Chelsea Asplund/The AS Review
For some, poetry readings are imagined taking place in dimly-lit, smoke-filled coffeehouses. The artist sits on a stool, speaking in a soft, muted tone, maybe even accompanied by a set of bongos.
Imagine instead a brightly-lit space, a spotlight hitting a stage. The artist is moving vigorously across the stage, speaking with a loud, rhythmic voice. In fact he speaks so fast that it feels as though his powerful words are being “slammed” right into you.
Welcome to the world of slam poetry.
While Bruce Beasley’s English 457 class might not have a stage and spotlight, that doesn’t stop him from transforming a stuffy room on the fourth floor of Bond Hall into an inspiring poetic space.
In his English course “Special Topics in Poetry Writing: Slam, Performance, and Spoken Word Poetries,” Beasley challenges his students to explore the world of performance poetry, from reading about its history and role in American culture to creating and performing its unique language and style.
“I like how honest and in your face it is,” said Western senior Kat Finch. “They are telling you how it is or what their experience is and how the world is,” she said. “It’s really a movement; it’s about making a difference.”
Finch, a creative writing major, said she knew she wanted to take the class because it would take everything she knew about traditional poetry and turn it upside down.
“It’s such a different experience than writing a normal poem. It’s about the performance and interacting with the audience,” she said.
Finch said she could remember witnessing award winner and Seattle native Buddy Wakefield perform. She said the connection he made to the audience and the camaraderie she felt inspired her to want to do the same.
“He got up onstage and interacted with everyone and he cried onstage. No one cared. It was really powerful what he did and he had the guts to do it,” she said.
Senior Barbara DeVries signed up for the class on the advice of a friend, who said her animated personality would make her a perfect slam poet. She didn’t know too much about it when she enrolled, but DeVries said after watching examples in class, she realized what she was getting herself into.
“Coming to class and seeing the performances of slam poets, I think ‘Yeah, I could do this.’ It’s cool and completely different than anything else here at Western,” DeVries said.
Throughout the quarter Beasley assigns four poems with the themes of family or self-portrait, love or anti-love, political and satirical.
But the difference between writing and performing is huge, DeVries said. This requires students to express themselves publicly on very intimate subjects.
“It’s vulnerable. I don’t have a problem performing, but it’s the fact that it’s your poem. We’re being challenged to write about our identities, our families, politics,” she said.
Senior Zack Price said he is most looking forward to the identity poem, a project they are all individually working on right now.
“Some people say I’m almost too truthful sometimes. I’m not afraid to let people know who I am. I’m able to just be myself, and slam poetry gives you so many tools to just do that,” he said.
Students also join into groups and perform in a “slam” against each other at the end of the quarter, and for their final portfolio students will videotape their performance pieces and put them on YouTube for public viewing.
Poetry slams first started up in the 1980s, when poets would recite or read their work in a public performance. In 1990 the very first National Poetry Slam included three groups, but fast-forward 10 years and there are now more than 80 teams, in competitions all over the world.
Student Jake Teitelbaum said he hopes taking this course will help him build his performance ability inside and outside of the classroom.
“When you do slam poetry you’re trying to engage the audience,” he said. “You’re performing for the audience, so they better be pleased. And the best way to please an audience is to make them feel something.”