fact of the matter is when it comes to an opinion regarding spoken word you have your stance, and I along with others have mine. You think that featuring spoken word artists at the Art Bar brings harm, I think it's long overdue. I stand firm on my foundation as you stand firm on yours. You have people that agree with you, but you also have people that are irked, and believe me I know all about having the unpopular opinion, and I think it's cool that you stick to your guns the way you do.

For what it's worth, even though I disagree with you I completely respect what you wrote, and appreciate the dialogue on this all the same.

Paul Vermeersch said...


For years, NOW's books editor Susan Cole has publicly admitted that she hates poetry, so that comes as no surprise to me.

The stuff about my cred was not directed at you, but at others who who openly accused me of "not doing" my "research."

Art Durkee said...

What's interesting to me is the defensiveness around the "art" of spoken word—as though it was still a struggling entity that needed protecting, as though it weren't now infiltrating every reading venue it hadn't already had access to, including the ArtBar series. Perhaps that defensiveness is a holdover from when the artform really was a small minority and needed to be more self-boostering than it does now.

What in my experience gets completely overlooked at spoken word performances is what the movement as a whole seems to lack: a respect for the diversity of poetry. Spoken word and Slam tend to be loud and aggressive and urban, as Jacob points out. It is not a peoples' poetry, unless you happen to be from the inner city. It has no room in it for the quiet rural insight.

Laura Winton in Minneapolis organized and led poetry readings and open mics for many years, in many different venues, including the Fringe Festival. Her poetry tends to be more stream of consciousness, even a bit surreal. It flows like water, it doesn't punch you with obvious rhythm and easy rhyming. Eventually she stopped bothering with organizing open mics when the slam and spoken word folks began to take over the entire scene. The last time I saw her read at one of these venues, she basically got booed off the stage by the cheerleading claque of the slam poets, who that evening were indeed the loudest most obnoxious folks in the bar. Now, Laura Winton has as much poetry "cred" as anybody here, and has done as much or more for poetry as anyone here. But the slam poets don't care about that, apparently, all they seem to care about is winning. And to do that they think you have to be loud and obvious, never quiet(er) and subtle(r).

There's something wrong there. A complete and utter lack of respect for poetic diversity seems to have become endemic in the spoken word scene. You can talk all you want about diversity WITHIN the scene, surely, but that is splitting fine hairs. It's like saying that the various genres of popular dance music are all unique, when the truth is only insiders in the techno subculture can tell the difference between jungle and drumnbass.

Speaking of splitting fine hairs: One of the most absurd comments I've read on this thread is that jazz and blues are completely separate and different artforms. Not only is there a lack of awareness of history in that comment, it ignores the truth that both jazz and blues are music. Not only are they both music, they're closely-bound musical styles. Jazz developed out of the blues, and jazz musicians are still expected to be able to play the blues, and many do. (Strictly speaking, the blues is a particular musical form, or set of forms, which are part of the palette of jazz forms; jazz also includes other song forms are part of its palette, too.)

There seems to be no room in "spoken word" for the quiet, thoughtful poem. You almost never see a quiet, thoughtful poem win a Slam—even when it's declaimed as loudly into a mic as anything else. Everything Paul said about exaggeration in performance is dead on target, as are his comments about the two main topics, political cant and/or self-advertisement. It makes even the most blatant post-Plath confessional poetry seem timid and measured.

There is no subtlety here.

Some of this is a problem of technology and media, frankly. Which again is also a function of this being an urban genre, with urban interests and attitudes, and urban urgency and tempo. Can you imagine Wendell Berry or Linda Hasselstrom winning a Slam? Me neither. One of the sillier aspects of the scene is watching well-to-do suburban kids act like inner-city ghetto denizens onstage. (Don't get me wrong: I like the early years of hip-hop, back when the political message was fresh and really important to get out, and the music itself was startlingly experimental at times.) But the sameness of presentation that Paul ranted about has come to dominate the scene, and perhaps now only the real insiders that distinguish between the nuances.

The whole aspect of amplified performance is something folks take for granted rather than looking at. Amplification may allow the people at the back of the room to hear you better—although if you're already shouting, that's debatable—but amplification is also mediation. It eliminates the possibility of intimacy. It places a scrim between performer and audience, or rather, it emphasizes the separation because only the performer's voice can dominate the room. There is no longer the possibility of call-and-response, except on the crudest, loudest scale.

Even in small venues where amplification isn't really necessary, you still have the mics, and they're still turned up loud. Well, maybe this is all a function of urban deafness: having to shout louder to be heard, because the world itself is already deafening, and burned out, and fried. Maybe so. Nonetheless, if this is true, it's an unsubtle, unthoughtful response. It's purely a reaction that in its attempt to be heard has a tendency to force conformity on its voices. It seems willing to end up bullying everyone else off the stage. And that, politically speaking, is just replacing one form of oppression with another.

And in doing so, it has done violence to the diversity of poetry in general.

Rye Guy said...


Thank you for your opinions and views. Although, I think that "some" of the things you said are needed citicisms of the "Spoken Word/Slam" scene, I also think that the crudness of your rant only hurts the message. very much the same way you feel performing a poem hurts.

It is also heavily flawed. You made sweeping generalizing comments about ALL OF SPOKEN WORD/SLAM POETRY, criticizing it's unoriginal content and yet your critcisms are reduced to simple swearing. You allege a lack of depth and thought that goes into the performances and yet little seemed to go into his own rant.

I'm new to this scene but have experienced many forms of performances, art, and culture. And like it or not... the slam scene (like any other) is far from perfect. As it gains more and more popularity it's "purity" is sure to dwindle. Personally, I have been horribly surprised to see so many people get up and use the same rhythm and flow as the person before.

And DEFINITELY people will move to the rhythm of their words and use familiar hand gestures. The Hip Hop artists he cited for this do the EXACT SAME THING!

And SURE there are people who get on the mic who don't have the skills needed to pull it off. But you have to start somewhere. We ALL go through many failures before REAL success. In fact, it's a prerequisite.

And OF COURSE there are common poets writing common poems using common words about common topics. DUH! This is an art for the COMMON FOLK! I assume that's why there is a 3 minute limit. If someone REALLY sucks you can endure it by plugging your ears, going to the bathroom, or holding your breath.

You were right to say:

"performing a shitty poem, no matter how well you perform it, isn't going to make the poem less shitty"

But posting a shitty rant on your blog, no matter how badly it's written, isn't going to make the blog less shitty!

Why is it that every fool and his cousin are "quick to diss and raise the fist", but few are willing to offer solutions?

So what IS the solution? The same solution to solve poverty, pollution, crime, and any other social injustice:

1. To thine own self be true (start with yourself first)

2. Find like-minded individuals and get organized

3. Empower others to begin the same process.

Rusty Priske said...

Just a couple points about a comment, rather than the original blog (since I have already given my opinion on that).

Someone said: It has no room in it for the quiet rural insight.

While that has been the case I know at least one person who is trying to change that. Danielle K.L. Gregoire has started a Slam series in the Ottawa Valley, drawing out non-urban voices to hear a different kind of Slam. It is a fledgling undertaking, but it is a start.

Second: There seems to be no room in "spoken word" for the quiet, thoughtful poem. You almost never see a quiet, thoughtful poem win a Slam

No room for a quiet thoughtful poem? Not true.
Almost never see them win? True.

The thing I think you are missing here (at least compared to the Slam scene where I am), is the idea that acceptance = winning. Not at all. Sure it is fun to win, but the competition aspect is the trapping of the show - something to give a fun atmosphere that some people (definitely including myself) enjoy. That does not mean that the performances are only about winning. I have performed at many Slams. I have won only once. Do I feel like a failure as a poet due to that? Hardly.

Don't judge all slam only by what wins. (Also, remember that the judges are chosen randomly from the audience. If you are chosen, you can judge based on what YOU like. The other judges get to judge based on what THEY like).

There was also some questions about my jazz/blues analogy, but I suppose if you think that all music comes under the same genre of art, then you are going to think the same about poetry. I don't, but we aren't going to get anywhere by debating it.

Evie said...

Um Jacob, they are far too busy tarring a flat roof in Toronto's own alphabet city to fax those documents. And I think you know it.

David said...

hey, this b da g in dis dave tripp the man.
I read what everyone had to say, and i've decided that what you think doesn't matter. Maby what you write does, i dunt know. Maybe what you say matters, i dunt no.
Dave silverbeard was write when he said 170 in the drake hotel, except that i'm concerned that the cieling may not be high e-tough in the drake to keep whats-herface from bothering the well paid normalians upstairs from enjoying their 666 course dinners without hearing that echo that positively everyone hates.
but i'll tell you the cold fu-in truth. Poetry isn't thousands of years old, it is no older than edgar allen poe when he was four years old watching his mother cough up blood until she died. He had to watch two other women in his life pull the mat from under him and he pressed that pen down hard when he wrote. Just because "The Raven" was written based on hip hop formula doesn't mean that you should make fun of shakespear for writing time traveling sonetry that makes buddy look up.
Looks like a books like the tv, and are you really gonna tell saul williams to take it back, all the exposure and venue opportunities his majically appropriated television appearances have offered the community as a whole?
Fine. put a damned bar code on their arm so we know which long impatiance stamp they belong to.
Critisicm doesn't sting until you're willing to fist fight the mitzubeshe driver for their three minutes of what the hell happened?
step onto the subway and meet the world sir. Step into a university testing area and watch the world have better test scores than you because they had perfect sight line with your page. Watch the fabric of space and time roll up into a shell for proffecor hermit crab trynna block the tomatoes of everyday life...
What was really worth saying in the first place? Because so many hip hop venues fail to sell literature to those who can still read in this post literate society.

lips to the mike said...

Paul, you certainly have a right to dislike spoken word. No one is doubting this. This is a choice. This is a preference. It is your harshly negative attitude full of generalizations failing to accurately back up your argument that has people riled up. It is your attack on people who perform spoken word and who enjoy spoken word that insinuates we are not well-read, not intellectual or are unintelligent that has me riled up. If you listed your reasons for disliking baseball, had some sort of track record to prove you were knowledgeable about sports and insulted the character of players and fans, yes, there would be a lot meaner things hurled your way than from this blog. I know and respect your credentials. I do think you are a good poet.

I too run a poetry series. It's new and fledgling, but starting to pick up interest. I try to mix up the roster of features to include "page poets" and "slam poets," as I'm trying to bridge the gap between the two. I feel both forms of poetry are valid and deserve their place. I'm not the only artistic director who recognizes this. I'm not the only artistic director who doesn't feel allowing spoken word artists into their series lowers poetry in any way. I have my opinions, you obviously have yours, though you are alway welcome to check out the Rochdale Rhymes and Readings Series for yourself. I am a fan of both page poetry and spoken poetry. My preference changes all the time, but right now I'm slightly more a fan of page poetry. Nonetheless, I do not feel any less well-read or non-intellectual when I go to a slam or walk out of a slam.

My last point is, to say a poem will sound just fine if it is well-written and if one has something to say, it will be said, is false. Anyone can ruin a great poem in a reading, just like anyone can ruin a great soliloquy in a play. This is why some actors get the big bucks to perform at Shaw and Stratford. Anyone can read, "To be or not to be..." Yes, Hamlet was written for the stage, but is quite poetic. Why cannot those who want to be poets write their poems for the stage? A preference of the two does not make the other less competent. It also does not break tradition as spoken word poetry was famous long before the written tradition.

Mike Lipsius

Paul Vermeersch said...

Shakespeare is a really bad example to help you make your case, Mike. I'll explain why:

The works of Shakespeare are also arguably the best writing in the history of the English language ON THE PAGE before the words are ever uttered by an actor. Shakespeare was an expert in the craft of verse, and he was well-schooled in comedy, tragedy, history, rhetoric, and poetics. His works do not crumble under scrutiny on the page. His words are powerful, artful, emotive, complex, and swelling with the greatness of human potential, and they do these things whether lying quietly printed on paper or brought to an audience by a gifted actor, who is, I would wager, not making a repetitious pecking motion with his hand as he peels off the syllables, or adding extravagant stresses and intonations that aren't there in the written word.

So Shakespeare actually helps prove my point, if a poem isn't good on the page first, the poem will never be good on the stage, because it isn't a good poem. It all begins with the language, spoken or unspoken (and preferably not shouted). And this leads me to another point, and this goes out to everyone: the term "page poetry" is ridiculous. It betrays a lack of understanding about the fundamental nature of poetry.

Grandmaster's Obokano said...

Hi people.I agree to the fact that a poem has to look good in writing/diction before the performance.sometimes the performance can do with some exaggeration.
Let the poets who know how to read read and the ones who speak it speak.there is a whole lot of difference,food for thought.

lips to the mike said...

Well, spoken word poetry existed long before page poetry back in the days when reading was seen as about as important as learning Latin today. Poets "wrote" for the ears and not the eyes, much like Shakespeare and Shaw, even if it already did look good on the page. To suggest a poem is ruined because the poet closed their eyes and visualized it being performed theatrically and thought about the sound that would be released to one's ears as the words flowed, the way a songwriter (like Leonard Cohen) would would be completely prejudiced. That there are some spoken word artists who are not great writers has been acknowledged by myself and others, though it's all subjective. To say all spoken word artists cannot write is too big of a generalization.

Kudos to you, Paul. You've lit a fire under the poetry community. Love your tone or hate your tone (Where I stand is clear), you have us thinking.

Monty Rude Boi said...

ya paul peep this
why ya sa angry boi? dave trip wuz wright when he says "step onto the subway and meet the world sir. Step into a university testing area and watch the world have better test scores than you because they had perfect sight line with your page. Watch the fabric of space and time roll up into a shell for proffecor hermit crab trynna block the tomatoes of everyday life..."

fe rillll dawg! spoken wor'ds hirrr guy! the sanguich borde of yesterday with your edger alan poh-no-you-didn'ts is eatin up! I take you your daley tomoatoes and raise you a rabbid rabbit! Snap, ear me now!

- Rude Boi

Paul Vermeersch said...

Mike, I think you mean oral traditions of poetry existed before the written word, and that is true. What we know of today as "spoken word" is quite a new thing all together. Those ancient oral traditions gave us, among other things, The Iliad and the Odyssey, and were richly steeped in verse technique. In fact, metrics evolved in the oral traditions to help poets remember poems over a thousand lines long. When it came to put those compositions down on paper, or papyrus, or stone, sometimes hundreds of years after they originated, the versification was still in tact, because the craft of verse was handed down through the generations, and the poets undertook this labour took their study very seriously. There is a history and tradition, and skilled techniques and a studied craftsmanship that today's spoken word ignores in favour of bombast, flash, fashionable fads and, all too often, the easy line. And again, all these theatrics are there to compensate for what's missing in the writing, but it fails because bad writing cannot be compensated for. Rude Boi has graciously made that point for me above.

I'm not saying spoken word artists can't write good poems -- I'm saying, for the most part, they do not bother to learn how because they believe, mistakenly, that by shouting louder, or by faking their meter, or whatever means "performing" better, can take the place of well-crafted writing. But it can't.

Valentino Assenza said...

The analogy was "you come off like a jazz musician talking about rock and roll.."

Perhaps I should have used a different genre than rock 'n roll as it is true some rock n' roll musicians have influenced jazz musicians...however there are some jazz musicians too proud to admit that. What I was trying to get across was the attitudes of most jazz musicians, or jazz enthusiasts when it comes to anything remotely mainstream in the music genre, they scoff at it much like Paul's blog scoffed at the art of spoken word.

I have two close relatives in my family that are very prominent jazz musicians in Canada, and grew up around the music form. I hold these relatives in the highest esteem, and love them cause they are family. I'll even say that they inspire me to approach a spoken word gig with the same professionalism they would approach a jazz gig. However that being said, I find it ever so tired when I mention a mild mainstream music interest, and I get chastised to no end for even considering listening to such a song. Then I have to endure a long verbal rant about how this so called mainstream musician, is this, and doesn't do that, how this musician is ruining music, and blah blah blah.

The fact of the matter is no matter what a Juno award winning jazz musician tells me, that song is valid to me. Just like a spoken word piece is as valid to me, as a poem I will read in a book. I don't think my relatives, or Paul are wrong for feeling the way they do, and understand why they have their stances. But there's no point convincing people to see it your way, they see it theirs, and I see it mine....and please, with respect to Paul's blog entry let's not turn this into a jazz vs. other forms of music debate, I get enough of that at family dinners.

Paul Vermeersch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Vermeersch said...

I think a better analogy would be a jazz musician talking about bad jazz. Or even better, talking about something that isn't jazz calling itself jazz.

All I'm asking is this: don't shit on my head and call it a hat.

If you want to get on stage and rant and rave about you and your identity and your politics, and wave your hands about, and use all kinds of forced beats and intonations, and scold the audience for society's ills, or tell a cute story about your dog or your baby or why you are the best rhymer or the best whatever-the-hell-you-think-you-do-well, and maybe even sing and beat box and dance around a little, then I say you guys go ahead and knock yourselves out and do it as much as you want, but calling that garish spectacle "poetry" is just plain incorrect. The word "poetry" means something, and that ain't it.

Kurt Moore said...

I'll be the first to confess. When I was in school I hated poetry. Couldn't really see the sense in it.

Then I went to college and discovered Joy Harjo, Michael Bugeja and other modern poets. I discovered a whole world of poetry that I didn't know existed by poets that were still breathing, not ones who had been dead for a hundred or so years.

Anything that keeps this craft alive, that brings people in, can't be half bad. It does what Harjo and Bugeja did for me. It draws them in and hopefully keeps them alive and searching for more.

It's generations who want their info fed to them, spoon fed on text messages or brief updates that allude to the fact that something important is happening in the world or at least the world around them. Why should this not carry over into poetry? To each their own. Mr. Vermeersch hates it. Others like it. At least the discussion has been hatched. And, like others said, it's one that I think had been long coming.

Just like other kinds of art, you have your good and bad. Jessica Care Moore, Saul Williams and others have made slam poetry into an art form. So have many other slam poets.

Are there bad ones? Sure. Has page poetry turned out stinkers? Definitely. Go to any poetry reading. Scan the online poetry that has many gems but lets a few lumps of coal pass for art as well. Look at some lit mags that have poems lacking form, and others lacking heart.

Spoken word is just another evolution in not only poetry but drama as well. It is half poetry, half acting. Or at least it seems to me. And it's getting people's attention, drawing them in.

MTV helped turn poetry into something hip through its poetry slams. Nuroyican Poetry Cafe and Lollapalooza did the same. These readers I bet are not ones who would regularly go to a poetry reading. They are not the ones reading literary magazines like the New York Quarterly.

Granted, not all of this poetry looks as good on the written page. Neither do lyrics of some of the songs to which people listen. Part of it is performance.

As far as the spoken word. I have sat and looked through some of the printed literature magazines as well as the online ones and found poems that made me feel alive. Made me feel like writing or dancing or other things I won't go into since this blog isn't currently labeled as adult only.

I've also found poetry that would be good to help me sleep on a sleepless night.

I agree with it all and I don't agree with any of it. I'm just excited to find such a discussion and such a heated discussion as it is. It does show that, no matter what taste, poetry is alive.

Anonymous said...

Looks like I'm late to the party. So I'll simply say this: Back in 2002, my then-creative partner and I, neophytes to the Toronto arts scene and poetry in general, went to the I.V. Lounge Reading Series, which Mr. Vermeersch hosted at the time, and asked him if we could perform our spoken ranting screaming there. Surprisingly, Paul turned down our generous offer, but he also suggested that we put on our own show. Then, he introduced us to the owner of the I.V. Lounge and recommended potential artists to feature for a reading series, we never even imagined running in the first place. That series, Get Your Strap On, lasted only two years but in the process gave initial opportunities to many of the great writers and performers that make up the Toronto performance poetry community today, and it would never have happened without the assistance of Mr. Vermeersch. For someone who hates spoken word, Paul you sure have played an important role in fostering the Toronto performance poetry community of today. Cheers for that!

Rahul Gupta, a.k.a That Brown Bastard!
Former Co-Host of Get Your Strap On performance and reading series 2002-04

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

Oh wow, look above, it's Canada's foremost Spoken Word Poet, MC Kevin Connolly.

Well said, too. I'm trying, as I read through these comments, to find a new venue of complaint and not just pick fights along the lines that have already been drawn. But to run with something MC Kevin said, I think that the misappropriation of that word "education" in SW is something that drives a lot of us "written poets" away. Note: Can I shorten "written poets" to "writers" without collapsing under the weight of SW-ers scorn? I shall try.

I've heard a lot of SW pieces start with some variation on "let me tell you about ____". Now, typically BLANK is some sort of legitimate global or local societal failure. What is obnixious about the performances to follow is A. as MC Connolly said, there's an assumption that your audience has never seen a newspaper and would really appreciate a grade-seven social studies lesson and B. that you are the ideal person to enlighten everyone.

My problems with B are twofold, one is that the poem wants to turn the global into the personal, and while that's a big part of the literature of social justice, it tends towards so much reductionism in contemporary SW that all we are left with is an anecdote of such blinding egocentricism that it boils down to something like "Racism is bad because it ruined my day" or "Poverty is bad because I can't afford beer"

Even this, I don't really have a problem with. What makes it inconceivably naive is that it SW is so often assigned the tag of being a "socially progressive" art form. And of course, once you get that tag and everybody believes you, it doesn't matter how egocentric or uneducated your take on the issue dealt with may be.

So much spoken world is performed by and for people who only need a t-shirt or a button to express their political opinion, who think in 30-second soundbites and in catchphrases: "progressive", "unity", "people power", "ME!"

Paul Vermeersch said...

Those are all excellent points, Jake.

And you're welcome, Rahul. I remember that well, and I was glad I was able to help you guys make your own scene. And you raise a very interesting point. Why didn't I book you guys for a reading in my series back then? There's a simple answer: because I don't believe that, by-and-large, people who come to a reading to see poets who work in the literary tradition are actually all that interested in seeing spoken word performers, too. It's two separate things that appeal to two separate sensibilities. The effort to meld these things together is misguided mostly because the vast majority of people who are interested in one really don't care that much for the other.

I hear how much a lot of spoken word performers love poetry, but they don't really read it, do they? Then they throw out names like Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen, only the most obvious exponents available to them, and they declare that they know a thing or two about poetry on the page. And then, in the next breath, they call "page poetry" boring and dull. For people who don't like to read poetry books, and who think reading poetry on paper is boring, I don't understand why they’re so desperate to call themselves poets and to get a "feature" at a literary reading series like the I.V. Lounge or the Art Bar, unless by yoking these two disparate discourses together, they are hoping that some of the respectability and legitimacy of literary work will rub off on underdog of spoken word somehow.

Look, let's be honest, the regular crowd at the Toronto Poetry Slam doesn't actually like literary poetry and they don’t want to sit through a truly literary poetry reading by challenging literary poet anymore than the literature-loving crowd at the Art Bar (or what's left of it) or the I.V. Lounge wants to sit through 20 minutes of slick posturing and exaggerated delivery from a spoken word performer. And you know what? Literary poets don't enter slams because they know they are neither wanted nor appreciated in those venues. How about some considerate reciprocity from the Spoken Word community? Why do you have to infiltrate and co-opt our art form and our scenes when, by your admission, the attendance at your own events is great? Why crash our party? Just for the glamour? If we would like to have a reading series that caters to the tastes of lovers of literature, like the Art Bar used to be, to remain a place where we can go and enjoy actual literature, then I think we have just as much of a right to that as Slam Poets have to their own venues and events. This is why I have condemned the increase of Spoken Word and Slam Style poetry at the Art Bar over the past year. From a purely curatorial standpoint, it’s bad booking and doesn’t make any aesthetic sense to the audience or to the participants.

Sheniz J said...


At first I was actually quite furious with your blog but your posts that have followed have actually provided stronger arguments than the blog itself.

I don't enter slam competitions purely for the reason you mentioned above. Yes, I identify myself as a 'spoken word' artist but I'm also a 'page' poet.

However, I have been asked to perform at 'literary' reading series. You were at one of them- Strong Words. I'm sure you were irked by my delivery- the fact that I stood on a chair and gestured in your direction.

But I'm not going to apologize. I was asked,so I performed.

There are two very distinct communities of 'poets' in Toronto. The 'spoken word' artists and the 'page' poets. What pisses me off about this is that we are not creating a dialogue between two communities, we're simply avoiding each other. OR we don't know enough about each other so when we do have guest 'page' poets or guest 'stage' poets, they're often the crap of the crop.

What needs to happen--

1) Spoken word (and this is something that I always try to emphasize with my own initiative, Ignite Poets)must be a combination of STRONG content and strong performance style. There are way too many spoken word artists who have absolutely nothing to say but say it in such a way that it makes us think that they're saying something.

2)'Page poetry' must also be re-evaluated. I have been to countless 'literary' readings where authors can't read their own work worth a dime.

My question is- why can't we learn from each other? I'm not saying spoken word artists should become page poets or vice versa. I'm not saying we should infiltrate each other's 'scenes'. I'm not saying that we need to come to a consensus. But the best spoken word artists can learn from the best page poets, and vice versa. We can debate, we can argue, but we can learn. Call it naive. So be it.

Additionally, Paul, you mentioned that most spoken word artists don't read poetry. I'm wondering if I'm the only exception.

Either way, thanks for writing this- it allows us to really think about our own ideas of what poetry is- and what spoken word is. There are more than 70 comments posted in response to this blog. At least we know that people actually care about these issues.

lips to the mike said...

Paul, you are stating your views as fact here, which they are not. There are many people who go to the Toronto Poetry Slam who enjoy reading poetry and enjoy "literary" poets at the Art Bar or IV Lounge, myself included. There are many people who enjoy the Art Bar that don't mind if we have 20 minutes of spoken word art once every couple of weeks, myself included. There are people who've tried their hand at spoken word who love to read poetry, myself included. I consider my sensibilities to be open-minded, which is why I have a much broader, more liberal definition of poetry. It's why I still consider Bitches Brew to be a great jazz record, as I mentioned earlier. It's why I feel no shame in keeping my Coltrane, Monk and Miles Davis records together with my Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden records. I feel everyone will have a different point of view in life and to be something you shouldn't have to denounce something. If I want to be socially conscious, I shouldn't have to vow to never drink Budweiser or never buy socks in Wal-Mart again. To be a poet, yes it will help you to take the time and read the poetry of others. It is strongly recommended, obviously by you, by myself and anyone who loves poetry. But if someone wants to check out a slam and get a different perspective, power to them. That's their business.

Chris Banks said...

Again,people, you are missing the point. Paul is not calling for the end of spoken word. He is calling for the end of “spoken word” being called poetry and slam performers who never read poetry refering to themselves as poets. Why? Because it is a hustle. Something akin to those old time Revival tents where a bunch of charlatans start speaking in tongues to rave applause and there are group hugs at the end.

Listen, poetry does not need to be made “hip” for the MTV generation. They have MTV for that.

Poetry and spoken word are very different mediums. Poetry is something I and Paul and others care deeply about and spoken word is something we think of as a kind of aural-kinesthetic masturbation that delivers the requisite amount of JPM’s (or jolts per minute) to an audience who does not have the attention span to sit through a poetry reading or to go out and actively read a poetry book. And nope, Khalil Gibran still does not count (but it does look really, really cool sitting on a coffee table).

If other people like spoken word, that is great. Whatever floats your boat, man. But we poets do not want to see it and we certainly do not want to share a stage with spoken word performers because the audience is clearly there for “the big show” and not to attentively listen to poetry.

A poetry reading is NOT a gig. A poetry reading is NOT a mic check. It is, however, a poetry reading. And poets read to people who read poems. So when people rope spoken word performers into already established poetry reading series, what they are really trying to do is legitimize spoken word as poetry. This is a dishonest practice and I imagine this is what sparked Paul’s rant in this first place.

Paul Vermeersch said...


You are so right on!


I know full well that you have written some very interesting work, but it will come as no surprise to you that I think your ghazals, etc. are more successful as poetry than your spoken word work. And it should come as no surprise that I don't think anyone in the history of poetry has written a poem that is actually improved by standing on a chair, and I don’t think anyone ever will.

I know a lot of poets are terrible readers of their own poetry, but I don't think that has anything to do with the literary value of their poetry. E.E. Cummings was a terrible reader of his own poems, as was T.S. Eliot, as was Wallace Stevens. It is undeniable, though, that they were three of the most important poets of American modernism. Rod McKuen, on the other hand, was a very charming stage poet, and is now widely regarded as one of the worst schlock poets of the 20th century. Being more charming or animated on stage will not have made any of them better poets, that is, better writers, and McKuen proves that. A good performance of a good poem is gravy. The poem's the thing. Let me ask you something. Was Sappho a good reader of her own poetry? No one knows and no one cares. It’s irrelevant. That's why we still read Solomon and Sappho, Homer and Hesiod, and on and on. Now, when a great poet can deliver a truly great reading, we have something on the order of Dylan Thomas. I have not seen anything approaching the quality of a Dylan Thomas reading in my lifetime (although Mark Strand might be the most charismatic poet I’ve ever seen give a live reading), which is why I believe poets should concentrate on writing the best poems they can. Charm in front of a crowd can scarcely be taught, but we must do our best to not embarrass our poems when we read them. But first, we must write the poems! If they fail on the page, they will never succeed on the stage, and they will fall into irrelevance.


A.F. Moritz is one of greatest poets in the country. His work is complex, challenging, thoughtful, rich in history and tradition but still innovative, and it is endlessly intellectually rewarding. It is not, however, loud and flashy. It is quite and contemplative. Now tell me with a straight face that the regular crowd at the Toronto Poetry Slam wouldn’t boo this titan of poetic talent right off the stage so they can cheer for someone who is guilty of all the criticisms I have outlined so far? Why should I, or any interested serious literary poetry, feel positively disposed toward that?

Sheniz J said...


You're right. It comes as no surprise that you think my 'page' work is better than my stage work, and of course your opinion about me performing standing on a chair is one I expected. I also know that there are people who don't 'get' my ghazals at all, and actually find more merit in my spoken word.

However, in both 'fields' of work, I attempt to push the boundaries. Whether the poem was more successful standing on a chair is up to the audience to decide. You didn't think so, the two guys behind you did. This is what it is about isn't it? Observing and documenting reactions from different people-- all with various understandings of what is effective and what isn't.

Your opinion is your opinion, and I'm not going to shit on your head for your honesty.

You're also right about literary giants and their terrible readings--almost became their trademarks. Perhaps the fear these days is that poetry is falling out of favour with the younger generation because its not entertaining enough. However, that does not go to say that shitty poetry should be entertaining and it'll make it better, or that incredible literary poetry should smear itself all over MTV.

But spoken word has always been performed poetry--it has been written for performance. I know damn well that some of my spoken word wouldn't as effective on the page, but its because I write it for the stage. This is the distinction we're not making.

We're trying to transfer something that is oral onto a page. Not to say that it can't be done- but we have to look at the intention of the the person performing the work- do they want their work to be transferred onto paper or do they want it to simply exist in the moment they perform it?

Also, we're talking about 'poetry' as if we have the same definition of it across the board. Clearly, we don't. Some of us think spoken word is poetry, some of it (very obviously) don't. This is not something that can be resolved in a blog response, or years and years of discussion. It has been a continuous debate throughout history.

I respect your OPINION, Paul, that spoken word is not poetry. However, the danger arises when we claim our opinions to be absolute truth.

My OPINION is that spoken word CAN be poetry- when done well, when written with care and consideration, with thoughtfulness and originality.

But its my opinion. And there will be those that agree, and those that disagree. It's the nature of the argument.

Now lets hug and kiss and make up! :P

Paul Vermeersch said...


Wouldn't agree that the very best oral poetry works perfectly well when read on the page? Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were oral poetry, and are still beautiful on the page. The same goes for William Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Derek Walcott, Olive Senior and George Elliott Clarke.

Even if you feel that performance of a poem is equally important, why would you purposely limit your poetical work to only fulfilling half of its potential?

Sheniz J said...

Hm. You make a good point here, Paul.

But there's something unfulfilling about a piece that is meant to be performed being confined to the page.

When I say 'effective' I don't mean limiting potential. I mean that it doesn't come 'alive' in the same way it would when it is being performed. That being said, I've had quite a few people ask me for hard copies of my spoken word. So hey, I could be wrong here.

When G.E Clarke reads his work, it comes to life for me. When I read it on the page, it doesn't do it for me.

Same with the epics. When I hear them read aloud, I care, I want to listen. But when I read them on the page, it's not the same.

However, with Shakespeare, I do think it is just as effective on the page as it is on the stage. Hopkins, not so much. Prefer reading about dappled things on the page.

So you see, it's my opinion.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And there, Sheniz, you have helped me make the point that there is a huge difference between oral poetry and spoken word performances. Oral poetry is not "confined" to a page, rather it occupies a different, and equally important, dimension.

Spoken word doesn't care if its well-written. It's about performing first and foremost, not writing, not reading, and that's why it isn't poetry.

Sheniz J said...

Whew. Well NOW I understand what your definition of spoken word is. I wish we could change your mind so that you wouldn't hate us all.

See your definition of spoken word would be my definition of bad spoken word.

Valentino Assenza said...

You know...I have to say...the aftermath of this blog is rather hilarious.

I think of what White Noise said:

"Page poetry and spoken word are not inherently seperate artforms"

I totally agree with that. I mean recently someone in the comments cited Robert Priest for being an exceptional page poet. I wonder if this same person is aware as I had mentioned before, that Robert gave an anthology of spoken word an kick-ass review in Now Magazine?

I'm someone that attends Toronto Poetry Slam rather regularly, yet also sits on the committee for the Art Bar. So yet another generalization that regulars of Toronto Poetry Slam not having time for poetry that appears at the Art Bar can go out the window.

The other thing that I am seeing in these comments, is that spoken word artists, for the most part are being open minded and saying that they are interested in page poetry, and appreciating both art forms. However the people that are claiming they are the "textbook" definition poets are asking spoken word artists to cease and desist calling themselves poets, because they don't abide by what their definition of poetry is?...Am I the only one that thinks that's a little off?

And I'm sure all spoken word artists that are reading this are organizing a meeting as we speak so we can get together throw our hands up in the air and collectively say:

"We are no longer poets, because Paul Vermeersch and co. say so on blogger."

lips to the mike said...

"Now tell me with a straight face that the regular crowd at the Toronto Poetry Slam wouldn’t boo this titan of poetic talent right off the stage so they can cheer for someone who is guilty of all the criticisms I have outlined so far?"

*straight face* I know I wouldn't. I won't speak for anyone else, but Slam audiences are usually very respectful and understand everyone's a winner when they have the guts to get on stage and perform and publicly have their work judged. If you aren't a great reader of your work or a good performer, if you don't exhibit the emotion you held when you were writing your piece, I'm probably not giving you a high score if I'm judging, but I respect what you did. It's performance poetry. You don't have to like it. You don't have to support it, but it's here and not going away soon. If you write a piece full of jumping up and down and yelling that's full of unoriginal cliches and it looks to me like you wrote something because the guy who won last month said something similar, you aren't getting a high score from me either. It's frustrating when people do this and get high scores. One of my criticisms of slam is there are a lot of people solely interested in getting points and not trying to be as artistic as they could be. It's the sport of Slam that gets in the way of the art of poetry. I don't expect you to believe spoken word is art and I know you won't, but things are being stated as truths that are a matter of personal opinion.

David said...

Tripp here. Especially spooky.

I've read the cyclonic winds meeting up till now... but

I get it, jackastars of all trades, jedi master of none. Sheniz said "y question is- why can't we learn from each other? I'm not saying spoken word artists should become page poets or vice versa." But I'm just saying that its' hard to call a baseball game in the first inning. But I wouldn't know anything about that, i play basketball so what would I know about catching and chucking a sphere? Trajectory belongs on a chalk board not the sidewalk next to some graphite.

Who should be aloud to perform shakyspears' Macbeth, the guy who writes preppy essays' about whether Macbeth was a play about possession or human frailty or the guy whos' spent their life in an insainassylenceem c having hallucinatory dreamy sleepwalking and marks on their hand? Probably neither, give it to a trained unemployed actor if they do better in the audition. Shakespeare didn't write stage directions or explain how his work should be read +ether so I'm not sure what you mean when you suggest that rappers are using emphasis that weren't highlighted by the mathematical logic of the composition. Anyway, I didn't bring up Spear Shakers' well rhymed colloquialism filled sonnetry to argue about Voldemort. I was just suggesting that he wasn't always writing about who you thought he was writing about until I started reading it. Romes burning and I'm rushing that type writer while you got the Citizen elected senate chanting "C easier can do no wrong". No seriously, the poetry only reads properly when you muffle your ears with the palms of your hands and stamp your feat screaming "I can't hear you".

your just scared cause poetry used to be one of those things snobs could throw in your face when you tried to tell them about life smarts. Now its' found its roots and your still trying to chop down the tree to print your archaic exultation to the king; the 50's is still living in pre elvis, play more that republican hip hop as long as my daughter doesn't have to listen to it.
And lil G. Stay the hell out my universe city cause you don't make the rules in this existentialist bully experiment where I and 10 other dark knights at the square table decided that you don't exist on the radar. I tell you you're wrong and you're like "were still in the bunker trynna win this"
oh and by the way everybody, check out what I just learned today! poetry's just a few thousand years old. Those 90 thousand years before the 10000yearago agricultural revolution in Mesopotamia, that was just monkeys dancing around the fire singing whale songs.

Your right, things were better before the Vatican let people start writing their own ish. Poetry must be sipped with old skin wine and, god for bid, not at the boddom of a JD bottle.

The Odyssey? Yeah yeah, I read the Penelopiad. Yes, definitely I understand what you meant from my outsiders view of what you typed. Women should be oppressed in accurate representations of poetic lineage. Congratulations on the name drop, 0dog forbid that someone comes up with a story that doesn't involve a sailing ship and a boat room full of men that don't get none. But i know why you said that, i get who's expected to know that. The Illiad? That origami horse has sailed my friend, and its not folding back.

so what if some random person 20 years older than me heard a new name and starts pulling names out of his hat from essays he wrote for cigar smoking proffecors while I was out doing verbal gymnastics in freestyle battles. They're on the list alright? Trust me, the jocks bullied both of us. Its not like everyone ran up to the articulate with open arms because one was a poet and the other a spoken word artist. If you used your words in an over zealously indirect way, you weren't listened to. But you want to showcase one kind of written word? You want the Nerds Nerds to have some little corner to crawl into so they don't have to go head to head with the shell shockers. Do you know how you get that sash and gavel ceremony? Pick the judges yourself. Don't select anyone from anyone. Select the pricks and the pricks will win. Its' just that simple. Then everyone can laugh about how their books are so much better than everyone else's books and we can segregate the entire literary intelligentsia of Toronto.

I remembered a quote from a small book of Robert Frosts prose. I found it again online, I think he puts this together much better than I struggle to.
"They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like stars coming out in the sky in the early evening. They have flashes of light. They have that sort of thing which belong to youth. It is later in the dark of life that you see forms, constellations. And it is the constellations that are philosophy. It is like forcing a too early mathematics on a child, to bring him to philosophy too Young. We have system and we have plan all too soon now. You know too well and have convictions too well by the time you are forty. The flashing is done, the coming out of the stars. It is all constellations"

Jmm said...

Tripp is just 2 cool 4 skool.

David said...

Chris Banks said...

Please David or Tripp or whoever you are,

Do no call William Shakespeare" Spear Shaker" and then afterwards quickly solder his ouevre to Harrry Potter. This is exactly what we are talking about. You are an idiot.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Chris, right again!

Mike, the very idea that poetry is something that should receive points and scores in a public contest is repulsive. Poetry is art, not sport. Slams have nothing to do with poetry. They reward only the most unctuously overblown tantrums. You seem to decry this yourself, and yet you keep going. More power to you. But it isn't poetry.

And Sheniz, yes, poetry is an art form, first and foremost, of writing. And yes, even good oral poetry should be well written on the page before it is recited. And you'll note I said "recited," not "performed." Poetry is a literary art, not a performing art.

A lot of people have the sad delusion that poetry is last best chance for all the failed rappers and failed actors and failed comedians (and yes, even failed writers) to at least pretend they are still some kind of artist. But that is not what poetry is. It is not the democratic catch basin of artistic failure. That is, however, what spoken word appears to have become. Still, whatever else it may be, it is about performance, and that is not what poetry is about.

If something needs to be performed before it can be considered a complete work of art, then it is something else, something other than poetry. It is a kind of theatre (although I suspect that most branches of the theatre world would also bristle at being lumped in with spoken word). Spoken word seems to appear the crossroads of theatre performance and song writing (being, at least loosely, and I stress LOOSELY, a kind of lyrical endeavour that requires performance for its fulfillment), but where the work fails at both and becomes neither: instead, a kind of gormless, non-art. Wherever that crossroads roads may be, it is far far away from the present precincts of contemporary poetry.

Now, I have said what I don’t like about spoken word. I’m not saying other people shouldn’t like it. I’m not saying other people shouldn’t go and enjoy it and have a good time. And I’m not saying that a person can’t like both poetry and spoken word; absolutely they can, just as they can like auto racing and basketball, but that doesn’t mean that auto racing and basketball are the same thing, nor does it mean that everyone who likes basketball should also like auto racing. Spoken word is not poetry, and calling poetry will never actually make it poetry anymore than calling a fish a dog will turn a trout into man’s best friend. And I stand firmly by the pronouncement that calling spoken word “poetry” is a detrimental affront to the delicate art of the written word.

Sheniz J said...

But your definition of poetry is your definition. It isn't how everyone defines it. We're not competing with 'page' poetry, because we're performance poets. That said, there are performance poets who would suggest that spoken word is no different than page poetry. For me, personally, it is.


BOTH, in my understanding of the term 'poetry', are poetry. Not the same kind of poetry, but poetry.

You are free to disagree- because you are entitled to your opinion.

However, opinion is not absolute truth.

The statement, 'Spoken word isn't poetry' is an opinion, not a truth. Your truth, maybe. But not the only truth.

Even within the realm of 'literary' discussion, poets/academics disagree about what poetry is. To some, free verse isn't poetry. To others, it is. And what about Brick Magazine and their 'picture' poems? They considered those things to be poems, whereas others didn't. Therefore, we cannot simply make these sweeping generalizations about what 'poetry' is. Just look at Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry' and the lengths he went to in an attempt to define Poetry vs. poetry. And he still received criticism from his peers.

And what makes poetry 'poetry'? There is a hell of a lot of 'page poetry' that I do not consider to be poetry. Mind you, there is a lot of spoken word that I don't consider to be poetry. And vice versa.

So, as you stand firmly on your ground, so will I.

We cannot reach a consensus if our very perceptions of 'poetry' differ.

Valentino Assenza said...

A lot of people have the sad delusion that poetry is last best chance for all the failed rappers and failed actors and failed comedians (and yes, even failed writers) to at least pretend they are still some kind of artist. But that is not what poetry is. It is not the democratic catch basin of artistic failure. That is, however, what spoken word appears to have become.

Really? Well then how do you explain people like Shane Koyczan, and Rives from L.A. making careers for themselves from this so called "failed attempt?" I'd love you to see Shane Koyczan perform his POETRY to a crowd of people, and then rationalize that what he's doing is a failed attempt at something else. Not some kind of artist, a spoken word artist, I know you don't want to believe it, but it's true. People even myself have been paid, to get on a stage for 20 minutes, or however long and perform poetry, it doesn't just encompass a slam atmosphere. I had close to 30 features last year, and only a handful of them were in slam capacities.

If it's such a failed attempt, why are there television shows revolving around it? Why is this failed attempt garnering massive audiences? Why is this failed attempt entering schools on a regular basis, and educating our youth?....Oh yeah by the way spoken word artists get paid for school appearances too.

You may not like spoken word, fine, but don't say that spoken word artists aren't poets, and that they are failures at other things, because the reality is, and I don't just speak for myself, that we are successful at spoken word, because it's what we believe in, regardless of what anyone says on their blog or wherever.

Spoken word, is another form of poetry, and it isn't going away anytime soon Paul, deal with it.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Sheniz, I don't understand why you are so resistant to the notion that a poem should be well written no matter if it is intended to be read silently or delivered on a stage.

Valentino, I didn't suggest that all spoken word performers are failed artists from some other field, I suggested that spoken word and slam scene attracts these kind of people because someone can still do spoken word without having any particular knowledge about, or talent for, the craft of writing and still have people clap for them and tell them how great they are.

I will admit that spoken word is popular, but that doesn’t make it good, and it doesn’t make it poetry. As Bertram Russell said, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it's still a foolish thing.” And if fifty million people like something that is hackneyed and unsubtle, it is still hackneyed and unsubtle. How else do you explain the popularity of Full House? Or Miley Cyrus? Or….

And since you brought him up, I have seen Shane Koyczan perform his work, more than once, and I have even watched a lot of his stuff on YouTube, trying to figure out what all the fuss is about, and I’m sorry to tell you, there was nothing at all about what he does that I thought was compelling, or original, or particularly well-crafted as POETRY. He has a pretty good sense of comic timing and a knack for obvious rhymes. He knows how to start slow and quiet and then build up to something fast and emphatic, which creates a rising drama and perhaps even approximates passion. Audiences will tend to like these kinds of things, and they aren’t wrong to do so, but after a couple of pieces like this, the formula begins to show its limitations. Maybe this is what it means to be good at spoken word. But honestly, I also find his work terribly clichéd (one his pieces, for example, ends with this tired sentiment, “…because I’m yours from the bottom to the top, and I’m not just saying I’ll be here for you, I’m saying I’ll never stop). I count four clichés there, and a painfully worn-out rhyme, and that’s only a fragment of a sentence. He’s a good performer, sure, but not such a great writer. It might succeed as spoken word, but as poetry I would have to say it’s poetically unsuccessful as at very basic level. And he does the syllable counting and pointing to himself thing with his hands way too much. What IS THAT, anyway? Why do you guys DO THAT? Is it supposed to be entertaining?

If anything positive comes out of this debate, and I really do hope something positive comes out of it, and I hope it gets people thinking about the craft of their writing a little more seriously, but if only one good thing comes out of this debate, I hope it’s that syllable counting hand thing goes away for good.

Rusty Priske said...

Just an aside... and maybe Toronto is different than Ottawa...

"Now tell me with a straight face that the regular crowd at the Toronto Poetry Slam wouldn’t boo this titan of poetic talent right off the stage so they can cheer for someone who is guilty of all the criticisms I have outlined so far?"

I have NEVER heard anyone booed off the stage of a Poetry Slam. EVER.

Again, though, you may be confusing respect and acceptance with winning, but if that is your definition then MOST poets at a slam are 'booed off stage' since there is only one winner per Slam.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Okay, if not boo, then roll their eyes and not really listen.

Jacob Scheier said...

I think spoken word poetry is a kind of genre of writing like sci-fi or fantasy. There are amazing works of writing, of course, in those genres, but as a genre tend to follow a formula. I think its hard to deny there is a formula in place for spoken word poetry - in fact must be in order to compete in slams. Does this make it inherently bad or 'not poetry' - no, but it makes it, usually, predictable. I kind of think of spoken word like blockbuster action movies - there are some superb, entertaining and interesting action films - like the Matrix or first series of Star Wars movies. Shane Koyczan is perhaps The Matrix of spoken word. Most of the people in the recent Mic Check book are also very good - but are ultimately confined by the genre they are working in.

Higgins said...

I like that "genre" idea. Arthur C. Clarke (genre) versus George Elliot Clarke (enthusiastic "page"-poetry) versus Clarke Gable (acting). That was a joke by the way, no need for critique... but seriously: It's a very interesting debate, and while this is quite the intelligent bunch, I must say that some pretty ignorant things have been said. While I identify more with the "page"-poetry scene, I also like Frank Herbert, about as much as I like Joss Whedon, about as much as I like George Elliot Clarke, about as much as I like Kerouac. The difference is the axis on which I think of these artists: think horizontal as opposed to vertical. I like them for different reasons... because each one is "good" at something different: Herbert for his compelling futures, ramming human nature up against the far side of time and seeing what leaks out of our natures; GE Clarke for his unmatched performances (and yes, they are performances, often involving music); Whedon for his urban fantasy aesthetics and his juxtaposition of the real and the unreal (see also Kafka, Robertson Davies, Borges, etc.).

It's all about "resonance". How something resonates with the individual. Art does not exist in a vacuum however, and shared influences are great, but the majority doesn't win in matters as subjective as art, I think.

Personally, I think that certain posters on either side of this debate have a bit of a myopic view of things for my taste: I don't think anyone here is an id-iot based on what resonates with them in terms of the poetry they find in their art, and I don't think that people who spent half a decade of their life learning about other writers and applying that knowledge to their own artistic endevors are "squares", intellectual ludites (because thought is a kind of biological software), or, again, idiots.

Anyway, just trying to keep things in (a) perspective. Hope to hear opinions on any of this. Happy debating!

Paul Vermeersch said...

Higgins, my point about GE Clarke was that no matter what he writes, whether a sonnet, or a free verse poem, or even an Opera libretto, his work is always elegantly and well crafted on the page. Whether giving and enthusiastic reading, or a full scale musical performance of an aria, he does not look for excuses to write sloppily written verse, hoping the performance will somehow elevate it above its intrinsic literary value.

higgins said...

Very true about Clarke, Paul, but doesn't that also say something about the potential for SW beyond the gangsta-isms etc.? I'm not saying Clarke is ultimately SW, but he approaches that fuzzy area between performance art and pure "reading" while, admittedly, erring on the side of poetry.

I think maybe the two camps can be reconciled, the problem being the natural tendency (including my own: I'm scaring myself as I write this) to fear change. Think of the Beats, think of bpNichol, think of all the negative reviews Layton used to get based on his cursing and sex (in his writing). All fronts of change have their negative and positive examples as far as "quality" is concerned, and, as someone stated above, judging a group based on the worst examples is stereotyping (though I am secure in the fact that no offense was meant).

I can't say FOR SURE that I'd react differently than those more traditionalist critics, which Is why I'm not slamming anyone's opinion, but I just think a little outside-the-box thinking (not to sound Lilburn-esque) might be doing both camps a huge favor in the LONG-run in terms of evolution of form and access by the public (which I think is important, as I am of the non-Auden camp of optimism toward poetry's ability to "change" things).

Paul Vermeersch said...


Absolutely the two camps can be reconciled!

And the secret to this reconciliation, I suspect, is hidden deep inside what we've been saying about George Elliott Clarke's writing, and William Shakespeare's writing, and so on. That secret is this: no matter what you intend to do with a "poem" as far as it's oral delivery or "performance" is concerned, if you begin with a poem that is carefully and expertly crafted as a "poem," one that reveals the attention to detail and depth of thought that qualify it for what might be called “literary merit,” then you may call it "poetry" and you may be called a "poet."

Such a well-made piece of writing will not require the typical stage mannerisms and showy affectations of the spoken word performer, but if that's how you want to hurl your poem at the audience, so be it. At least it was well written to begin with.

If, however, what you begin with is a sloppy, turgid, naive scrap of broken prose, one that is peppered with clichés and stale rhymes, one that is completely unencumbered by poetic technique or literary merit, and if you use the typical stage mannerisms and showy affectations of the spoken word performer in an attempt to elevate it above its inborn shortcomings to the status of some kind of performance art, however lame an example of such art it might be, then I would suggest that it is not a poem and that it's creator is quite likely not a poet.

higgins said...

That is a good point, and I'm glad we're on the same page for the most part. I agree save for a little uneasiness concerning what I think is a kind of elitism, though I would NOT use the term "snobbery". I suppose it all depends on what one's individual love of poetry grows out of, and on how high a pedestal it lies as a natural result.

Well, this has been interesting, and I look forward to the day I look back and say, "Heh. I remember a time when online debate/arguments reached a fever pitch over something as simple as Spoken Word performances...", hopefully by then there'll be more stable ground for the topic's discussion. Until then I remain somewhere on the fence, closer to the written side...

White Noise said...

Paul, I think you're still not really getting the fact that spoken word poetry is specifically poetry that is written to be performed.

Your example about that ultimate line in one of Shane Koyczan's piece isn't making the point you think it is, because it was written with the additional interplay of his vocal delivery, the emotional velocity of the piece, and the other people in the room in mind.

No, it isn't the greatest line by itself, but it works in the piece as a whole when performed by Shane. To pick out those words and attack them is kind of like having someone read out the lettered chord changes in a Beethoven piece and then saying Beethoven was a horrible composer because such a list is boring.

Someone working on a page poem has the cross-poem tension of their various images, the internal tension of their chosen metaphors, and the interplay of assonance and alliteration; a performance poet adds considerations of pitch, physicality, and timing to the litany of things to be balanced and used as raw material.

While I completely agree with your above comment about crafted writing, I don't understand the apparent belief that performance considerations are frills left outside the halls of art, sleeping in the doghouse.

The fact that you have seen bad spoken word artists doesn't mean spoken word is not an art, just like Jewel writing a poetry book doesn't mean page poetry isn't art.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Oh good. I get to make post #100.

White Noise,

You are still expecting me to swallow the argument that because a piece of writing is meant to be performed that that is somehow a justification for it being poorly written in the first place. And no, I will not buy this argument. It is merely a smokescreen to excuse the laziness, lack of poetic expertise, and lack of talent for the written word that is endemic (and accepted, and often encouraged!) in the spoken word and slam scenes. (Sorry, Shane K., but your notoriety has made you a convenient example.) Shane Koyczan's affected delivery doesn't rescue his clichés from their banality, nor does it bestow upon his clunky rhymes some magical mantle of cleverness that was absent on the page. It is still bad writing, no matter how it is delivered. The one example I illuminated earlier was only one example, and I have no intention of deconstructing S.K.’s oeuvre down to its clichéd constituents just to prove my point; his work does that well enough on its own if you actually listen to the words he is speaking. A stage magician uses “misdirection” – i.e. waving his handkerchief or gesturing to his assistant – to direct the attention of the audience away from his tricks. Spoken word performers use misdirection, too… to direct the attention of the audience away from the quality of their writing.

The "intention" of performance does not engender the condition of excellence in a piece of writing that is otherwise embarrassingly trite or naïf, and neither does the adulation of a mob who came because they wanted to clap for something, for anything. Even a mob of sports fans will cheer when their team is losing.

If the "performance" itself is the art, and the quality of the words themselves are, as you would have it, ultimately irrelevant depending on how they are performed, then again, that is something completely different from poetry. By all means, have your criteria for an excellent "performance" and try your best to meet them, but don’t call it poetry, because it isn’t. Poetry is made of words, not of posturing and flouncing about on stage. An excellently crafted poem, even one given the most abysmal recitation by the most wooden of presenters, is still an excellently crafted poem. And clichéd writing without any real poetic technique, even when it is all jacked up with a performance of claps and whistles, is still bad writing without poetic technique, and it isn’t, and never will be, poetry. It might be a script for a performance, but again and again and again, it isn’t poetry.

And before someone tosses out the E-word again. Am I an elitist? Maybe I am. I’m not really sure. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it here: I don’t think you have to be an expert to enjoy a well-written poem, but I do think you need to be an expert to make one.

White Noise said...

"You are still expecting me to swallow the argument..."

I'm not force-feeding you here, Paul. I'm discussing.

"...that because a piece of writing is meant to be performed that that is somehow a justification for it being poorly written in the first place."

No, I'm expecting you to not judge one art form by another's standards. I'm expecting you, as such a discerning and expert writer, to be able to differentiate between pieces which are primarily works of performance and pieces which are primarily works of poetry (you may resent the adulteration of the form, but poetry is often not intended as the main object of a spoken word piece, but just one influence, just as works of prose may draw heavily on poetic gestures). I'm hoping you'd be able to acknowledge that it is possible to write a well-crafted piece of performance-oriented poetry, like it's possible to write a well-crafted piece of anything else.

"And no, I will not buy this argument."

It's not for sale.

"clichéd writing without any real poetic technique, even when it is all jacked up with a performance of claps and whistles, is still bad writing without poetic technique"

Keep on beating this straw man if you've still got the energy, but I'm not disagreeing with you on that point, and I'm not sure if anyone else has.

"I don’t think you have to be an expert to enjoy a well-written poem, but I do think you need to be an expert to make one."

OK, yes, that is somewhat elitist. No "amateur" has ever produced an enjoyable poem? Really? And how do you define "expert?" Where's the cut-off line?

Paul Vermeersch said...

"No, I'm expecting you to not judge one art form by another's standards."



You admit that spoken word and poetry are different art forms! This the breakthrough I have been waiting for.

Okay now, please stop calling spoken word "poetry," since we both know that it isn't. Like you said, they are different art forms with different standards.

This is a banner day. What a breakthrough!

Paul Vermeersch said...

"I'm expecting you, as such a discerning and expert writer, to be able to differentiate between pieces which are primarily works of performance and pieces which are primarily works of poetry (you may resent the adulteration of the form, but poetry is often not intended as the main object of a spoken word piece, but just one influence, just as works of prose may draw heavily on poetic gestures)."

And PS: I can make that differentiation, Mr. Noise. This is exactly the differentiation I have been making all along.

Spoken word is not poetry. Is it an adulteration of the form. It is something different. Calling it poetry is incorrect, and it damages poetry by confusing the general public's understanding of what poetry is.

Thank you for helping me make the point I have been making all along. You are a treasure of logic and insight.

Paul Vermeersch said...

"OK, yes, that is somewhat elitist. No "amateur" has ever produced an enjoyable poem? Really? And how do you define "expert?" Where's the cut-off line?"


The word "amateur" means, literally, someone who loves his subject. All true poets are life-long amateurs.

"Expert" and "professional" are not synonymous. An expert is someone who knows a great deal about a given subject, far more than the layman, because he has engaged in an active, intensive study of it. This study needn't be sanctioned by some institution of higher learning. There is a long and distinguished history of autodidacts who were great poets, especially in Canada. The best poets have always been both experts and amateurs; they have devoted their lives to studying their craft because they love it, and they hate to see it adulterated and co-opted, thus the germination for this very discussion.

Art Durkee said...

The fundamental flaw with Slam is that it IS a competition. It brings out the worst in people, simply because it creates an atmosphere of competitiveness, of winners and losers. Even if the stakes are small—and they are indeed very very small—what does this do for collegiality and mutual respect among poets, between genres and styles and camps? It makes them compete. It creates an atmosphere of discourse in which scarcity rather than diversity is the unspoken underpinning. No one says it out loud, but everyone knows that only one style or genre of spoken-word can win, in the end. And that's why so many Slams look and sound alike.

You're right about one thing: I have never seen a poet actually booed off the stage at a Slam. What I have seen is even worse, a much more profound dismissal: turning their back on the poet on the stage, conversing at the table, drinking their drinks, and completely ignoring the performer. Indifference is much more powerful a rejection than hatred.

Valentino Assenza said...

Oh please Art as if that doesn't happen at page poetry readings too..

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

I agree with Valentino on that comptetition point. Even though he's the only person I've ever seen wear a Marlies jersey who wasn't specifically playing for the team at the time.

There are always quiet, unspoken, competitions at (at least group) poetry readings. You don't want to get upstaged, outclassed, etc. At least the slammer-bammers are honest about it.

Paul has been gradually fine-tuning his point these last few days. I like what you're saying now, Paul, about how performance poetry should be good enough to be considered as poetry before the performance poetry kicks in to amp it up to somewhere else.

I understand what noise is saying about different artforms, but it doesn't matter. Performance poetry is an artform that CONTAINS among the skills needed to do it, the ability to write poetry. Denying Paul's point is dishonest, it's like saying that movie's don't need to have a decent script nowadays because we can just throw an extra load of CGI and explosions onto the screen and nobody will notice that our writing is weak and often nonsensical. I notice, in both cases.

tomy bewick said...

Chris Banks: please apologise to David Tripp... name calling does nothing to advance your argument and he, as a young man, actually appears to get the referrences...

I, as a poetry primitive, (my gawd I was first published at age 8) am not getting the referrences.

Paul said I don't read enough, perhaps my tastes are low-brow.

I love poetry, I do not obsessively study the craft. I write and I create and I choose to perform some of it and publish others. Some scraps stay as scraps forever, as they should.

I don't believe any one person has the credibility to define my art for me and ask me to stop calling myself a "poet". I am an artist. I write poetry, I perform Spoken Word, I also design clothing, but I don't call myself a seamstress.

I only ever came to the ArtBar when asked, and Paul: if you were there, you may have noticed I was the only "reader" who garnished applause between poems, without signalling the audience that I wanted any.

But you may have been rolling your eyes at my theatrics.

I have taken this opportunity to consider my writing and performing for what they are, I will not seek to change anybody's mind, but if you think I will let you bully any of us out of your "club" you may find another thing coming.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...


The word you're looking for, based on your description of yourself, is "hobbyist". You are a poetry hobbyist. Sorry if that reeks of the big "E" word (elitism) but it's the truth as you spelled it out for me. There's nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, poetry is a great hobby. But as someone who (your words) said you don't obsessively study the stuff, please don't denegrate those who do by still asking to call yourself an "artist".

Poetry is hard, dude. Really fucking hard. Obsessive study is really your only option if you want to do something new.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

... and even then (I should add) there's no guarantee of any success.

That's the game (or, as you said, "the club"). Are you sure you want in?

Paul Vermeersch said...

Jacob, his name is Tomy, not Tony. Okay, so…


I saw your performance at the Art Bar, and I will not offer to review it here, aside from the probably obvious assessment that it was not my cup of tea. But....

It is interesting to me that you say you love poetry, but of the 61 books listed on your virtual bookshelf on Facebook, among the numerous horror and fantasy novels, not one of them is a collection of poetry or a book on poetics. This might suggest that you like the idea of poetry in theory, but in practice you actually don't care for it all that much. Tell me Tomy, what are the last five books of contemporary poetry that you read this year? Who are your favourite contemporary poets publishing today? In Canada? In America? In Britain? And who of the Post-war generation? And who of the Moderns? And who of the Transcendentalists? And who of the Romantics? Tell me, Tomy, how much do you love their poetry? Or the poets of the Restoration? Or the Elizabethans? How much do you love their poetry? What about poetry in translation? German? French? Japanese?


Okay then, here’s the dealio. I don’t call myself a zoologist, because I am not a zoologist, even though I am interested in zoology, and I have made it a hobby to read the occasional book about animal sciences. Goody for me. And I don’t call myself a surgeon, because I don’t know the first god damned thing about surgery except for what I’ve seen on TV. Goody for surgeons. Now, having a passing interest in poetry doesn’t make someone a poet, and not really knowing anything about poetry, and not bothering to find out anything about poetry except what one comes across by accident, certainly does not make someone a poet. It makes them, at most, a dabbler.

jmm said...

Apologies to Tomy on the name.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And Tomy, it is a fairly standard convention that audiences at poetry readings do not clap after each poem, after years of being admonished by the poets to "save it for the end."

Take from that what you will.

White Noise said...

"Okay now, please stop calling spoken word "poetry," since we both know that it isn't."

Sorry, that's a contract I can't sign. When a piece of spoken word is poetry, I'm going to call it poetry. When it isn't, I'm going to call it something else.

"Spoken word is not poetry."

Except when it is. I still maintain that there is a subset of spoken word which is quite correctly referred to as poetry. It may be in the minority, but so is good page poetry among page poetry in general. And much of the rest of spoken word is poetry-influenced, and has a place somwhere under the bigtop tent of poesie.

"Is it an adulteration of the form."

Yes, it is. Why is this a problem? All art evolves through processes of adulteration and cross-pollination.

I mean, basically, is your concern here that some spoken word artists aren't very good? We already know that, and the critique has been made to greater effect before by people who are actually artists in the field. Or is the problem just that the kids are on your lawn?


"What I have seen is even worse, a much more profound dismissal: turning their back on the poet on the stage, conversing at the table, drinking their drinks, and completely ignoring the performer. Indifference is much more powerful a rejection than hatred."

Indifference is also a good way to know if you're saying something that resonates with people. It's just the nature of slams - and it changes from event to event, with some being much more patient than others - that the audience is less likely to feel that they need to give you their undivided attention just because you're an Artist who put Pen to Paper, even if you're boring them to tears. And since there have already been a few comments to the effect that any well-written page poem can move hearts and minds without the trappings of performance (and I tend to agree), this shouldn't be a problem.

When you get up on stage, you should know the nature of your audience. Even page poets are familiar with this, however unconsciously; we choose what to read on a given night based partially on the venue.

White Noise said...

Also, Paul - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on sound poetry.

Paul Vermeersch said...

White Noise,

My problems is not that kids are on my lawn. My problem is that kids are telling everyone they live in my house, and they don't even know where I fucking live.

As for cross pollination: Poetry is a written art form. Performance is something else. You can do them at the same time, if you like, but if you're going to call it poetry, it has to work as poetry. The performance is either extraneous to the poetry, or it is its own thing altogether, and quite separate from poetry. This is not a difficult concept.

Paul Vermeersch said...

White Noise,

Actually, I don't really like sound poetry much. Affected gibberish and gobbledygook, for the most part.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Of course, I'm mainly referring to the kind of sound poetry that doesn't actually have words in it. The whooping and grumbling school of sound poetry made popular by the Four Horsemen and their imitators. That's not for me.

Poems that deal with the sounds of words as material objects are interesting to me. Jordan Scott's Blert, and Dennis Lee's Un and Yesno are very interesting books that do something related to sound poetry, but they have firm grounding in, and make use of, the principles and techniques of lyric poetry.

White Noise said...

Oh, and Jacob -

"Most of the people in the recent Mic Check book are also very good - but are ultimately confined by the genre they are working in."

Isn't that a redundant statement, though? Every artist works within the constraints of their form. That's most obvious with haiku, where the constraints are there for the exact purpose of facilitating insight and artfulness. It's less pronounced with, say, blank verse, but basic poetic conventions like a reliance on figurative language, implication over explication, "show don't tell," etc., still establish borders for one's work. They may be less confining than spoken word tropes, but they're still confining.

The best artists actively acknowledge the boundaries of their field and find greatness (or greatness eludes them) through the nature of their reaction to those boundaries.

I agree with your analogy to speculative fiction: The genre constraints are a burden to 99 out of 100 writers, and a vehicle for greatness for that remaining author. Ursula LeGuin has produced some sublime works through a process of tunnelling under or extending over the Sci Fi genre constraints while remaining rooted within them.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And White Noise, you keep changing your criteria. First you say that poetry and SW are different art forms with different standards, and then you say that they are both poetry.

You can't have your cake and eat it, too. You argument for SW's status as poetry is buckling beneath its inconsistencies.

White Noise said...

Paul -

"First you say that poetry and SW are different art forms with different standards, and then you say that they are both poetry."

Essentially, yes. How are these statements exclusive?

Would you judge a haiku by the standards of a villanelle?

I doubt it - so why should I judge performance-oriented poetry by the standards of page-oriented poetry?

There are certainly best poetic practices applicable across various forms, but if writers of ghazals and writers of blank verse spent their time trying to prove how the others weren't poets, there wouldn't be much energy left for the application and development of them.

Anonymous said...

Lillian Allen = spoken word / performance poet
d'bi young = spoken word/performance poet
Andrea Thompson = spoken word / performance poet
Amanda Hiebert = spoken word/performance poet
Spencer Butt = spoken word/performance poet
Shane Koyczan = spoken word/ performance poet
Barbara Alder = spoken word/performance poet
Brendon Mcleod = spoken word/performance poet

i dare you to see any of these Canadian poets read/perform/speak their work and re write the exact same article you've written here.
i dare you.
most of their shows cost only about 5 bucks.
i can lend it to you if you'd like.

Valentino Assenza said...

"I agree with Valentino on that comptetition point. Even though he's the only person I've ever seen wear a Marlies jersey who wasn't specifically playing for the team at the time".


Can I just say...HUH?! What does me wearing a Marlies jersey have anything do with the poetry argument? That I can remember, I have worn a hockey jersey three times at poetry events. Twice at a slam (one of which was a Leafs jersey), and once while hosting the Art Bar.

I wear a jersey occasionally because in addition to being a poet and a spoken word performer, I am also someone that happens to be a hockey fan. That is of course if poets are allowed like hockey...Paul? Are poets allowed to like hockey?

I hope this isn't running out of things to criticize about spoken word artists. I mean I hope there is still mud to sling when it comes to structure, and the clearly defined formula for a poem which we (spoken word artists) clearly don't live up to, rather than dress code.

However if there is a certain dress code that a poet has to abide by, sorry, I'm not falling in line. I'm not going to be a depressing, dark, figure with black turtle necks, or a watered down version of a Dockers ad...I'm just gonna be well..myself.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...


I thought it was a pretty obvious joke, dude. I saw you wearing your b & w at Art Bar (you were joking about it too). Sorry if you took offense. It wasn't supposed to mean anything, just a joke between two hockey fans.


Valentino Assenza said...

didn't pick up on the tone....the majority of this has been pretty serious...all good

tomy said...

"There's nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, poetry is a great hobby. But as someone who (your words) said you don't obsessively study the stuff, please don't denegrate those who do by still asking to call yourself an "artist"."

Never asked in the first place.
Some of us are capable of defining ourselves.

"it is a fairly standard convention that audiences at poetry readings do not clap after each poem, after years of being admonished by the poets to "save it for the end."

and yet they did....

Take from it what you will...

As for the poetry I have read in the past year I won't list it as I feel no obligation; interesting you went looking on my facebook page though, which absolutely defines me to a 'T'...
although I guess I already admitted that you would find my tastes "low-brow"...

Sounds like a few of you are taking yourselves way too seriously...

"still want in?"

Please, I had my invitation, I left it on the nightstand with the rest of the junk mail.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

You never asked to be called an artist?

Quoting Tomy: "I don't believe any one person has the credibility to define my art for me and ask me to stop calling myself a "poet". I am an artist."

Do you want to rephrase any of that, then?

tomy said...

(quoting Jacob)"You never asked to be called an artist?

Quoting Tomy: "I don't believe any one person has the credibility to define my art for me and ask me to stop calling myself a "poet". I am an artist."

Do you want to rephrase any of that, then?"

Jacob, read it carefully...
I'll give you a day...

where did I ask anything?
It is not a request, but a statement.

I am an artist.

No asking for permission involved.

Andrea Thompson said...

Hi folks,
I’m coming to this discussion pretty late, but wanted to throw in my two cents.

First off, Spoken Word is an umbrella term that covers everything from performance poetry, to dub, to hip hop, to slam and storytelling. Each sub-genre has it’s own unique aesthetic. So no, not all spoken word artists are poets, nor do they claim to be.

It’s a genre with a big territory, and a long tradition in this country. (While Mic Check is an awesome addition to the landscape, it is by no means our first spoken word anthology). I even think it could be argued that the Four Horsemen were some of Canada's performance poetry pioneers.

Some of the work blurs the lines, and some of it has been defined. By the practitioners themselves, through national organizations like the Spoken Word Arts Network, as well as funding bodies, and academia. (Corey Frost and TL Cowan are both currently cooking up phd's on the subject). While I don’t mean to say that these bodies legitimize the form, I do think they’ve provided us with a a language for discourse, as well as a way to try distinguish one type of spoken word from another.

In terms of spoken word’s literary merit, I think it’s easy to get caught up in generalizations. The truth is, there are many page-only poets who aren’t very good at it. And quite a few poets who excel in performance, but whose writing is celebrated in literary circles. (George Elliot Clarke, Adeena Karasick, Robert Priest, Lillian Allen, Sheri-D Wilson, Jill Battson … are just a few who come to mind.)

For me, I don't sit down with the intention to write either for the page or stage. I just write and see what I get. If I decide to perform the piece, it's not because I think it's lame on the page, but because I think it's better out loud.

The truth is, good work is good work. Call it anything you want. I like to call it Fred.

And if Fred moves me, I can’t ask for anything more.

Jacob Scheier said...

A couple of things.

In response to White Noise - I think much of the spoken word genre goes by a formula dictated by what will impress the crowd/compete in slams. Whereas 'page poetry' has no general audience in mind, but writes to express something with faith that it is relevant to the human condition. Writing in forms like sonnet etc, are tools and restrictions towards that purpose.
(perhaps this is why poetry sells rather poorly and 'page poetry' audiences tend to be slimmer than SW audiences)

However, I think Andrea Thompson and others here have made a good point in that we ought to be hesitant in making strict boundaries between page and performance poetry. I admire writers like George Eliot Clarke and Robert Priest who can bring such life to their work. And am impressed by those in the SW circles who can blow away the audience while the work still holds up on the page.

Finally, I know several of the people contributing to this thread and respect them all as writers and people, and think that while open debate is wonderful, hostility is unnecessary and even detrimental to any artistic community, especially one as small as the Toronto poetry community. For what it's worth.

White Noise said...

Jacob - indeed. I think there are folks on both "sides" taking this far too personally.

"'page poetry' has no general audience in mind, but writes to express something with faith that it is relevant to the human condition. Writing in forms like sonnet etc, are tools and restrictions towards that purpose."

I don't know that I believe in any form of writing that doesn't have an audience in mind. Yes, spoken word can tend to put that audience front and centre, but that too can be a restriction toward the purpose of faithful writing, as you put it. I've seen it happen.

The problem isn't that it places primacy on the audience, I think, but that it offers such great temptation toward outright pandering. But the choice to go that route represents a weakness in the writer or performer, not in the art form itself.

Sean said...


In the last 2 months...Bowering paid 5 bucks to check out Robert Priest performing at the Vancouver Poetry Slam and George McWhirter (Vancouver's poet laureate) came to see Jack McCarthy (slam poetry father figure originally from Boston)perform at the slam.

Maybe we're not that far apart...or again, maybe that's just

Sean McGarragle

Paul Vermeersch said...

Look, guys, let's all settle down. I'm going to outline a few basic principles, and let's see who disagrees with any of them. Okay, here are the first principles:

1) Bad writing is bad writing no matter how it is presented or performed?

2) A good poem, whether performed with great gusto, or given a terribly wooden recital, is still a good poem, therefore the performance of a poem has nothing to do with its literary merit.

2) People should not call themselves poets if they haven't devoted themselves to studying the craft, if they know next to nothing about the craft, and if they don't care if they ever know much of anything about the craft -- just as someone who farts around with his tools in the basement shouldn't call himself a carpenter.

See, there are an awful lot of people who seem to have an almost pathological need to call themselves poets, but who really don't seem to actually like poetry or know anything about poetry, and who have an inexplicable refusal to put in the work necessary to be a poet. Why, exactly, do they want to be called poets? I don't know.

Okay, this is called an analogy: I don't really like sports. I don't really watch sports very much, and I certainly don't train to get better at any sports. So why would I want to call myself an athlete? The answer is simple: I DON'T! But by Tomy Bewick's logic, I can be anything I want to be if I just call myself what I want to be. I can call myself a lawyer, and POOF I'm a lawyer. I can myself an astronaut and POOF I'm an astronaut, and I don't even have to do any work! And without really doing any reading or study or working hard on his craft, Tomy Bewick can be a poet justlikethat! Brilliant, Tomy. You have invented magic. Waytofuckinggo!

The whole "writing for performance" argument is just an excuse for bad writing. C'mon, guys. If you want to perform something, then perform something well written. Why embarrass yourself with shoddy work? No more excuses, boys and girls. You wanna be a poet, well poetry costs, and right here is where you start paying, with sweat. Do the work, put in the time, write something good. Then you can be poets, and then, if you still want to perform your poems with all kinds of goofy theatrics, why, then you'll just be poets with really crappy, over the top reading styles. But hey, at least your writing won't suck.

Andrea said...

Page or stage ... I guess it comes down to : What is Good? Who decides?

Props to Slam in the way it tries to circumnavigate that process by making audiences judges.

In the end, I don't think there's a way to be truly objective about your reaction to any art form.

Paul Vermeersch said...

The reading styles comment at the end of my last post was intentional hyperbole. You know, for effect.

Paul Vermeersch said...

And you’re absolutely right, Andrea. It is practically impossible to outline what exactly it is that makes something “good,” but I think we can still recognize artistic excellence, even when it runs against our personal taste. I'm not wild about certain kinds of jazz, but I still know it's well done. And the same goes for poetry. So yes, absolutely, “good” is hard to define.

But “bad” is really easy, isn't it? You don’t have to be a bloodhound to smell a turd. Most people can recognize a horrible cliché, a clunky line, a maudlin sentiment, a tired rhyme, purple prose, a lack a structure, a lack of vision, a lack of discipline, meandering focus and all the things that make for bad writing. And nothing, no amount of performing, no amount of charm, can make it good.

I don’t want to see the end of spoken word, but if people are going to call what they do poetry, they owe it to poetry to live up to what poetry is and has been, and there’s a lot of history and craft behind that word, and it’s a lot to live up to. And if, in the end, it’s not really poetry they’re interested in, but something else, then those of us who love poetry would like them to stop besmirching its reputation by claiming an intimacy with it that they haven’t earned.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

I'd sign off on all three of those claims. The only caveat I can think of is that while a flat reading can fail to elevate a poem, a really really bad reading can change the public perception of the writer as s/he presents their work. I can think of a few great writers who I didn't think I had a taste for until I was alone with their book. This goes back to democracy of approach, you are allowed to approach written work on your own terms, and "read" it (subvocally) at whatever timbre or speed you like, inflecting on the words as they are meant to be inflected on, and generally seeing the work for what it is, not what the performer opts for it to be.

And Tomy, chill out dude. I heard what you were trying to say.

Anonymous said...

"The whole "writing for performance" argument is just an excuse for bad writing."

Anything can be used as an excuse for bad writing if a writer really needs one. When a high school stoner paints an awful painting and calls it surrealist, does Dali retroactively become a hack?

You don't have an understanding or appreciation for the art form, and you don't seem to want one - I'm getting that. The former is understandable, since there's a lot of bad performance poetry out there. But the latter is too bad. I think you'd probably really like Shakespeare if you gave him a chance.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit tired of the downright artless hostility and condescension 'round here. Everyone, with one or two exceptions, seems happy in their little camps. So I think I'm outta here.

- Noise

Paul Vermeersch said...

Noise, I've already dealt with Shakespeare. He knew how to get it right it on the page before an actor ever opened his mouth. Scroll up.

tomy said...

(Reference to previous posts) **** The kids are not in your house, you are in the Church and despite thinking you are the Reverend, the house that poetry built offers shelter to all kinds; like it or not.
All exaggerated analogies aside; you’re missing the point; Art is subjective, Poetry is also a great and wonderful Art and not every great painter had to study for years to create beautiful masterpieces. I already said I was a “primitive”.
I think you confused a love of poetry for a study of poetry, which is not definitively connected. I love dancing and have not studied the ancient history of its origins or every pair of feet to carry its banner. I still dance.
I do not believe you have a degree or certification in poetry or ever had to write an examination or thesis, so your suggestion that calling yourself a lawyer is similar as calling yourself an artist, poet, writer or puppy-maker just doesn’t fly…
There are roles we play in our lives that are not earned in schools and scholarly studies, I have not taken any extensive fatherhood courses and yet; here I am, a father.
You are not my Kipling and I do not owe it to myself to earn your respect before calling myself a poet; I am a poet inherently by my body of work that has taken years to cultivate and you are not capable of taking it away.
I will pay closer attention to my performance pieces for their literary merit, but would like to remind you that you might think carefully next time you decide to rant against the arts of others. (I never wrote a poem called “Purple Nurple”)
There is an air of arrogance, in your entire flawed argument, which makes me think that if you are what a “poet” is supposed to be, I don’t want to call myself one, anymore, anyway. Although I doubt that will stop my traveling in the name of poetry or the people who appreciate spoken word poetry from coming out to see it.
All the best to you in your puritan pursuit of plausible page poetry.
I have had enough defending myself and my craft. Please enjoy the last word: it will be akin to a thin blanket on cold concrete; very little comfort in the coming seasons.

Tomy Bewick
aka The Diseased Disciple

Amanda said...

in Ottawa we have a very strong spoken word community and it is very popular, with sell out crowds. i am mostly not fond of spoken word. what i dislike about what i've heard is the scolding. the idea that the person on stage seems to have all the answers. i don't have any answers at all, just questions. i dislike the ego entailed in the spoken word poetry that i've seen and i dislike the whole idea of slam poetry where what one says instantly must have appeal to a group of people from the audience. i've heard some really great poetry being passed over for work that has more crowd appeal. i can't deny that i do know some excellent writers whose work is primarily offered within the spoken word medium, but like anything else, i think it is a craft that must be honed, and you do that by research, by reading, by discovery and by attending the shows. i think if you need to score big though, mass appeal says make a lot of campy cheesy end rhyme, bash old balding white guys and talk about the bad stuff we're doing to the environment. it's boring and it's old. yet it's popular. poetry to me has never been something that is popular. it's out there, it's pushing limits and it's taking risks. it always was. make it new. i don't hear a lot of spoken wordsters doing that. and i've gone to a fair number of local shows. the audience doesn't seem to want new though. they want to be told how stupid everyone else is and how smart they are. it doesn't interest me.

David said...

After holding my peace I think i'll just say that for now, in whatever humility I can muster... I abandon both sides of the argument. I think what I do quite possibly may not be rap, may not be spoken word, nor poetry and I don't have a great interest in arguing what it is right now. I've simply spent the greater effort of time and energy in my life in pursuing writing in its many various forms and I'm proud of myself for finally strengthening my imagery and having the ability to say what I want to say subtly without having to be direct or too repetative and overly explanitory.
I'll still call some things poetry, as I think Aesop Rock is the greatest rapper poet alive, that is a ThInG that I will argue about. However, for the next few months I've really lost interest in arguing about purist poetry or purist spoken word and the imposibility of leaning between. If someone wants to have an argument like this I'll just nod my head and smile and not use the P word around them. I'll let the bookstores argue about where the best writing should be placed. Who actually reads the stuff? i'd guess only idiots like me.

Anonymous said...

paul, I'm not bothering with these 142 comments, the majority written, I assume, to further you're own ego. If you, paul vermeersch, had any integrity, any dignity, or whatever other ideals one might spit out you would have kept your mouth shut. the words are communal and theres to say, fuck off.

Jacob McArthur Mooney said...

Nothing says "have more integrity" or "be more dignified" than an anonymous post that ends in the words "fuck off"...

Anonymous said...

kids ... there's room on the swing set for everyone. Play nice or go home.

gideon soulJAH said...

145 comments hmm. the majority of which are very anti-spoken word. One person cam to mind when i read Paul's post..Hitler. You sit in your room behind the anonymity of your computer screen and pass judgment on an art form that thrives on expression and individualism.

Poetry (from the Greek "ποίησις", poiesis, a "making" or "creating") is a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its ostensible meaning. Poetry may be written independently, as discrete poems, or may occur in conjunction with other arts, as in poetic drama, hymns or lyrics.
It is very strange hearing a middle age Caucasian man speaking about "hip hop" as if it were one of his subjects he studied in school. You obviously have no knowledge of hip hop and its roots. During the glory days of Hip hop, hip hop was used as a mode of expression for black power and non conformism. Out of the shadow of hip hop spoken word poetry as sprung forth to give new life to your conformist poetry in the same way hip hop gave new life to impoverished black youths.

As for the "exaggeration" as u call it they are necessary ACCENTS of the art form. Poetry, be it spoken word or written is about expression and making known internal processes. How then can you convey the immense esoteric worth of a word or phrase if not accented? it is theses "exaggerations" that set it apart from other poetic forms.

how can poetry be about expression when you yourself seek to stifling what makes any kind of poetry significant? Most of your points you sited as "reasons" why you don't like it were not reasons at all. they were Just some man in his white man complex trying to pass judgment on and art form that you COMPLETELY don't understand. Is interpretive dance not poetry in motion? poetry without words? expressed thought?? So why bitch about the wrappings...

Adolph Hitler said...

He's totally right. Some days Himmler and I would just hole up in the Reichstag with my iMac and dream up mean things to say to Zee Juden while watching Battlestar. And eating a bunch of bagels.

Paul Vermeersch said...

I promised myself I was done with this thread, but how can I let that slide.

I'm surprised it took this long for someone to prove the viability of Godwin's law, which states, "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

Ah, sweet predictability! Sweet, ridiculous predictability!

For the record, I would dispute that having an opinion about the downward trend in the literary quality of slam poetry and spoken word performances is a corollary to being a fascist dictator who favours state sanctioned genocide.

I don't want to destroy anything. I just want to encourage better writing. I don't think that's really all that objectionable.

Anthony said...

I call it "slammed poetry".

lisbeth said...

Who is the person in the photo? Why did you choose that photo? What did it add to your essay?

Visual curious poet, who has only spoken her poetry aloud to the dogs. No howl.

Paul Vermeersch said...

Random image from a google search on "Spoken Word".

It adds an illustration.

Maryte said...

Thanks for this. I will repost on myspace for comments as well (hope you don't mind). I will acknowledge it is your writing. It's so well put and many of us who have been to these events know exactly what you are talking about!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I will repost on myspace for comments as well (hope you don't mind). I will acknowledge it is your writing. It's so well put and many of us who have been to these events know exactly what you are talking about!

Paul Vermeersch said...

I have reconfigured the comments settings on my blog. Now all comments will moderated by me, and I will no longer allow any anonymous postings. If you have something important or interesting to say in this forum, you'll have to have the courage to stand by your words.

I think everything that needs to be said on this particular topic has been said. The nazi/Hitler comments are proof that reasonable debate on this issue has been exhausted. I consider this particular thread to be effectively closed.

Jam said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul Vermeersch said...

Once again, I consider this particular thread to be effectively CLOSED. No new comments will be posted here. Thanks for everyone's input.