Saturday 2 February 2013

In Response To The Independent Article Poetry Slams Do Nothing To Help The Art Form Survive

My name is Raymond Antrobus, I have been a poet and Spoken Word artist for six years. I am currently studying for an MA in Spoken Word Education at Goldsmith University and I am writing this as a response to The Independent's article which appeared today titled 'Poetry Slams Do Nothing To Help The Art-form Survive' written by self proclaimed poet and Slam workshop facilitator, 'Nathan A Thompson'. -

Let's dissect this article, it begins...

Poetry is dying. Actually, it's pretty dead already for all intents and purposes and the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters. I know, I used to be a performance poet.

a) I've never heard of you mate. b) what are your credentials? I believe it was Inua Ellams who said to me once, "you are not a poet until someone calls you one" -

Anyway, quite a sweeping statement to open with Nathan, but you're trying to get our attention, let's see how you back up this opinion of yours.

The first poetry slam competition was held in Chicago in 1984. Named after a brutal wrestling move, the slam saw poets perform original pieces for a live audience who voted for a winner. The early slam poets railed against what they pejoratively referred to as page poetry. They demanded, along with Bukowski, that poetry “have guts”. They wanted to democratise poetry and drag it from the academic ivory tower.

OK, why you did enough research to know Slam began in Chicago, yet you didn't want to credit the name of the poet, Marc Kelly Smith? 
Slam Papi Marc Smith
But there never was an ivory tower. There was no cabal of posh people who had purposely made poetry unintelligible. Poetry has always been words on a page, open to anyone. The politicisation of art and the drawing of sectarian lines continues to damage poetry to this today.

Nathan, your Ivory Tower analogy contradicts itself, there is an academic Ivory Tower and you are clearly defending it. 

The statement that "poetry has always been words on the page" is a pillar out of place in your tower. I do believe poetry began as an oral tradition before a written one. New York Poet and founder of The Bowery Poetry Club, Bob Holmon calls a poem that is written and performed the practice of 'Oral-ture', I think this suits as it acknowledges a craft of writing and an art of public speaking. 

The truth is "words on a page" are only "open" to someone who can read them, in schools the most common educational need is for students with writing and reading difficulties. Unless you are deaf, speaking verbally is always going to be more accessible than anything literary. 

Why not check in on a Revolutionary Russian poet from the 1920's called Vladimir Mayakovsky? In his book 'How Verses Are Made' he states

“The question of the tone of a poetic work is connected with matters of technique. You mustn’t design the thing to function in some airless void, or as is often the case with poetry, in an all too airy void. You must keep your audience constantly before your eyes, the audience with whom this poem is aimed. This is important in our day when the most significant means of communicating with the masses is the auditorium, the public platform, the voice, the spoken word"

Mayakovsky speaks in favour of the idea of craft of poetry but against your elitist idea that poetry belongs on the page, accessible only to those already privileged enough to be able to read.

Like sipping a fine wine, reading poetry cannot be rushed. It reveals its pleasures over time, rewarding the careful reader with something new and beautiful each time. It runs bang against the grain of our quick-fix culture. It is already a lost discipline. I have taught poetry to hundreds of children aged seven to 14 and not one of them could name me a poet beyond Shakespeare.

Wine sipping analogies Nathan? oh' I say! so there is a correct way to appreciate poetry

I am also teaching in a school in East London, leading lessons on GCSE Poetry, poetry workshops and in class open mics as part of my Spoken Word Education MA. Some of the kids have watched youtube poetry videos by George The Poet and Anthony Anaxagorou. Simon Armitage, Inua Ellams, Benjamin Zephaniaire, Hollie Mcnish, Roger McGough, even Dr. Sessus are poets who have been referenced in other schools and workshops I have attended and ran. 

The reason Shakespeare is still the main reference point for people who haven't experienced poetry outside of education is because Shakespeare is claimed by the people in the Ivory Tower who use his work to symbolise British national pride. English teachers fear teaching poetry because of it's ambiguity, but engaging classrooms with debates and setting context suitable to the experience of young people is essential and most teachers fail to achieve this, fortunately I can name many Poets in schools who are achieving this to revolutionary levels - Jacob Sam La Rose, Peter Kahn etc

A further nail in the coffin is the rise of poetry slams. I have performed at many slams and the audience is almost always half drunk and if you want to win you have to pitch your poem pretty low. The result is a scene rife with the poetic equivalent of nob jokes – and plenty of actual nob jokes.

Seriously Nathan a) Poetry Slams are not on the rise - Slam Poetry is a genre of Spoken Word and that is what is on the rise - Spoken Word. b) Check the actual Slam Champions in this country - Keith Jarrett, Harry Baker, Adam Kammerling, Stephanie Dogfoot, Indigo Williams, David Lee Morgan, Deanna Rodger, Hollie McNish. Doesn't sound like you have had the experience of witnessing actual Slam Champions who do not have a knob joke to boot.

The only division in poetry is between those people willing to take the time to read it and those who will not. When Emily Dickinson said only “the fairest” may enter her house of “possibility”, she wasn't being elitist –she was putting up a barrier against the lazy.

So you've decided to reference another poet and that is Emily Dickinson - a poet from the 1800's... a dead poet... i.e. a poet who will not come and take the job you have facilitating slams in schools, a poet who will not be booked to read her work instead of you at this years Literature Festival - Safe move Nathan.

Most slam poems are not strong enough to be published in even minor poetry journals. And that's fine; maybe they don't want to be. Then why attack the poems that do? It's like there is an oedipal urge to kill the art that made it. We cannot allow slam poetry to replace the role poetry plays in our lives. The threat is there.

John Keats fell victim to these criticisms for writing poems in cockney, "what business does a boy from Moorgate have writing poetry in his lowly manner" they sneered. Again, Slam Poetry is not replacing the role poetry plays in our lives, it is however challenging, revitalising and opening up new pathways which could lead to the question "what is poetry?" - and maybe then they will then go and seek out poets who can write in a way that person can understand. I believe there is a poet for everyone alive, it is about discovering them.

There is a school of thought that thinks slams are the answer. The slams I have attended have little to do with poetry and everything to do with a Darwinian death match where the audience picks the winner like some blood-crazed Circus Maximus mob. Poetry, like all art, whispers its message and we must learn to slow down and take the time to hear it.

Why do you accuse invisible people Nathan, who has this school of thought? can you please do your research before attacking a culture? isn't this how fascism starts? someone gets the wrong idea about a group of people and starts spewing propaganda against them? 

Nathan, admit it, you are not talking about "the death of poetry", you are talking about the "death" of your definition of poetry, but it is not a death Nathan, it is just a shake up. Realistically, what is threatening you from reading poems, slowly and carefully while sipping wine in your Ivory Tower? 


  1. As Niall O'Sullivan points out in his blog ( on this Independent article, Nathan A Thompson has written on Slam before... in its praise. In fact - in that Slam-loving Guardian article, Mr Thompson even gives a YouTube link to his own slam poem, "coffee".

    The link is now gone, but a lil' search found it for me:

    It's fun! I'm not going to rip apart his poem because he wrote a daft piece in the Independent. I liked the damn poem. And ironically, I can watch it again and savour it like a fine wine.

    The problem seems to be that Mr Thompson does not believe his poetry was duly appreciated and appears to be bitter that he didn't win a Slam. That's a bit sad that he should pick up a hefty mouthpiece to attack an entire community on that basis.

    Dude, c'mon. We're all about nob jokes, but you are fine wine? Facepalm.

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  3. Fair response. The article was heavily edited and the final paragraph, which called for a loosening of the national curriculum to include ALL types of poetry was also removed. The stuff about being bitter has a ring of truth and I agree, picking up such a loud mouthpiece to sound off was a dumb thing to do.

    I'm the author of this and there was a point I was trying to make about traditional poetry loosing out to slam but I went overboard and started attacking slam and, after editing, that was the only message that has come across.

    I wrote what I thought the editor wanted without due care and I apologise big time for any personal feelings I have hurt and the damage that may have been done to the art as a whole.

    I spoke to poejazzi and they will be printing an interview soon.


    1. Nathan -

      To me, it shows pretty damn big cojones that you would reply on here -- and apologise -- AND admit that maybe there was some bitterness behind it. Hats off to you, mate.

      That kind of mature gesture gets more respect from me than any disrespect I feel over the article.

      I know how editors and journalists can hormone-inject messages and you don't really know how it sounds until it comes back at you through others - and then it feels out of your hands.

      So stay in touch, come to Poetry Cafe, Farrago, etc - it's all love here. Look forward to seeing the Poejazzi interview.

      I personally believe that slam and open mic will be what stimulates people to pick up written poetry and discover the new and old masters. In fact, I find most open mic-ers and slammers have fascinating and deep knowledge of traditional poetry.

    2. Nathan

      Thanks for taking the time to reply and offering context to what was printed.

      Gary Longden

  4. Yeah, his argument is a little analogous to people who say, "The sanctity of my marriage with my wife is being attacked and threatened because somewhere in this country two men or two women are being married."

    I actually liked his title, and thought it might make an argument worth hearing. Alas, he completely missed the point. Nice job with this.

  5. People getting cross about this are missing the potential joke/troll. The indie article is short, gets a simplistic point across in overly simplistic language, it grabs attention via controversy and it ends with a broad sweeping pop subjective statement. A criticism that could be aimed at a disproportionate amount of slam poets. My late lamented attempt on the genre included. I've had some fun japes and capers with sectarian stupefaction recently. Near-on thirty emails. I think your response represents a further entrenchment. I cannot say that all 'Spoken Word' artists are elitist, but I would say it is a fairly elitist form, as it relies on a set of fairly narrow criteria. But then, elitism emerges in all forms of poetry. When I've performed recent work to Spoken Wordists it has been met in some cases with derision and in some cases bemused smiles. Laughter if I'm lucky. Often followed by a detailed analysis of how I could make it more accessible. I see that as a form of violence against work that you're not obliged to like. We ought to at the very least treat one another's positions, political and aesthetic decisions etc. fairly.

  6. I was about to go on here and say something to the effect of "how dare you state that English teachers don't teach poetry right..." but thankfully, being an English teacher, was able to spot the dramatic irony just in time. Down with the People's Front of Judea!

    1. Hey Kyrill, you're more than an English teacher, you are a fantastic poet and I did try not to generalise my analysis of English teaching standards in regards to poetry but I am sure you know what I was referring to.

      Nathan, fair play man, I'll look out for your Poejazzi article.


    2. Aw thanks! And indeed I know what you mean. I tried to do Kate Tempest for my Year 10 poetry essay comparing her to Blake, since the Specification says that English teachers can pick ANY poetry collection with the brief that it has to have had an impact on British culture. But then I scrolled down to find that they'd already decided what poets qualify, and less than 20 do. Schools simply can't make provisions for vibrant contemporary poetry. This is why the work you talk about with your MA and other poetry initiatives are so important in schools :)

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  8. If anyone is interested in the Nathan interview...

  9. Hmmm, I've read the original article and the poejazzi interview doesn't add up - it's got all the ingredients of a publicity stunt...

  10. I don't agree with the sentiment that poetry is dead. No it isn't as popular as it has been in the past or currently is in other countries. But you can't ignore that there is a strong Poetry/Spoken Word "scene" in London and in other UK cities which are helping to keep Poetry alive. Also if it were dead I don't believe it would have been the fault of Slam Poetry.

    However neither am I the biggest fan of Poetry Slams. I have watched, taken part in, won and hosted poetry slams and so I know a little about what I am talking about. From my experience of Slams I don't completely understand why so many successful London poets have come out in such strong defence of Slams? I'm sure they all have their own individual reasons but maybe part of it is simply a pack mentality. Somebody has dared to attack Poetry/Spoken Word and so we must defend it to the death. I completely understand this feeling.

    However I don't feel as strongly about this as others do or at least not in defence of Poetry Slams. Of course there are good slams and bad slams, good slam poets and bad slam poets. It is therefore really hard to judge it as a whole. Ray has mentioned some great poets who are/have been slam champions but unless I am wrong? these are poets who have done and won slams but not necessarily poets who regularly compete at slams? At a lot of slams you will tend to see poets new to the "scene" - this is great as one of the things that slams are great for is bringing new poets and audiences in contact with the art form - however it does mean that your "average" slams do not always have the highest quality of performer. This is not necessarily a negative either because like open mics it is giving new performers a platform.

    However I do see some BIG negatives when it comes to Poetry Slams. Firstly, I feel that it is often the case that too much emphasis is put onto the performance element. There are lots of great poets in London who can perform as well as they write and vice versa - Ray has named several in his post - but at several (not all) of the slams that I have been to, the audience often chooses the most entertaining performer. I understand this but I also believe that this leads to the encouragement of a lack of craft. I think writers should become better performers but I feel that Slams often encourage performers to put too much time into the performance and not enough time into the writing and re-writing. Ideally (and sometimes the case) the winner would be both the best writer and best performer.

    I have also had the conversation with several poets that Slams discourage individual voice. There are some great slams and great slam poets in London - I feel a need to express this again. There are lots of poets with individual voices and unique outlooks on life who have won slams but there is also a pressure to write and perform in a certain style - at least performers feel they have to write/perform in a certain way in order to have a chance of winning - also what you write about is often very important. I'm not talking about "nob jokes" but if you write something funny or political you have a better chance of winning.

    I remember being at a slam and I did a poem (I don't remember which now) but at the end someone came up to me and said that I was brave for not doing a comical poem like everyone else. They had clearly felt the pressure to do a funny poem that night.

    And to finish the world's longest blog comment. Slam Poetry is increasingly taught in schools. I am not necessarily against this but why does everyone feel the need to make it into a competition? Is it not possible to simply go into schools, get the young people writing and then get them to share their work in an interesting way? Do we have to make it into a Slam in order to engage with the young people?

  11. I started writing poetry in 2011, through attending a workshop and going to a Slam event (hat-tip to the brilliant Rob Gee). The quality of the contributions at spoken word nights I have been to, is occasionally mediocre but is much more often outstanding.

    Poetry is, and always has been, primarily an oral medium - even on the printed page; the earliest poetry in English is the result of an oral tradition.

    Slam poetry is democratic, non-elitist and enjoyable entertainment. In no way does it demean poetry, rather it makes it accessible and less daunting to those who have sadly been poisoned by the way poetry is often taught for SATS in our schools, i.e. the 'correct' interpretation is spoon-fed to pupils to be regurgitated parrot fashion for the exam.

    Poetry can also be introspective, academic, reflective and confined to the written page. But the popularity of the spoken word scene can only encourage people to get out there, read and perform more poetry, which can only be a good thing.