Slam Poetry is Not What You Think it is by Cailin Jeffers

What’s the first thing you picture when you hear the words “slam poetry”? Is it a group of sappy teens snapping their fingers in a coffee shop? Is it someone yelling punctuated nonsense into a microphone? Does the slam poetry scene from 22 Jump Street come to mind? “Slam. Poetry. Yelling! An-gry! Wa-ving my hands a lot! Spe-ci-fic point of view on things!” That’s what I pictured before I decided to attend FlagSlam at Firecreek Coffee Company, in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona.  

Back then, I was an English major in my sophomore year with an absolute love for fiction but an undying hatred for poetry. I’d had a blast reading every novel university had thrown my way, but poetry? Good Lord. It was sappy. It was soft. It was so chock full of stupid fake-deep metaphors that I wanted to scream. So when I was told that I had to attend FlagSlam for class credit, I’m sure my Creative Writing professor could see my eye-roll from a mile away. 

But hey, at least there’d be coffee. I might as well see what it’s all about. 

So, that night I donned my artsiest leather jacket and off I went. I felt like I was dragging myself by the neck the entire walk there. However, I got the feeling that this experience might not be what I expect. I soon found myself in front of Firecreek, standing before its doors, where I could hear the bustle of attendees inside.

I’ll be honest: I expected a small, cozy attendance. God, I was wrong! The room was packed. Really packed. If you didn’t tell me it was slam poetry, I would’ve thought there was a concert happening.

As the poets performed their pieces that night, I found myself blown away by the range of subjects and styles. I expected the poems to just be stereotypical and angry, but instead, I found a wide range of poems. Some were angry, sure, but there was a much broader spectrum of poetry than I thought there could be at a slam. Poems ranged from inspiring to so hilarious my ribs hurt from laughing. One minute it was a tragic ode to a lost lover, the next was meeting an ex in the tampon aisle of Walmart. No subject, tone, or mood was beyond reach.

Towards the end of the night, a poet who dubbed himself “The Window Watcher” stepped up to the microphone. His poem about having to kill a sick dog absolutely stunned us all. We were so silent that you probably could have heard a quarter drop in the alleyway. “Entrancing” barely even begins to describe the experience; the raw emotion he packed into both his words. His voice struck me and the rest of the audience to our cores. It was then that I finally, finally understood poetry. I discovered that I had been approaching poetry with the wrong mindset. I didn’t have to sit down and pick apart every bit of his poem for it to have an impact on me, I just needed to absorb it and understand how it made me feel.

As I left that night, I thought to myself: Why was I so hesitant in the first place? Why did I think slam poetry was going to be such a dull experience? Because of my experience at Firecreek, I actually felt a connection to poetry after so many experiences of frustration, distaste, and apathy. I learned then that poetry was always meant to be spoken, absorbed, listened to. Not picked apart, dissected, or “solved”. Poetry was just meant to move and be experienced. So, slam poetry was not only different from what I expected, but in my personal experience, it was the key to understanding poetry as a whole.

A lot of the initial distaste for slam poetry that people experience, and poetry in general, seems to come from the way it has been taught to us in the past. I can clearly remember many teachers who tried to get me to “solve” the poem. What does this metaphor mean, kids? What does this image mean? What is the poem really about? By the time I left high school, I had had enough of trying to figure out what all these confusing chunks of random text meant. I perceived it as an unsolvable bundle of metaphors that were supposed to mean something deep, but they never struck me deeply. After all, how am I supposed to feel something for what is basically just a word problem?

Poetry has been taught this way by schools for the purpose of encouraging our critical thinking skills, but it seems to drive past the true meaning. Poetry is not just about “figuring out what it means”. It’s about feeling. Feeling the shape of words, the sounds they make, and the emotions they evoke. It doesn’t need to be dissected and analyzed to the point of losing its beauty. Rather, when we approach poetry, we should be looking at which parts make us feel the way we do when we read or hear the poem. Slam poetry was fundamental for allowing me to finally understand this. On paper, we are able to see the poem’s structure and consume its words over and over again, but on stage, we can hear the poem’s sound, its rhythm, every instance of alliteration and every sharp-turned volta.

So no, slam poetry isn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t just the angry rebellious rant, it was also the tragic lament, the witty sonnet, the hopeful ballad. I and the rest of the community of poets experienced every emotion you can think of that night, and since then, I have kept coming back for more. I even decided to write my own poems for FlagSlam. I had a blast performing them, which was something I never thought I would do. If you’re like I was in my sophomore year, take a look at your local slam poetry nights— you might encounter something you wouldn’t expect.

Cailin Jeffers is an English major finishing her last year at NAU. She has a love for theatre, Southern Gothic, and novels that might make her parents concerned.