Today is the first day of the National Poetry Slam being held in Boston this year. I have personally never been to an NPS event and only began regularly attending local poetry slams when I went to grad school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My love of poetry and spoken word actually came before this time as I became familiar with Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, but I was never able to immerse myself in the culture.
I have been accepted by the local Madison poetry scene as many see me constantly in the audience at events even though I never read. I’m not a poet. I learned a few things about writing from these poets, but this particular genre is over my head. However, I truly admire the dedication and talent of so many of these poets.
While I am not too crazy about the whole competitive aspect of spoken word poetry, I do enjoy watching the poets give their all on the stage and performing all different kinds of poetry styles. Some are good and some are not so good, but I have to admit that they at least have the courage to get up on the stage and do their thing.
I know that spoken word poets are some of the most beloved artists in the community, but I also feel that they are very widely reviled because spoken word is misunderstood. There is a strong connection to rap and hip-hop communities, but I think when people hear poetry spoken out loud they get a little confused. I also feel that many people do not realize how much of a history spoken word has behind it with Beat poets of the 1950s attempting to assimilate jazz, poets like Gloria and Steve Tropp performing together, and artists like Scott-Heron and Camille Yarbrough making spoken word albums in the 1970s.
These days, spoken word takes a lot of dedication and a lot of work and only a few artists rise to the mainstream to become stars. Saul Williams is rather well-known and probably the most mainstream of all spoken word artists. However, there are others I love, many of them black women like Ursula Rucker, Mahogany Browne and Queen GodIs along with a few of the neo-soul women like Jill Scott (who was actually a poet before she released her first album), Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. In fact, I created a Cloudcast of a few of my favorites in honor of NPS this month. I’m hoping a few will check it out and recognize the amazing talent of these women.
I’m also hoping that this is one small step toward getting past the misunderstandings of spoken word and spoken word performance. Spoken word artists are not “yesterday’s failed MCs” (if I can quote one of my favorite slam masters Dan Vaughn). They are artists and have a specific craft. Some stay with it and others cannot handle it. I have some love to each and every one who has tried it whether they want to make it a lifestyle or just needed a moment to express themselves. Spoken word is a way of life and I appreciate all those who share that life with the rest of us.
(By the way, this is local Madison poet Danez Smith and this piece on Bayard Rustin is very appropriate with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaching and Rustin’s posthumous awarding of the Medal of Freedom. This is the first poem I ever saw him perform and he’s had me hooked ever since.)