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It’s a Sunday night in 1986 at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge of Chicago, and Marc Smith is hosting what he has christened “the slam.” Poets from all over the neighborhood get up on stage to perform their pieces. Three audience members are randomly chosen to score each performance, while the rest of the crowd boos performances they dislike through finger snapping or foot stomping. The winner gets ten dollars.
In November 2014, spoken word poets across Metro Manila gathered in a quiet nook of Makati to bare their souls—or parts of it—to strangers. Each Saturday, the crowd chooses a different champion for the night. One of them has just won a chance to visit Thailand. Everyone goes out for drinks after.
Spoken word is a particular form of poetry that is meant to be performed. The unique empowerment the genre grants the poet-performer draws writers and new audiences alike. Its growing interest is largely attributed to its meticulous documentation on YouTube, particularly for American poets. But these performances by Sarah Kay, Andrea Gibson, Rudy Francisco, and many other spoken word poets are not simply intermission numbers before a crowd in a coffee shop. Often, you can read the description box sporting lines like “2011 National Poetry Slam Finals” or “2010 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion” or “First ‘Woman of Woman of World Poetry Slam’ Champion.”
The art of spoken word isn’t honed just by performing on stage. “The very essence of spoken word has always been rooted with slam contests,” said Slac Cayamanda, local spoken word poet. And so the tradition that begun with Smith, a construction worker in Chicago, soon found its way to the Philippine performance poetry scene.
Paint your poetry
“Winning a slam is as good as being published, if compared to writing,” Cayamanda claimed while discussing his ongoing project. The Paint Your Poetry Slam Competition is a collaborative effort between him and Santinka Felipe, a spoken word artist from Chicago and the owner of Satinka Naturals Bistro in Makati. The first season of five was held on all Saturdays of November 2014. The winner of each night proceeded to compete in the season finals held January 10, 2015. All season winners would win a free trip to Sagada, as well as a chance to qualify for the grand finals. The champion of the entire competition would win a free trip to Thailand. The duo sought to recapture the slam spirit of Marc Smith and foster an environment of both conducive artistic expression and friendly competition here in the Philippines.
As for the mechanics of the slam, Cayamanda said that they patterned most of the rules from Poetry Slam Inc., a non-profit American organization that facilitates the National Poetry Slam. Poets perform an original piece on any topic, and five random audience members would score the poets on criteria of equal parts content, delivery, and audience impact.
This contrasts the poetry slams held at another local home for spoken word poets, Sev’s Café, where owner Ipat Luna often invites an awarded writer or teacher to judge the performances. “We wanted to make it as close and familiar to the international standards, in case we would have the privilege to compete internationally,” Cayamanda explained.
In other communities with a more developed slam tradition, poet-performers compete in consecutive rounds of slams, often starting from the neighborhood, then escalating to the national and international level. This is what Cayamanda and Felipe hope to someday establish in the Philippines. Currently, the Paint Your Poetry Slam is in its second season, with three more before the Grand Finals. As Cayamanda excitedly told us, “We are happily serious competing with each other. Who doesn’t want to go to Sagada for free? Or to Thailand, right?”
Trisha O’Bannon: “It’s not just release for the artist. It’s also a way of building a community with other people. As the audience, you feel included, like you’re being let in on a secret.”
Rage, page, stage
One noticeable difference between page poetry and spoken word poetry is the exactness of interpretation. “It’s much like theatre, where you bring the audience along with you for a ride, making them feel all of the emotions along with you as you perform,” explained Abby Orbeta (AB Social Sciences 2006), who currently handles the external affairs of the local spoken word community Words Anonymous.
Cayamanda echoed this sentiment, adding, “There’s just one message, and it’s presented directly to an audience… and there are only a few [ways], if not one way, to interpret it.”
For Trisha O’Bannon, a Comparative Literature student and spoken word poet from UP Diliman, the directness of the message is why spoken word often resembles a story, confession, rant or speech. “You can take liberties here and there, but it’s rooted in real experience, social phenomenon, or politics,” she said, elaborating that this directness allows for a more intimate conversation between the performer and the audience, unlike most forms of public speaking. “It’s catharsis, yes, kind of like art therapy. But it’s not just release for the artist. It’s also a way of building a community with other people. As the audience, you feel included, like you’re being let in on a secret.”
This dialectic dynamic of the genre is what has shaped, and continues to push, the art form forward. Marc Smith, former Chicago construction worker, is considered to be the founder of the International Poetry Slam Movement. In his TED talk at the Loyola University of Chicago, he explains that the original model of the slam was a very social one, patterned after the social idealism of the folk movement. “It’s my belief that art, writing poetry, performing it, theater, dance, is sacred. It’s a life-changing, human activity directed toward uncovering the truth about one’s self and the society at large,” he had said. “[It’s] about opening one’s eyes, and helping others to see the harms they may be blind to. It’s about fighting the good fight. [It’s] about standing up to very real evils that exist around us, without becoming evil yourself.”
Spoken word poetry has evolved over the decades, most especially as it gains traction in different communities all over the world. It has become an avenue to articulate sensitive topics such as sex, race, or other types of trauma. Paint Your Poetry Slam saw performances by Louise Meets and Franz Pantaleon that carried stories of rape and cancer.
But because the art form draws heavily from theater as much as it draws from poetry, the audience has the final say. “The ‘payoff’ of literary devices, or how quick your audience understands them, has to be immediate because they can’t go back to earlier parts of your piece if they don’t get them right away,” explained O’Bannon, who has been immersed with spoken word since 2007. “I see spoken word a lot like stand-up comedy: You have your set-up, a punch line, call backs to earlier jokes.”
“Performers now seem closer to actors than writers, and it’s really intensified the audience experience,” said Ninno Rodriguez, a season finalist for the Paint Your Poetry Slam Competition. “I think that poetry is meant to be performed, the same way songs are meant to be sung.”
And yet, spoken word poetry remains a deeply personal process. When it comes to finding your voice, Orbeta, Cayamanda, Rodriguez, and O’Bannon stick to a cardinal rule of writing: Write what you know. They continually draw from personal experience for their work. O’Bannon warned against crowd-pleasing, stating, “If you’re not moved by your own source material, your audience won’t be either. Don’t focus on being good, focus on being sincere.”
Orbeta shared similar thoughts, and highlights that apart from self-expression, spoken word also gave her a sense of community. “There are just some things you can’t find the words for that others have been able to,” she said. I know that I don’t have all the answers and not everything I write is literary gold. The way I see it, sharing my work is a way for me to pay it forward.”
Whether personal, political, or a happy mix of both, spoken word poetry has allowed generations of youth to find their voice in a community. The slam tradition has made the audience as much a part of the art form as the poet-performer, and compels the crowd to express their approval or disapproval. Even today at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, the audience is instructed to show their distaste for a poet through an established progression of reactions. These go from finger snapping, to foot stomping, to verbal jeering. But in the 1950s, thirty years before Marc Smith and his poetry slams, it was the Beat Generation and their non-conformist poetry movements that took the stage. The likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac would perform in the basement of The Gaslight Café, where the building’s air shafts made sound travel all the way up to the top floor. In order not to disturb the neighbors with the applause, the audience snapped their fingers.