Slam poetry steps out of the literary shadows

Summary

Spoken word, most notably slam poetry, has become the form of expression for many Flemish youngsters, and one literary institution has decided to seize on that popularity for a good cause

Offbeat and onstage

“Why is poetry?” reads the first line of one of Max Greyson’s pieces. The unfinished question lingers in his mind as he’s about to step on the stage, and he hesitates to answer it. All the time in the world wouldn’t be enough to “unravel the riddle of why rhythm and sound can make words more powerful than rings and crowns”.

At 27, Greyson (pictured third from the left) is one of Flander’s most celebrated slam poets. In case you’ve never heard of it: Slam poetry combines the written and spoken word, making it a genre that is highly personal and unique. During a poetry slam, the writers compete on stage, performing the texts in their own trademark way. The audience ‒ or the jury, if the competition is of a more formal nature ‒ decides who wins.

Some poets, or slammers, put emphasis on the meaning; others focus on rhythm and intonation. And because it’s a performance, body language plays an integral role throughout the show.

A good slam poet – some prefer the term street poet – walks a fine line between catchy content and electrifying execution. Unlike traditional poetry, the slam is written directly for the stage. While more accessible and unrestrained, it is, arguably, no less poetic.

“I love the fact that slam poetry blends together several different genres,” says Greyson, who is from Antwerp. “You can mix poetry with hip-hop or cabaret, and it’s all good. It’s a melange of disciplines, and that’s what I love about it ‒ the 'anything goes' atmosphere.”

Competitive poetry

No two streets poets are alike, he says. “When you meet fellow slammers, chances are they’ll be doing something completely different when it comes to style or performance. That’s what makes the genre so refreshing.”

Another such poet, Carmien Michels, is a veteran of the scene, with multiple awards in her collection, including the Dutch Championship Poetry Slam she won in the Netherlands earlier this year. “Slam poetry is a very competitive genre, full of different styles, voices and people,” she says.

Sometimes your style of slam hits the mark, and sometimes it doesn’t

- Carmien Michels

Because it uses concrete imagery, combined with commentary on current events and personal anecdotes, slam poetry appeals to a wide audience. The slammers vent their frustrations and criticisms in a candid manner, adding extra depth and meaning with vibrant imagery and rhythm. “It’s not merely about competing against other slammers,” Michels, 25, says. “We’re also trying to woo the audience.”

Luck plays a crucial role, she admits. “Sometimes your style of slam hits the mark, and sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the crowd.”

Many professional slam poets started out by taking part in competitions. Antwerp’s annual competition Naft voor Woord, formerly known as Frappant TXT, is one of the more sought after. Besides a grand prize of €1,500 and a lot of local exposure, the winner is guaranteed more performance opportunities and a chance to publish their text.

The competition is open to slammers aged 18 to 30, and elimination rounds take place at the end of this month. The final will be staged at the end of April. Moya De Feyter (pictured far left) was the winner of last year’s edition. “There’s nothing I like more than writing,” she says. “The stage makes for an exhilarating outlet for my work because of the direct confrontation with the audience.”

 Naft voor Woord, which is sponsored by Antwerp province and Creatief Schrijven, launched Michels’ career. “It’s a very popular event with quite an eclectic group of contestants,” she says. “Some produce pure slams, others drift toward hip-hop; still others remain very poetic. It’s fun to see such a diverse mix of genres and people.”

No rules

The close interaction is what challenges many slammers to never stop revising their poetry. “It’s what keeps my writing alive,” says De Feyter. “I haven’t published any of my work yet because it’s continuously evolving. The stage is my research facility, a place to test the waters before putting my words on paper.”

Sometimes a poem can become a story, she explains, which can then can evolve into a performance. “This is the fun part of any unpublished work. No-one can claim it; it can be something different every time.”

The stage is a place to test the waters before putting my words on paper

- Moya De Feyter

Although the subject matter can be quite diverse, for De Feyter, writing comes instinctively. “It something that just flows, and I don’t really think about it. Before a performance, however, I rehearse in front of a mirror, just as an actor would do. Because when I’m on stage, that’s when it becomes a real craft. The words just come to life.”

And while social awareness pops up quite regularly in texts, it isn’t a must. “One of the reasons that I come off as an oddity in slam poetry is that my texts aren’t political,” De Feyter says. “I don’t reflect on current events or make social statements; I’m not planning to change the world. I just hope I can make people fall in love with literature.”

Like De Feyter, Michels says that writing slams comes to her naturally. “I write a lot about my frustration at current events, and I use very visual language,” she says. “I’m not a rapper or a poet in the traditional sense. Images are as important as the story.”

Beyond the stage

Greyson, on the other hand, admits that he’s mainly inspired by language. “Particular words or sentences stick with me, and the rest just follows,” he says. “I love discovering links between language, sounds and rhymes. I don’t write anything based on things I’ve been through. Love, the city and social issues are my main subjects.”

All three of the poets have different styles. Greyson loves sharing the stage with musicians who convey emotions on a more abstract level. “When you use words, even really obscure ones, the performance is still quite explicit,” he says. “Music is one of the most powerful forms of expression, while poetry is usually a form of criticism – whether it’s directed at society or yourself.”

For all the thrill, not every poet who comes to a competition ends up on stage. Greyson also sees poetry slams as a way to gain perspective on his own work. He’s written texts since he was in primary school, he says, “mostly song lyrics and random texts”.

Slam poetry can be a fun way to introduce youngsters to literature

- Noemi de Clercq

But in 2010 he met pioneering Flemish slammer Seckou Ouologuem at a competition. “I was blown away by what he could do with words. It wasn’t classic poetry – it was dynamic, vibrant and so relatable. I enrolled in a few of his workshops, and that’s how I started.”

For a long time, however, slam wasn’t seen as a serious literary genre. According to Michels, who is also a novelist, that’s finally changing. “Over the years, I’ve noticed that more and more people are coming to open mic nights,” she says. “Slamming is becoming more popular, especially among young people.”Noticing the trend, she teamed up with Greyson and found Artype, an organisation that aims to turn slam poetry into a professional craft. “We’re combining slam with other genres, such as classical music and visual arts, to reach a wider audience.”

Slam in schools

Some literary institutions have started to follow suit. “We’re always looking for ways to promote less conventional forms of literature among younger Belgians,” says Noemi de Clercq of the Flemish Literature Fund (VFL), a Flemish government agency that works to promote Dutch-language literature.

Because of its accessibility, slam poetry is seen by VFL as the ideal way to make literature more appealing to younger generations. The fund is now working to take slam poetry out of the literary shadows and put it in the spotlight.

Last year, the organisation ran a pilot programme in secondary schools, putting slam poets in front of classrooms. “By the time they’re 14, many young people stop reading for pleasure,” de Clercq says. The response to the pilot project, she says, from poets, teachers and students “has shown that slam poetry can be a fun way to introduce youngsters to poetry and literature”.

The programme was subsidised by VFL, and the speakers – who performed and talked to students about their craft – were selected by a jury of slammers, including Michels. Due to its success, the programme will continue, and De Feyter and Greyson, among others, were added to the list of poets who will visit schools.

The dream of turning slam poetry into a recognised genre may soon become reality. According to de Clercq, VFL now plans to include slam poets on its list of recommended authors. “We want to make it clear that slam poetry is an integral part of the literary field.”

Photo, from left: Moya De Feyter, Jee Kast, Max Greyson and Martijn Nelen, some of the slam poets selected by the jury to lecture on slam poetry in secondary schools in 2016

©Courtesy of Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren