What New Media Can Learn From Slam Poetry

Vinyl Two by Conson
Vinyl Two by Conson

“I have just read the immortal poems of the ages and come away dull. I don’t know who’s at fault; maybe it’s the weather, but I sense a lot of pretense and poesy footwork: I am writing a poem, they seem to say, look at me! Poetry must be forgotten; we must get down to raw paint, splatter.”

Charles Bukowski

Confession: I loathe most formal poetry. Sestinas, sonnets, terza rimas, oh my!

While I appreciate the exercise of writing in a particular form, the end result is usually a self-indulgent bit of forgettable wordplay rarely worth reading, never mind hearing read out loud, because so few poets are able to bury the template and let the poem itself come to the fore.

Give me a good bit of free verse narrative any day, spoken out loud, where the rhythm and meter are almost invisible and the metaphor lingers at the back of my mind days, even years, later.

The same thinking applies to marketing where, as Bukowski notes above, too often the focus is on the form/medium (or worse, the poet/messenger), and not enough on the poem/message.

Twenty-plus years ago, a construction worker named Marc Smith started what came to be known as the “poetry slam”, a competitive poetry reading where randomly selected members of the audience got to determine the “winner”. At its core, the slam was a rejection of the gatekeepered status quo; the original Digg, long before the term “social media” had been coined.

“[Smith had] grown tired of the stale politeness of the academic poetry reading, where the poet was placed on a pedestal and had no obligations to his audience other than to show up and read poems. His solution: Empower the audience–take poetry down from the tower and not only make it available to the so-called masses, but make it answer to them.”

The Revolution Will Be

It completely flipped the script as new voices began to be heard, new audiences were reached, and preconceived notions of what “poetry” could be were challenged. The slam and the poets who participated in it were alternately ignored, derided, segregated and, eventually, accepted as a definable form of “slam poetry” began to take shape — much to the chagrin of Smith and others — where energy and volume were favored over content and craft.

Unfortunately, the nascent form began to quickly calcify as poets stopped challenging the audience, going for the “easy” win by pandering instead, and the audience slowly narrowed as a result. Some poets rose beyond it, though, to prove that strong content and attention to craft ultimately beat all, arguably best personified by the career of Patricia Smith (no relation to Marc), one of the original superstars of slam who saw her latest book of poetry, Blood Dazzler, nominated as a finalist for the prestigious 2008 National Book Award. True to her roots, Patricia can still rock a crowd, whether performing her work in a library or a rowdy bar, but unlike most so-called “slam poetry”, every one of her poems also stands up on the page.

The parallels to the current state of marketing are many, as “new media” — forums, blogs, wikis, social networks — has accelerated the disintermediation process, bringing new voices to the fore and new audiences into the mix, effectively kneecapping interruption marketing driven by “target audiences” and broad demographics, and forcing public relations to stop being MEDIA relations and actually engage with the public.

I’m currently reading Geoff Livingston’s Now is Gone: A Primer on New Media for Executives and Entreprepneurs, and was struck by one particular passage that seemed glaringly obvious, and yet completely necessary to state explicitly:

Communities have been the watch word of the new media revolution, but what does that really mean? It means we are returning to relationships. Everyone thinks it’s a revolution, when in reality it’s a return to old-fashioned values. Relationships and values in the sense of the baker, the butcher and general store owners down on Main Street. People want to know their vendors, they want to interact with them, and most importantly, they want to be heard!

Slam wasn’t really a revolution, either, simply a return to poetry’s roots in the oral tradition — the preservation of community knowledge and history via memorable stories and truths — that pre-dates the written word by centuries. As a result, some in the audience found their own voices, and the overall audience for poetry expanded well beyond the academic circles that had strangled it for decades.

Similarly, “social networking” existed long before mass media came along; the only thing that’s changed is its reach, as new media has the potential to amplify all voices equally.

Nevertheless, with notable exceptions, most marketers continue to embrace the status quo, holding course with by-the-numbers interruption marketing plans or, even worse, abandoning the fundamentals to chase after the latest “new shiny”, partly from a lack of imagination, and partly due to an emphasis on short-term results over long-term value.

While the ability to listen to and engage one’s community is critical, the ability to define and stay focused on the ultimate goal is what separates good marketing from the white noise that is increasingly being tuned out, and is completely ineffective in new media where every message is open to interpretation, and subject to public praise, criticism or scorn.

Like writing a poem, strategic marketing planning should be goal-oriented, not bound to any particular form just because the exercise is comfortable and familiar. There is no template, no magic bullet, and no short-cuts worth taking.

Unless the goal is mimicry or mediocrity, a free verse narrative written honestly will always beat a formulaic Shakespearean sonnet or a chaotic exquisite corpse.

The “wisdom of crowds” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

6 thoughts on “What New Media Can Learn From Slam Poetry

  1. So right, on so many levels. (But that you and I are in accord on these matters is hardly news.) Still, much to think about. More soon when I'm not in agony after the dentist and buried in work.

  2. I'd like to point out that Blood Dazzler actually has quite a number of form poems: sonnets, tankas, a sestina, an abecedarian and a ghazal. It also employs a few persona poems, a less rigidly defined form.

    Poetry forms work when you utilize them to get the point of the poem across, not when you use them just to say “Hey, I wrote a rondeaux! Where's my poet cookie!?”

    In a business sense, would you get get made at someone on your team for finding an effective tool to get the job done? No. Would you praise the team member who spent three days of research coming up with a new way to RSS feed? I don't think so.

    Same thing with poetic form, you need a way to braid memory and the present- try a pantoum. Want to nail the point home while still giving your poem a chance to breathe- try a villanelle. Want to win over a reluctant and even hostile audience with your stage presence and writing skills- try writing a slam poem.

    What can New Media learn from Slam? Don't let your desire to try to bury the past keep you from digging a new hole that, no matter how new and exciting, is just a hole.

  3. re: Blood Dazzler and form, as with many things, Patricia is the exception, not the rule. I believe free verse narrative is a form, too, a less rigid one that's as easy to screw up as any other form when people drift into melodramatic confessionals and polemical screeds. Persona poems fall into a similar category.

    Relating form back to tools, your RSS feed analogy hits the point I was making. Goals determine strategy which then determines tools. Too many poets and marketers work that process in reverse, often skipping over the strategic part completely.

    Magnolia had a great line about the past that applies: “And the book says, 'We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.'”

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