Poetry slam exists all over Europe, all over the world even, and you probably heard of it, heard it, or participated. At places male-dominated, at other places – like Sweden today – queer-dominated, women-dominated. The difference between a poetry slam and a regular poetry performance? It’s the judges, the scores, the competing, the rules and formalia. Open for entrance. A bit like figure skating but literature instead. And punk! Counter-culture and self-organised. Held at bars. And libraries.
Often described as an urban youth fenomena, it was indeed invented in Chicago. The year was 1986. As the story goes, Marc Smith, a construction worker and poet, felt poetry was kidnapped by academic writers. He wanted to create a space where poetry once again belonged to him and his friends. He and some rarely named associates started handing out signs with numbers and decimals, so the audience could score the performed poetry. Hence the name slam, a word taken from baseball. The act of giving some random folks at a bar scorecards for poetry is interesting in itself. Chances are this judge never have thought twice about a poem before, never been forced to word an opinion, never felt poetry was their concern. A scorecard could be a way to think, feel and express something about poetry, despite lacking the words for it.
Today, 30 years later, poetry slams take place at many continents and countries. There are qualifying rounds, semifinals, national finals, international competing. Because of course, when there are points there are winners (and losers). But it’s not the competition itself, or even most of the poetry itself, that sends sparks through my brain. It’s the network of poets, re-inventing itself every year with brand new voices, as well as experienced ones. In Sweden, despite the long distances, poetry slam manages to live even in smaller cities and rural areas. Poetry slam is not always urban.
And sometimes it is. A new national slam named Ortens bästa poet (The best poet of the city) has the biggest crowd. People of all ages, but mainly young, gathering in hundreds – at some occasions even thousands – to perform poetry and listen to poetry. This slam, organised by Förenade Förorter (United Suburbs), takes place mainly in bigger cities, most regularly in some of the outer parts of Stockholm, in working class areas. A large part of the organisers, poets and audience have parents who are immigrants, or are themselves first-generation immigrants. The competition started as a reaction to the established poetry slam scene in Sweden, after trying to be a part for a long time. But also as a reaction to the book based literature in the inner city.
Non-binary and trans people are visible both as writers and organisers. The current European slam champion is Frej Haar, who is also in the board for Gothenburg Poetry Slam. We see leakage to the realm of published poety: The first book by spoken word poet Yolanda Aurora Bohm Ramirez, IKON, was released this January. My book was released almost the exact same date. Sámi trans poet Timimie Märak is another known name, one voice of the queer indigenous community of Sápmi. At the poetry slam stages we all found our “readers”, and with them our own voices. Of course there are many spoken word poets who attend writing schools and courses, who also write manuscripts and glance in the direction of Stockholm’s publishing houses, in hopes of getting something published. But being a poet in Sweden today, you certainly don’t have to do any of that to be appreciated.
There are those poets that never were able to sit still in the classroom. And those who couldn’t spell (and still can’t). And those who mix languages. Those who never fully grasped the concept or purpose of a “clean” and correct language. The stage is theirs, and as Swedish poet and spoken word lecturer Matiss Silins sometimes says: No one hears when you spell wrong.
Usually my text stops here, having highlighted poetry slams qualities. I’ve never seen a literary critic or journalist write about those qualities in an initiated or interested way, so usually you have to just do it yourself. But that goes for the harsher critique too.
Looking at our time, poetry slams popularity seems inevitable. Time itself catched up to the concept. Video-friendly, charismatic, a focus on identity-politics. The audience is craving authenticity, personal pain (inspirationally overcome at the end!), effective (and affective) dramaturgy. Moralism. Idealism. Individualism. Populism. Competition and rating in numbers. Like an analog social media. Some people would never have written poetry, if they hadn’t started because of slam – I’m one of them. My hope is that we will make more room for critical discussion about writing, and how large parts of this said-to-be counter-culture movement is actually right in the core of the culture. What would a counter-culture spoken word poem sound like today? Don’t know. But I bet we’ll see.