New Life for Poetry in Slams

Spoken word poetry and poetry slams are breathing new life into the poetry scene and reaching a new audience. Librarians will tell you that poetry can be a hard sell with readers—so many people think of poetry as those stiff rhymes that you had to read and memorize in school to pass your lit test. However, the American Academy of Poets notes that spoken word has been a hit with young people and people of diverse backgrounds since it broke onto the scene in the late 1980s. It’s politicized, raw and current. Spoken word poets take a hard look at injustice and difficult subjects, and often articulate frustration, confusion and rage in a way that many fans of the movement feel is authentic to their experience.

Martinez Hillard, spoken word poet and front-man for the hip-hop trio Ebony Tusks, said the same is true of hip-hop. He sees a lot of blurred lines between the two mediums. I asked him if spoken word and hip-hop are just ways for artists to vent or if they are vehicles for social change.

“I think either medium can be both, and that both outcomes are valid,” Hillard said. “As a young person, it’s natural to want space to express yourself. The spoken word in a literal sense can be foundational, a means to manifest the truth within, and for that truth to be lived out and bore witness to. That’s how what initially appears as venting becomes social change. The truth draws people in.”

Many argue that hip-hop and rap are the most popular vehicles for modern poetry, and you definitely can’t deny the poetic lyrics of many music artists. For Hillard the beat is a part of the poem even when it’s not set to music. He’s written songs after being inspired by a beat and has also written acapella verses that don’t have music. Currently he’s driven by the beat.

“The truth is what I recite typically are verses that could ride a beat, and at this point I’m more comfortable writing and reciting in that way,” Hillard said. “I used to write in a way that skewed closer to what people think of when they hear spoken word, but my writing style changed over time. I may revisit that style of writing at some point. I’m having fun right now, though.”

Matt Spezia is a seven-time slam champion from Leavenworth, Kansas, currently living in Topeka. He notes that the appeal of spoken word is the life that the poet breathes into the words. Poetry begins on the page, but it comes to life in spoken word.

“Spoken word poetry is the expression of soul manifested verbally, and the major difference between it and page poetry is the performance,” Spezia said. “When an artist steps on stage to present poetry they have to be the emotion and the facts in the piece.”

If you want to experience the power of slam poetry, you have to hear it. You’ll have an opportunity on February 16, when the library hosts Hip-Hop & Slam @ the Jayhawk, from 7-9:30pm featuring Ebony Tusks, DJ Alphabeta, Matt Spezi and a showcase of slam poets.

Check us out for poetry that’s contemporary, diverse and life-changing, or learn more about hip-hop and rap.

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Miranda Ericsson

Miranda loves to talk lit, and to connect readers with great books. Her favorite reads are poetry, literary fiction, and speculative science fiction, and she's passionate about promoting literature written by Kansas authors. She works with library programs that support and engage writers in our community, so ask her for more information about the Local Writers Workshop and Great Writers Right Here author fair. Miranda also facilitates TALK book discussions, co-leads the BookBites book discussion group, and serves as a member of the library's 2Book Topeka team.