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Poetry, as a literary form, is a relatively recent idea, yet weaving stories and thoughts in a concise structure that uses rhythm and sometimes rhyme is as old as time. Today spoken word is a popular, more democratic way for poets to get their work and words out.


(Excerpt from Aleysha Wise’s “Things I Tell Myself About Myself”):

Things I tell myself about my skin: I like it this way.

Remember that time I questioned why God molded me out of tar and sky? Me neither. Remember that time I met that girl who thought bleach would lighten all the burdens off her back?

Me too.

Most of us were probably first exposed to poetry on the page in a classroom. But over the past few decades, spoken word poetry has grown in popularity, bringing verse from page to stage. Today, performance poetry takes place in over 1,000 cities, large and small around the world. And YouTube gives anyone with a camera and an internet connection the potential for a global audience. But this isn’t just an evolution of written poetry for the digital age. It’s really a return to the fundamentals of poetry, the intense expression of ideas and emotions.

Shihan Van Clief: Once they see poetry and experience it, they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know poetry could be this.” And it’s like, “yeah, ’cause you had the wrong introduction.”

Alyesha Wise: It’s an amazing art form. And it comes down to every detail—to line breaks, to how you look at somebody in your eyes, to the specific word that you decided to use at that moment.

Tracy K. Smith: We feel poetry all the time. You know, we feel it in music. We feel it, sometimes, in language. Yeah, we have an instinct.

Van Clief: But to me, poetry is a live phenomenon. It’s something you really need to see to experience fully.

(Excerpt from Shihan Van Clief’s “Family”):

So I remained an only child

In a house of cards that I’m waiting to be crushed by

Or paper-cut to a slow death with.

The fear of living in a house of cards is knowing the right gust of wind

can paper-cut you to death.

Shihan Van Clief has been writing and performing poems for three decades. He’s one of the founders of Da Poetry Lounge, the largest and longest-running open mic in the United States.

Van Clief: So you introduce people to poetry, most of the time in middle school, seventh, eighth, ninth grade, you know they read Shakespeare or Walt Whitman. And so when you start reading, and you don’t care about what you’re reading, you read it in a disinterested voice. And so it doesn’t make you want to know anything else about it. Because I think Shakespeare is dope, I think Walt Whitman was dope, I think they’re all dope. But there’s something from this to this that you get when you see it live.

Van Clief: So, spoken word allows young people to get in touch with their story and who they are, a lot earlier than some other traditional means, really.

Alyesha Wise is the co-founder of the Spoken Literature Art Movement and the former head coach of Da Poetry Lounge’s Slam team. Like many people, her love for spoken word began when she was young.

Wise: Homecoming happened. It was the homecoming pageant in high school. And I entered it and I decided to write a poem called “Homecoming”. And I don’t know why, I was just like, “You know what? I’m feeling different about my life now. I think I’m gonna switch things up.” I said, “I’m gonna write a poem about that.” About, you know, changing my life and being a better person. And I wrote that poem. And I cried up there, you know after the poem was done. Some of my family members were in the audience and that was the beginning. I wasn’t perfect, right after that poem. But that was the beginning of a new me.

(Excerpt from Alyesha Wise’s “A Story of My Love Affair With Prince”):

Tell me my voice is an ocean of violence.

I wanna know what it feels like to bloom, to have the stage salute you.

Tell me, Or don’t tell me at all.

Remain a secret I yearn to break

A vinyl leaning against my living room wall.

Besides, I will grow old

And you will always look the exact age you’ve looked since 1958.

My name is Wise, I am an owl.

Your name is Prince, You are a dove.

Perhaps, We can just hang out on the weekends.

Spoken word poetry didn’t originate in one place or time in history. Humans have used rhythmic, poetic utterances for thousands of years all over the world. Across Africa, tribes used performance poetry for education, entertainment, and ceremonial purposes. The Greeks had a sort of spoken word competition in their ancient Olympic games. In Arabic, the word “Koran” means “recitation.” It’s based on the belief that the holy text was revealed by an angel who recited it years before it was ultimately written down. The modern interest in written poetry that we read, rather than recite or hear, is relatively new.

Javon Johnson: Poetry predates the printed text. That’s just it, right? And that tells us a lot, right? This idea that people have been speaking poems, i.e spoken word, for quite a long time.

Javon Johnson is a poet and director of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His book, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities, examines the relationship of contemporary spoken word poetry to written and academic poetic institutions.

Johnson: We build our schools, our publishing houses. We build awards for each other. We build our own structures that if…that has the possibility to be the things that we want them to be.

(Excerpt from Javon Johnson’s “Letter to My Unborn Daughter”):

Baby girl,

You should know that daddy only knows two options.

He knows go hard or go home.

He knows two hundred miles per hour or burnt rubber stop.

He knows nothing in between.

You will soon learn that your daddy also loves this way.

You’ll have a hard time understanding how anyone in this world could ever call me mean.

“Not my daddy,” you’ll say. “He’s the kindest man in the world.”

Nowhere is the relationship between poetry and power clearer than in the United States. Around the turn of the 20th century, singing poets emerged in the U.S., traveling and trading poems for food and lodging. But the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is one of the key inflection points in U.S. oral poetry tradition. Writers and thinkers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston planted the seeds of jazz-infused cadences, oral performance, and socially conscious subject matter that grew to be the foundation of modern spoken word. Like most artistic evolutions, that history grew out of necessity. For the generations of African-Americans building lives after slavery, poetry and broader artistic expression became a means of survival.

Johnson: In a moment when Black people were newly free, newly emancipated, and the country was asking, “What do we do with, the so-called, ‘Negro problem?’” Right? Art becomes a way to answer that, to push back, to say, “There is not a Negro problem. There’s a U.S problem.” But also to say that “We’re fine if we’re given access to,” but also on some level, “we can prove to you that we can do just as many creative things, we can prove to you that we are just as human.”

(Excerpt from Javon Johnson’s “Letter to My Unborn Daughter”):

Learn how to scream ‘No!’ and mean it,

Be as loud as the day you were fucking born and mean it.

I cannot wait to sing your first song to you.

If art is a way to prove power and worth in a society, spoken word communities have evolved to try to democratize that ability. While literary poetry became a hierarchical, guarded, academic pursuit, oral poetry became a decentralized response. A tool for the disenfranchised to express themselves on a level playing field. That’s why one of the core tenets of spoken word is that writers perform their own poems. Authenticity is essential.

Wise: And that’s one of the great things about spoken word is the vulnerability, is the connection. Even if somebody doesn’t connect to your exact story, they feel it in some kind of way. The look somebody gives you after a poem is done and they’re… They go, “Wow, thank you.” And we’re from like opposite sides of the city, or country, or world. And they’re like, “Thank you. I get it.” It’s like we’re all connected in some way.

Today, spoken word is a close cousin to one of the most widespread, most popular musical styles in the world: hip hop. The two art forms have a common ancestry. In the late 1960s, a group of Black writers, musicians, and activists formed The Last Poets and began releasing albums blending musical, poetic, and political stylings. In the early 70s, one of The Last Poets’ contemporaries, poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. A track that likewise mixed jazz, blues, spoken word, and activism.

Both Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are credited as the godfathers of hip hop and rap. A lot of early hip hop has much in common with spoken word. But the main difference is that hip hop focuses more on rhythm and rhyme.

Wise: Hip hop, you know how it’s gonna sound the next line. You know how the rhyme scheme is set up, for the most part. In poetry it’s like, especially in spoken word, you can pretty much do what you want with the flow. You can start rhyming, then all of a sudden, you can switch it up and not rhyme anymore.

Van Clief: With hip hop and poetry, I think they all come down to story. When they’re told… When they’re done right, it’s story, it’s a dope story. And, you know, rap just basically… Not basically, rap comes from the word from rhapsodize, which means someone who’s good with words. So I think it’s clear where that is. You know what I mean? Wording is important, so.

Wise: You don’t have to be a fan of hip hop to write spoken word. Most of my favorite spoken word artists grasp onto hip hop and are fans of hip hop. The wordplay that they choose, the way they move up there… You see how I just moved my head? It’s something that happens. It… There’s such a parallel between the two art forms.

But as the poet and rapper Sugar Tongue Slim, or STS, would put it, it’s difficult to be both at the same time.

STS: I tell people all the time, “Just because you do poetry, don’t mean you can rap. And just ’cause you rap, don’t mean you do poetry.” It’s just two different worlds. It’s like, you know, with the beat constraining you as a rapper, and then you having to use couplets all the time. Poetry, you’re free. You can go wherever. If you wanna obey the margins, you can. But most people don’t. And so, you know, it allows you to do more. But to understand how to do each of ’em perfectly, you have to really focus in on it. Like, when I’m focusing on rapping, like, if I’m working on an album or something, then don’t bother me about poetry ’cause I need to stay rap. But if I write poetry, then everything’s gonna change. Like, my whole mood is gonna change.

(Excerpt from STS x RDJ2 ‘s “Dice Game”):

Shooting at the stars, almost hit Mars

Tag the sun on the side, tryna see the Lord

Gimme 2, 3 a 12 and I’m gonna see hell

7 or 11 and I might just reach heaven

But if I could work it 9 to 5, or 4 to 10

But then I bet straight money, don’t go in for the win

Because spoken word is so much about a very personal expression of personal experiences, it’s odd that one of the most popular forms of spoken word, slam poetry, is judged and scored; it’s a competition. Well, that competitiveness is also what keeps it open and democratic.

Johnson: Slam is an oral poetry competition judged by five random people selected in the audience using Olympic style scoring from 0.0 to 10.0, encouraging decimals so as to discourage ties. Those five judges after hearing a poem will throw up their score, you drop the high and the low, you add up the three, thus your score from 0.0 to 30.0.

Van Clief: The people decide what is, and what isn’t, in regards to the art form, right? ‘Cause they support what they support. There are certain people who will be supported, others who don’t. And so that kind of becomes the… How it maintains its relevancy as the audience, kind of, does what it does.

Slam began in 1980 in Chicago when Marc Smith, a construction worker, decided to spice up poetry readings he was hosting by matching up poets against one another, like a fight. Since then the form has spread around the world. But the competitive framing still tends to reward the authenticity that’s foundational to spoken word.

Johnson: The one thing slam seemingly asks for is a perceived truth. And I use “perceived truth” because it doesn’t have to be truthful by any definition. It just has to appear truthful, right? That’s a really important thing; that slam wants a truth, right? Whatever the truth is, how… You know, it’s like, “Ah, that’s that person’s story? Who am I to argue against that?” And I think that’s important, right?

Wise: For the most part, with my more vulnerable poems, they’ve done very well, especially when I was true to myself. When I went up there really, you know, not thinking about the performance per se, but thinking about, “I need to get this out.” What I always remind myself, “Be honest on stage, because people see that.” And I’m not always happy when horribly written poems do well, but I do understand why an audience connects to that because they’re like, “Whoa, look at her, getting free up there.”

(Excerpt from Shihan Van Clief’s “Family”):

She wants to let me know

What’s going to happen when she passes.

And I don’t wanna think about the future,

But I anticipate its destruction.

See, in all my years on this planet,

I’ve never witnessed someone in a box lowered into the ground and then dedicated to the sky. So when I die, I wanna be cremated,

Burning up all of my imperfections,

And then have someone sprinkle what’s leftover,

Over someplace I’ve never been to

In hopes of inspiring someone, I will never know anything about.

Some people are uncomfortable with the competitive environment of slam. The literary critic Harold Bloom went so far as to call it, “The death of art.” But for the poets investing their time, energy, and passion into their work, slams and the broader spoken word ecosystem that has taken root around the world, are the opposite of that.

Van Clief: So we started Da Poetry Lounge for us to hear each other, and to support each other, and to get us through what we were going through. I think that Lounge is important because the consistency of what Lounge is and what it represents, gives people the feeling that even if they disappear and they leave, they can come back and know it’s still there.

Smith: Many of us are coming to the conclusion that it is… Or that there’s a large place, a place large enough to contain all of these different impulses. When I was a student, like 25 years ago, there was a big divide between academic poetry and performance poetry. Now there are so many poets who do both, that that anxiety, I think, is diminished greatly.

Johnson: So much of, like, early poets were trying to get into this sort of poetry literary world to prove our merit, to prove our value, to prove our worth. We too are real writers, not just people who rant on a stage. And I said to myself, “Why are we doing that? Why are we trying to prove our worth to those structures?” What I’ve found to be most valuable and most brilliant about slam and spoken word poets, which is the radical potential, does not lie in our abilities to prove our worth or our merit to these sort of frustrating structures. The radical potential is really in our ability to build new structures altogether.

Wise: Yeah, I think this artform still has a long way to go. I do. I agree with that. But at the same time, I believe that it’s in a very special place right now. It’s definitely changing the world.

(Excerpt from Aleysha Wise’s “Things I Tell Myself About Myself”):

I am not here for the non-believers.

I am not here for those who cringe

When they see me seeing all of myself.

This bodily prayer is strictly between my sight and the sun

And all the good folk

Who answered the presence of this church

With no other words on their tongue

But amen.