Language and communication through the spoken word forms of slam poetry

Sarita Dewan

The dictionary meaning of “slam” is to shut something with a lot of noise. In journalese, it means to criticize something very strongly. Poetry slam is a live competition in which poets perform original poetry and are judged by preselected members from the audience. The focus of poetry slam is not the mere written words; rather, it is the oral interpretation and performance with emphasis on the interaction between the poet and the audience.

Poetry slam is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged out of inner city Chicago in the mid 1980s. The structure of the traditional slam was started by construction worker and poet Marc Kelly Smith in 1986 at a reading series in a Chicago jazz club. The competition quickly spread across the US. Now it is popular all over the world, including Nepal.

Each poet must perform his/her original piece within the time constraints of the competition, and must seize the audience’s attention and captivate them with words. Five judges are picked randomly by the MC from the audience. After each performance, judges hold up score cards using a 1- 10 scale, with 10 being the highest. Of the five scores for each poet, only the middle three scores are counted, and the judges’ decision is final.  Heat contestants are given a microphone, and perform in front of a live audience and get just two minutes to impress the judges (selected at random at each heat) with their original spoken word, poetry, hip-hop, monologues and stories.

Slam poetry can be considered a new generation poetry of spoken words. While formal poetry readings elicit the perception of literary value and lack confrontational criticism or judgment, slam poetry welcomes interaction and critique and it aims to provide immediate pleasure to its audiences.

Poetry slam can be used as a kind of authentic material to teach in EFL classes to motivate students to express their feelings through their poems. High school students are often found highly emotional because of their transitional period with emotional and physical changes, and communication is a means of coping with anxiety, which inevitably accompanies stress (Durbar, cited by Hurlock). Self-expression through slam poetry will allow students to identify and convey their thoughts and feelings through spoken word rather than internal or external acts of violence. It is often found that young individuals are able to manipulate language through and incorporate personal experience into their poetry, to affirm their identities through unique, personal knowledge of their individual positions.

In Nepal, the first poetry slam was held by Quixote Cove in 2010 with the support of American Embassy,  almost twenty schools  participated the competition. Danny Solis, Matt Mason and  Karen Finneyfrock were the slam poets who  held workshops, and presented their slam poetry in different places of Kathmandu and for the first time in Nepal. They made students present their own creation as poetry slam among  the live audience. Since then poetry slam is not uncommon among  Nepali audience.

There were ten top finalists in the competition. The following poem is one of them. While you read the poem, please consider how you may be able to incorporate such poetry in your own classroom, and to what effect.

A letter to my revered father

Dear father,
Creator of all, master of the universe.
It’s been long since I’ve written to you
Last time I did, the Second World War was on
I wrote it with bullets shredding at my windowpanes
Explosives bombarding at my place
Amidst the smell of gunpowder choking me
And the heat of the atom bomb burning me.
I had appealed to you,
“Father, please stop this devastation
Why are you ruining what you have created?”
You had answered me,
“Do not worry my child, I’m not destroying anything
But these self-destructing fools are
They do not destroy an inch of me, but destroy themselves.”
But then, the war halted
I felt serenity; I felt the storm was over
I felt, what a relief!!!!!!

But ….
But this letter, my father, I’m writing again
Before the damage is done
Before the storm even starts
Before the sun of cataclysm rises.

Because I sense
Because I sense the tranquility before the storm
Because I smell the danger in the air
Because I taste the blood before it has spilt
I foresee that the storm is near
Oh, the storm is near.

This time father, I’m appealing to you
Please save “My Mother Earth”
Her temperature is ceaselessly rising
She’s got this fever called ‘Global Warming’
Her precious crown of the sparkling Himalayas
Are flowing down as tears, with the heat
Leaving the precious tiara, barren and black

And do you know, she bears this excruciating pain
With a smile on her face, while her heart weeps
And so does mine
With unconditional love to give, while her soul is being killed
And so is mine
Her life saving crops have withered, famine has struck
I can’t bear to see my mother’s womb infertile
I can’t bear to see her fetus being aborted
Before it even is born.

But she still keeps us united, while she is falling apart
Managing to fill our treasury, while she is being ripped off
By the filthy hands of her own children
In the name of materialism, extravagance and unlimited wants
What disgusting murderers, what shameless deeds
Pushing their mother six feet under the ground
How can they happily watch her suffer????
Hands folded, eyes blindfolded, ears stuffed with earphones
With high volume songs, deafening my mother’s screams.

How can’t they feel the burning heat??????
Isn’t Global Warming enough????
They have physically wounded my mother too
With a shower of atomic fission and fusion
That they call ‘Nuclear Weapons’
Left unhealable scars on my mother’s once beautiful face
Her unfathomable children have gone against nature’s law
Against your law
They’re trying to take over your place, dear father
Trying to create a the Mighty God’s replica
But in vain father, in vain.

But the biggest reason why my mother weeps
Is because her own children are fighting
Trading vandalism for humanity
Against each other, sibling killing sibling
For the lust of power????
For the love of land, that no one owns????
For the sake of religious supremacy
When God is one????
That’s you my father!!!!!
That’s you……

Please do something
Oh revered one
Do something
I beg you on my knees
Please, save my mother
I beg you on my knees
Please save my mother.

Yours sincerely,

P.S: I’ll wait for a quick reply from you father. Please write back soon

Anudeep Dewan, National College, Baluwatar, Kathmandu

1 thought on “Language and communication through the spoken word forms of slam poetry

  1. Personally I am very fascinated towards the Slam Poetry, because it sound quiet musical. I am very thankful to you Madam, because of you I could attend the workshop of poetry slam by Danny Solis, Matt Mason and Karen Finney frock held first time in 2010 in Nepal. I still remember the way Danny presented. Slam poetry would be very effective medium to reach the heart of our students.Lyrics, ideas, rapping in a certain tune would be a great fascination for our students. I am highly agreed with you saying that high school students are found highly emotional because of their transitional period with emotional and physical changes. For them it will be a great medium of self expression with little challenge but full entertainment. Music is a universal language everybody likes and understands it from very young to very old. Slam Poetry can be one of the effective aids to teach as EFL.
    Your thought of using Slam poetry in youths for converting their emotions into creative thoughts, lyrics and rap rhythm is an amazing one. A letter to my revered father by Anudeep is very interesting. Congratulation. I just feel we teachers need more workshops on slam poetry.
    Babita Gurung

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