A Pulsating, Vibrant Sense of Life: In Praise of Sydney’s Slam Poetry Scene

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Words || Cameron Colwell

To most young people, experience with poetry is limited to brief periods in high school where we learn that the purpose of the art form is to be studied, remembered, and dissected as dispassionately as one might dissect a frog. In a factory-like results-based academic system, many teachers can’t vouch for the relevance of poetry. Poems are learned, and then forgotten. To most students, poetry is an unnecessary barrier to a good ATAR and a shambling, zombified art form.

However, for the youth who learn slam poetry an internal rebirth is experienced. Consider the Parramatta Poetry Slam which takes place every second Tuesday at the Parramatta SHH Centre for Hybrid Arts. The centre has a long and storied history –first a prison, then an asylum, briefly becoming a primary school, it is now an arts centre, embracing a variety of creative pursuits from slam poetry nights, film screenings, and, recently, has doubled as the setting for a film about zombie children.

Most ideas of a setting for poetry readings evoke affluent inner-city cafes, berets and turtlenecks, and an air of superiority and stuffiness, but at Parramatta, there couldn’t be a greater contrast. A sign reading ‘No Judgment, No Racism,’ is at the door, rock show lighting for the performances with couches, mattresses, and beanbags for the audience to sit in. While I can’t speak about what other slams in the thriving scene are like, listening to the poetry at the Parra Slam is an experience in feeling a pulsating, vibrant sense of life and community.

Slam Poetry, beginning in Chicago in the 80s, has since spread globally. Poems are performed rather than read out stiffly, creating an emotionally intense relationship between performer and audience.

While there is a competitive element, with a competition running annually in Australia, all are invited to the stage, and judges, selected randomly from the audience at Parramatta, are always kind: At the last slam I was at, I think the lowest score may have been a six. Rather than applause, particularly powerful moments of resonance are conveyed by clicks: A gesture that means, roughly, “I feel you.”

The range of poems is also striking: I’ve seen people decry the bland agony of office life through hip-hop influenced verse, a woman who poeticised a series of anecdotes on prospective employer’s micro-aggressive reactions to her wearing of a hijab, and another poet who illustrated her experience as a refugee and frustration at our current’s government’s apathy towards the plight of expatriated peoples.

There’s a mainstream disdain for slam poetry which I think is perfectly characterised by 22 Jump Street: it is parodied as voicing a mix of obscure and shrill political views and a general vibe of over-earnest progressive wankery. Poets that I’ve talked to who are not part of the slam scene have made criticisms of a similar nature, citing the aggressive, theatrical nature of much of the poetry as being ‘too much’. As with any art form, there are some messes presented, but I think the warmth and community that the space offers makes up for the poets whose work comes from ego, rather than passion.

Troy Wong, a successful performer in the 2014 Australian Poetry Slam Heat, spoke candidly about the personal impact slam had on him: “Slam poetry gave me a voice, and not only a platform, but also a language through which to be heard. I think it’s as much to do with the form of spoken word poetry as with the social nature of slam events. We’re fortunate in Sydney because our slam scene has this beautiful, supportive, and non-critical culture for the most part and I think that definitely helps. I think the purpose of slam poetry is self-determination.”

At one performance, after I recited a rather scathing poem I’d written about an ex-boyfriend, a pair of young women approached me and told me how refreshing it was to hear a queer perspective, which was greatly rewarding and a far cry from the reception I’d received from a story in my creative writing class. There I endured a kind of frigid, disconcerting homophobia from my fellow readers.

Being a progressive writer looking to reconcile my values with an elitist literary establishment means that slam is a dream. In a political context where underprivileged youth are largely ignored, slam provides an excellent, accessible outlet where all can be involved for a slim entry fee of only $6. The surging popularity of the event speaks for itself, events often reach capacity and organisers are now on the lookout for a larger venue.

Slam is a testament to the power of self-expression as an antidote to alienation, and a confirmation of political engagement within our generation. And while it is linked with the older poetic form, it seeks to smash down the barriers of old elitism and give a voice to those not often heard. As neoliberal government budgets hack take a slash-and-burn approach to funding for Arts, and youth services, events like poetry slams and the communal spaces they provide have become more important than ever.