Google “Def Jam Poetry” and watch some of the videos that come up. You’ll see various poets performing, speaking of race, gender, identity and love, both in humor and in complete seriousness. Occasionally, you’ll find an appearance by Kanye West or DMX. The nature of spoken-word performance is debatable, and even more up in the air is its origin. Poets can even look as far back into history as Sappho of Lesbos, typically depicted with a lyre in hand.
In the 1980s, a phenomenon within the world of spoken word took form with the advent of the slam poetry competition. The format was simple: Poets would perform a two- to three-minute piece before an audience and five judges selected from within that audience. Slam poetry became its own culture with its own traditions: booing bad scores, praising good ones and generally encouraging the performer when you like his or her piece by snapping or shouting the occasional “preach!” and “mmm.” From its humble Chicago origins, slam poetry spread across the nation, evolving into a much greater cultural event.
On Jan. 12, the University Poetry Club hosted a slam competition in the Union. Sponsored by the Center for Campus Involvement, U-M Poetry Club — once known as U-Club Poetry — provides slam competitions and open-mic formats for aspiring poets at the University. Saturday’s event was the grand slam, where poets competed for a position on the University’s national slam team. About 100 students attended, providing energy and enthusiasm that permeated the packed room.
Engineering sophomore William Royster and LSA freshman Mimi Norwood are two of the poets who made the national team. For Royster, this was his first performance in a slam format and his first appearance at a U-M Poetry event.
“It was a great crowd,” Royster said. “Sometimes you get dull crowds, and it can really harm your performance.”
“It was just an easy crowd to go up in front of,” Norwood said.
Last year, however, things were a little different for U-M Poetry.
“By the end of last year, we had an attendance of 15 people,” said LSA junior Alexander Pan. “It’s not anyone’s fault really; it was just poor organization from everyone.”
Pan joined the group last winter when numbers were dwindling, and since then, he has been spearheading the effort to revitalize the group.
“If the students don’t show interest, we’re clearly not meant to be funded and be a club here,” Pan said.
While the artform has a rich history and is nationally recognized and supported, it nevertheless is held in low opinion by a lot of people. Undoubtedly, this has played a role in the lack of participation at U-M Poetry.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about what spoken word and slam poetry is,” said LSA sophomore Supreet Grewal. “A lot of people think it’s just very angry and not something that’s relatable on a mass scale.”
Grewal is a member of U-M Poetry, and has helped Pan in the revitalization effort. Having also joined last year, her experiences with the group were also on the shaky side.
Pan had a particularly personal interaction with the bad reputation slam poetry has garnered. At one of the events hosted by U-M Poetry, a performance showcase at U-Mix Late Night, Pan gave a performance and then opened up the forum to discussion.
“What ended up happening is, this one girl in particular, I’m not going to go into details … but she ended up just saying that slam/spoken word is shit poetry,” Pan said. “While that is her opinion and (she is) entitled to that, I think that is a very close-minded thing to say.”
Pan’s first encounter with the medium was a transformative experience. Originally, he was primarily interested in short fiction. That is, until he went to a slam his sophomore year.
“I went to a poetry event and I was blown away at how moving it was for me,” Pan said. “The performer that was there, his name was Jon Sands, and he was so animated and so lively that he captured everyone’s attention. … His performance was really real to me, and I think I wanted to do something like that.”
Over the past summer, Pan and Grewal worked with faculty in the CCI for guidance and ideas, which they then implemented last semester. Their efforts paid off. The attendance numbers rise with each event.
“We really got this off the ground,” Pan said. “It’s great to see something so alive again.”
Some of the changes they’ve made involve a greater push in advertising, as well as a turn to more local tastes in the guest poets featured after the slam.
“Last semester, all of our (guest) poets were either in the Master of Fine Arts program or from the Ann Arbor area,” Pan said. “They studied under Jeff Kass in high school and whatever college they may have gone to, Ann Arbor was where they were from, so that was pretty cool that we got a lot of local talent. That was really big.”
At Saturday’s performance, Pan brought in his good friend Mike Rosen from New York to emcee the event. Rosen attended the University his freshman year, where he was first introduced to slam at a U-Club Poetry event.
“I did not actually participate, but I do very distinctly remember coming to this very room and watching my first poetry slam,” Rosen said.
Rosen would go on to start the slam poetry program at Wesleyan University, and has been hosting slams on the college circuit ever since. His experience was noticeable.
His energy was palpable, and with his confidence, humor and charm, Rosen shaped the audience into an energetic slam crowd, which was fitting, since a big theme of the night was first-times with the slam scene. Among the members of U-M Poetry, you could hear the audience’s surprise at all the new faces coming in.
“I want people who are in my shoes to be able to find the water instead of aimlessly searching around like I did until my sophomore year, when I could have started my freshman year,” Pan said.
The efforts to bring in these new faces has led to a community outreach beyond the University, where there is a thriving slam scene channeled from the high schools such as Pioneer and Huron, and The Neutral Zone, a teen center on East Washington. Pan has even gone so far as to give a guest lecture at his old high school in Troy, Mich., encouraging the kids to explore forms of poetic expression other than the typical authors and styles listed in curriculums. He would later see some of these students at U-M Poetry events.
The revitalization efforts haven’t stopped at the success in attendance, though. Pan, Grewal and others at U-M Poetry want to start offering workshops and other events that create a comfortable space for those who might otherwise pass up on the poetic endeavor.
“The future is more workshops. It is not worrying about budget. It’s not worrying about attendance. It’s not worrying about these things; (it’s) about having everything clear and laid out and focusing on how we get better and where does the fun come in.”