Behind the Words

Slam poetry is about story and rhythm and sound

Backstage

by Heather Mays

Good writers are really good writers if readers don't notice their words. Their words transport you somewhere else: All you see is the scene; you don't pay attention to the grammar or word choice. The mark of a talented writer is that you aren't sidetracked by his language. All you notice is the story. A good writer makes himself invisible.

This is a difficult enough feat when writing. Now imagine speaking. Tell a story, but stay invisible. A poetry slam, like the ones held twice a month at the Corner Lounge, is filled with people trying to accomplish just that: trying to disappear behind words while standing onstage.

A poetry slam is like an open mike with set rules. A poet reads an original composition that's under three minutes long and then points are given by select audience members for the autonomy of the piece, the force of the delivery, and so on. In a traditional poetry slam, performers cannot use props, costumes or music. Add the fact that the audience is allowed to heckle and boo performers off the stage, and you have yourself some entertainment.

The noticeably different thing about a slam is the audience participation. Slams are engineered for the audience, whereas a number of open mike readings are engineered as a support network for poets.

Audience members are encouraged to react openly to the poets, the judges' scores, even to the host's comments.

The first poetry slam was held in Chicago at the Get Me High Lounge in 1984, and they have since expanded nationally. Today, teams from around the country participate in regional and national poetry slam competitions. Knoxville is home to many poets who complete in slam sessions and teams that compete for regional and national recognition. The Knoxville National Team, EquiSolKnox, is competing in Texas this month.

Black Atticus and Rhea Sunshine, two of Knoxville's premier slam poets, have created Black Sunshine Arts â‘N Entertainment (BSANE), a venue for a medley of hip hop, soul, R&B, and the spoken word. They hope that the power and passion behind their words and music will change the world. â“You cannot do anything with any type of passion if you don't know why you are doing it,â” their website, blacksunshine.org, proclaims, â“Our ultimate goal is to bring about changeâthrough the power of the WORD.â”

Slams are all about broadening horizons and pushing the boundaries of poetry. Poetry's audience shouldn't lie solely in those willing to read moldering books in university libraries. Slams reach the poetry audience that's left behind by professors and textbooks. Besides the audience, there's little difference between slam poetry and poetry.

Slam poetry is the spoken word. It's meant to be spoken and heard. If your voice can't carry the passion of the spoken word, many poets will tell you, then it doesn't need to be said.

That being understood, here are a few verses from Copperhead Red (alias Renee Hickman), a BSANE poet:

Why is it so expensive just to be good?   Good to the environment, good to ourselvesâbecause it's more cost effectiveâ. So, Mother Culture pipes placating Muzak into the soundtrack of our lives with not so subliminal messages which cause us to choke down a fear sandwich full of all the things we ought to be and are not.

To hear this poetry (as it is meant to be heard), visit www.blacksunshine.org/CopperheadRed .

The power of the words is not completely in the words themselves, and no typed lines can convey it. The power is in how Red says them, jumping from detached interest to sing-song irony to a frustration that storms out of her mouth like a train.

What: Poetry Slam

When: Friday, Aug. 17, 7 p.m.

Where: Corner Lounge

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