Slam poetry breathes new life into the age-old topic of love
Whenever I find a poem or story I really love, I make my friends read it to me out loud. Poetry, which relies on the cleverest use of language, is an auditory experience as much as it is a written art. I am reminded of this when I listen to slam poetry. Hearing a piece out loud simply makes the writing more immediate and visceral. Slam poetry was started as a way “to breathe life” into poetry, both by re-invigorating the written word with performance and by functioning as a platform for marginalized voices beyond “social, cultural, political and economic barriers” according to Poetry Slam, Inc. Slam is a venue away from the traditional stuffiness of poetry, which is why it makes sense that the most fertile ground for slam is on the Internet. Both slam and YouTube are young, fresh and inviting to younger generations. The YouTube account “Button Poetry” compiles the most promising and innovative slam poets from the most respected competitions into one accessible platform.
I wanted to see what slam poets were saying about love. As a subject, writers seem incapable of staying out of it, which makes it all the more difficult to have unique approaches to it. However, “First Love” by Andrea Gibson, “Alternative Universe in Which I am Unfazed by the Men Who Do Not Love Me” by Olivia Gatwood and “Table Games” by Sarah Kay all explore love in different, if not singular, ways. These fresh perspectives are inherently by-products of slam, as all are more conversational and daring than written poetry typically is.
Gibson’s “First Love” is a powerful exploration of queer love. Gibson’s poem is an address to a love that had to be hidden because of their Catholic upbringing. The interplay between religion and desire is highlighted when Gibson describes their relationship with a woman named Mandy as, “two decades talking to Jesus/that was the first time I heard him talk back.” The internal conflict of believing in God and also believing in a forbidden love is expressed throughout the poem. Gibson felt alone before Mandy, and isolated with her, “We didn’t know anyone in the whole world who would celebrate us wiping the steam from the glass to see each other blushing in the same bathroom mirror.” This small moment of intimacy is the crux of the poem: between two people, what is not possible? What is not sacred? The difficulty arrives when society enters the intimacy and passes value judgements on love. But the poem is less about the struggle to keep love in a hostile world, and more about the joy of having found it at all. Gibson writes with adoration: “Do you remember the first record/where we didn’t have to change the pronouns to sing along?/ We’d gone so many years without music that knew us/ music that knew you could arch your back/and I would have proof the earth was round.” The poem ends with Gibson being invited back to their Catholic college while Mandy sits in the crowd next to the “the nuns and the school president.” This moment works in beautiful circularity with the poem; Gibson’s faith and love are reconciled. Gibson extolls, “I know so much has not gotten better/ I know so much has not gotten easier/but that moment knocked the wind/out of me/time finally being the kind of father we all deserve.” This poem is uniquely a slam poem not only because of the melodic quality with which it is delivered (not to mention Gibson slams with the accompaniment of a band behind them), but because the poem explores a voice that would be typically marginalized by the print world. Gibson gives voice to a tender moment in their life, not only delivering a powerful, elegant poem, but giving a voice to an experience that we don’t hear enough stories about.
Gatwood’s “Alternative Universe in Which I am Unfazed by the Men Who Do Not Love Me” is different in that it is a self-love poem. The piece starts off with humorous hyperbole, a technique that works more effectively with an audience than on the page; she performs, “Once a boy told me he doesn’t believe in labels/ so I embroidered the word “chauvinist” on the back of his coat” to the delight of the crowd. Gatwood moves through the poem with similar sentiments lamenting all the times boys and men have not loved her back. Then, in the final moments, Gatwood shifts perspective to an alternative universe where she doesn’t perform the emotional labour of trying to get men to love her back; in this universe, Gatwood says, “I do not slice his tires/ I do not burn the photos /I do not write the letter/ I do not beg/ I do not ask for forgiveness.” Instead, she uses the leftover hours to make herself happy: “leftover from the other universe are hours and hours waiting for him to kiss me/ and here they are just hours/here they are a bike ride across Long Island in June/here they are a novel read in one sitting.” Gatwood is telling listeners that they cannot spend our lives waiting for returned affection from others; we must instead finally give ourselves the attention and care we deserve. As Gatwood says in her final verse, we have “so much beautiful time.”
“Table Games” by Kay is perhaps the most traditional of the three. However, Kay’s breakup poem is so odd and wonderful, because it is a direct product of slam’s conversational tone. She uses her relationship’s inside joke of making grocery store puns as the container to discuss their love’s dissolution; when her boyfriend breaks up with Kay, she exclaims, “I’ve never been so beet-trayed, as I pushed over the entire display of violet roots.” This weirdness would be less accepted if Kay wasn’t speaking the lines in a way that signifies the whole poem is mostly a joke. We only reach the emotional heart of the poem when Kay tells us that the boyfriend cheated on her multiple times. We are shocked that a relationship so filled with puns and seemingly childlike joy can fall apart. The most heart-wrenching part of the poem comes when Kay asks, “Who will I play with when the waiters aren’t looking?” The experience is elevated by hearing Kay’s voice shift from her earlier comedy to devastation. “Table Games” is moving because I want to believe that there is a place in this world for the most innocent of love, one filled with vegetable and fruit puns. Kay reminds us that heartbreak can exist in all love stories, even the ones that make you laugh at first.
The slam poetry community is small, and it is not unlikely that these poems are in conversation with each other. They cannot be viewed as independent parts. When Gatwood says “I have so much beautiful time,” I think of the “holy hours” Gibson spent “picking out [their] outfit” and of Kay’s desperate plea, “I have loved you for five years.” Even with a subject as personal as intimacy, the community borrows and builds on each other, which is one of the most rewarding parts of keeping up with the slam poetry scene.
Most poets write about love, but there is something drastically more poignant about hearing an author bare their soul as opposed to reading it. Perhaps that is why slam is what I go toward when I most want to feel understood. Above all, that’s what each poet wants: to have someone else hear the words and believe them. Not only do I believe these poets, but their work has reminded me that humans are designed to love and to be loved back. And that knocks the wind right out of me.