Anyway, you can call me spoken word or hip hop or whatever the fuck makes you feel better about the fact that no one falls asleep when I read my poems.
— Angel Nafis
At a fundraiser for a youth poetry slam organization, a young girl approached me breathlessly. “I love your work!” she said, smiling broadly. I smiled back and thanked her warmly. “I love your poem in The BreakBeat Poets ,” she continued. “It was amazing. I had never seen a spoken word poem in a book before. It’s a whole book full of slam and spoken word poems!”
I paused, searching for a way to correct her without sullying her joy. “Thank you so much,” I said as effusively as I could. “But actually, that poem was written for the page. It’s . . . not a spoken word poem.”
Even as I said it, as her brows furrowed, I realized that I didn’t actually know what I was saying. Saying it was “written for the page” made it sound like I wanted the work to live only on paper (false). Saying it was “not a spoken word poem” made it sound like performing the work aloud, before a microphone and an audience, perhaps without the presence of paper, would somehow be categorically inappropriate (also false). In the end, I don’t know who was more confused, the girl or me. I tried to slide past the moment, saying something enthusiastic and encouraging, and she bounded away.
As of this writing, no video recordings exist of me reading “to the notebook kid,” which appears in The BreakBeat Poets anthology as well as in the April 2015 issue of Poetry magazine . If the girl had never seen or heard me read it, what quality of the poem on the page made her categorize it in this way? What led her to encounter it and say to herself, “This is a spoken word poem,” and not say the same of other poems she may have read in school—poems by John Donne or Maya Angelou, Dylan Thomas or Gwendolyn Brooks, poems that accomplish so much when paired with the human voice?
A couple of months later, I was invited to do a bookstore reading with four friends: one other black poet, two Latinx poets, and an Asian-American poet. When I went to share the Facebook event, I saw a description that referred to our work as “ . . . honest and raw. These pieces, with sound and rhythm that will move you (at least have your foot tapping), are not hindered by expectations of structure or form.”
Curiouser and curiouser.
I politely correct people when they call me a “slam poet,” all the while wondering what they mean by that anyway. I was drawn into the world of performance poetry in high school, but not because I was mesmerized by the possibility of standing before an audience and telling my story. I was captivated not by the microphone, but by the room around it: the synchronization of bodies and voices, of cheers and snaps and tears and cajoling reminders. As a student, I marveled at the secret language of looks exchanged, laughing at the same stage banter bout after bout, hands held up in testimony. As a teacher, I was won by the shaky voice grown strong, the bickering teammates turned best friends, the seventh frustrated revision that made all the difference.
I have spent half of my life attending, organizing, supporting, and dissecting poetry slams; I have witnessed hundreds of poets stand before the microphone and share poems that were specifically, intentionally, designed to maximize the elements of performance, of sound and rhythm and audience engagement, of the interaction between people in a place; in some cases, these poems may have been written down once only for the sake of having something to memorize from. On the farthest end of this spectrum, reading a poem like this on a piece of paper or on a screen is tantamount to reading a diagram of how to do a line dance—that is, it more or less misses the point.
Since most of my formative years were defined by encounters with poems like this, and since my own poetic craft, through the age of twenty-five, consisted primarily of writing in notebooks alone and never reading my poems aloud, the polite correction made sense to me. No, I organize a slam, but I am not a slam poet became as natural-if-uncomfortable as the various other scripted explanations I have prepared for the myriad of questions I am asked by people who experience a dissonance between the body in which I live and the comportment they expect of that body, emboldened by a belief that they have every right to ask about that dissonance whenever and however they want.
Then I attended, for the first time, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I was one of 12,000 writers, publishers, and editors convened to talk about writing, publishing, and editing. I sat in a ballroom full of attendees gathered to listen to some very famous poets read their work. There were so many people present that I sat on the floor, in the back. The very famous poets were too far away for me to see their faces clearly. The very famous poets read some poems in hushed tones.
I thought they were excellent. I assume that the other people gathered also thought they were excellent; why else would they have come to see the very famous poets? But whereas I was accustomed, from my upbringing, to a poem being met not only with applause, but other affirmative noise—murmurs, snapping, the occasional “yes” or “okay”—the crowd was silent. The very famous poets glided quietly from one poem into another. Their hands were still. The audience was still. I leaned over to a friend sitting next to me and whispered, “But don’t they like the poems?” I may not be a slam poet , I thought, but I ain’t this.
Some of the poems I write will only live on a computer or in a journal or in a book. Most others, I speak into the world. I speak them loudly and with certainty. Sometimes the poems have rhyming parts. Sometimes they have what you might call a beat. Sometimes I read from paper. I make use of my body. I ask questions. I look at people. Often I greet them. Sometimes I sing badly. I tell jokes. In short, I perform. I think.
For some people, “performance” is a bad word, and even for those of us who think otherwise, it can have frustrating implications. Poets of color, particularly black poets, are often pigeonholed into not only the presumption of performance, but the implication that performance—as a mode of poetry—is somehow crude, somehow lesser. I often recall, with pain, a meeting in which an older white man told me and another woman of color that poetry slam is useful insofar as it might bring poor, black, and “Hispanic” children of the “inner-city” in proximity to literature so that, eventually, they might read real poetry. Someone named Jax Carter put it much more bluntly in email he wrote to Franny Choi:
“Hey you know that slam poetry is just a shitty display of the humanities and devalues actual literary arts right? and that’s why you can’t express anything meaningful in your ‘poetry’? okay I was just curious because I’ve been reading real literature and poetry and it’s funny how bad your writing and slamming is! Okay thanks sorry for this message. Just curious if you know and are just along for the scam or if you genuinely don’t know how non-contributive you are . . . ”
Stories like this put us in a troubling double-bind. On one hand, as a black poet I celebrate the performance tradition in all its manifestations. On the other hand, I resist others’ presumption of the right to [mis]categorize me. As my friend Diamond Sharp once put it, “Sometimes I just want to stand up and read some poems off a damn piece of paper and I should be able to do that.”
The logic that labels all poets of color—particularly black poets—as only performers is racist. But further, the concomitant logic that all performance is somehow base and primitive and not quite poetic—“raw,” to use the coded language of that bookstore’s Facebook event—is ahistorical.
As John Miles Foley, a scholar of Homeric epics, once wrote , the art of orally performed poetry is a facet of “150 different oral traditions from six of the seven continents and from ancient times through the modern day. Among the areas that have been examined from this perspective are dozens of African, Arabic, and central Asian traditions, as well as Native American, African American, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and many Germanic tongues . . . [These are] unwritten forms of verbal art that collectively dwarf all of written literature in both size and variety. ” (Emphasis mine.)
These days I find myself less interested in staking out my plot of land on one side or the other of a page-versus-stage binary, and more interested in naming and celebrating the borderless place my peers and I are so blessed to inhabit. It’s a place where I can ask the audience to sing along to a familiar Erykah Badu refrain in the middle of a poem (or ask Jamila Woods if she is in the room), where I can meet Angel Nafis’s father even if he is far away as she dwells in his voice and thus summons him into the room, where José Olivarez recites a cover version of one of his favorite poems, which happens to be André 3000’s verse on “Int’l Players Anthem.”
In imagining the poets of whom Foley writes—thousands, perhaps millions of unnamed poets speaking into the world across time and space—I am also reminded that this is the place from which we all begin our relationship to the written word in this life. There is a special joy in seeing a child of two or three years old recite lines from a book which they cannot yet technically “read.” Like Homeric bards before them, they are singing a story they learned from another, singing a story by heart. They use familiar rhymes and repetitive phrases, and visual signals from the page before them, to carry them from the beginning of the story to the end. They are performing. This is where we all begin.