Where to start in a blog about performance poetry? First of all — the name. For now, I’ve settled on NaCl Blog of Performance Poetry. NaCl is sodium chloride, or salt. I’m from Salt Lake City. I’m open to suggestions.
My original idea for this blog was to find a performance poem I could dissect and present with an analysis. With the incredible proliferation of performance poems populating the internet, there are so many to choose from, selecting which piece I should focus on first feels like a matter of utmost importance, as though the success or failure will be directly attributed to which piece I choose first. The selection I pick will ultimately display what I feel is the pinnacle, the zenith of performance poetry, the impetus for creating a blog about performance poetry in the first place.
Upon further reflection throughout the week, I have determined that I would like this exploration into performance poetry to go beyond analysis of individual poems. Indeed, I will likely post many individual poems and break down how the performer uses language, diction, syntax, speech, performance, and so on, to create the piece they have performed. But there are a large number of other topics to focus on as well, such as how communities build around the art, why this artform appeals to youth, coverage of performance poetry competitions, critique of the competition format, interviews with individual poets, and so forth.
I believe the best place to start a blog about performance poetry would be to write about where one begins to search for performance poetry.
YouTube is perhaps the primary location anyone will go when seeking out performance poems. I don’t believe that it should be this way, but more on that below. YouTube is an obvious choice, of course because video is able to capture the raw emotion that any other format might not be able to capture. Certainly, performance poetry is more auditory than visual, but visual elements such as blocking, facial expression, hand gestures, and so forth add a punctuation.
Button Poetry is currently the primary source for performance poetry. A quick cursory search for performance poetry channels on YouTube will yield Button at the top of the list. With 840,000 followers, it easily dwarfs any other poetry channel, including the channel by the organization that organizes and coordinates the largest performance poetry competitions in the country, Poetry Slam Inc.
Started in 2011, Button Poetry took advantage of the virility of performance poetry, and the sharability of YouTube content. If I remember correctly, the early iterations of Button involved following poets around while they recited a poem. This covered mostly poets in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where founders Dylan Garrity and Sam Cook are from. While there were several regional poetry channels that existed will before Button, such as the Strivers Row, SpeakEasyNYC, Vancouver Slam, and Poetreenet out of Eugene, Button set itself apart by leaving their home venue and city limits of their locale and began setting up cameras at regional and national poetry slams, capturing a enormous amount of performance poems. While regional poetry channels are able to capture an array of poets, they are limited to capturing only those who arrive to their venue to perform. Button is able to travel to other venues and competitions and capture the premium performance poetry pieces that poets have saved and deemed worthy for national competition.
Button’s biggest hit is undoubtedly “OCD” by Neil Hilbourn, currently sitting at 13 million views, surpassing Taylor Mali’s grainy rendition of “What Teachers Make,” taken from the 1996 slam classic, Slamnation. Since “OCD” went viral, and several other pieces surpassed 1 million views, it has been a dream of nearly every slam and performance poet to “get on Button.” (Full disclosure: I have a piece on Button). In fact, the desire to “get on Button,” has nearly surpassed the desire win or do well at poetry slams, where Button mines most of their content. And this makes sense, since a limited number of people will sit in on a bout as opposed to the thousands who may view your video.
Another top contender vying for audiences seeking performance poetry is All Def Poetry, an offshoot of Russell Simmons’ HBO series Def Poetry Jam. While Def Poetry Jam was a forerunner to the popularity of poetry slam, the pieces chosen for that special were curated by the popularity or notoriety of the guests. Switching to the YouTube format, the channel yields to the democratization of performance poetry through the view counter. There is little that distinguishes All Def Poetry from Button, except that it doesn’t post as prolifically as Button Poetry, which posts a poem daily. The channel seems to derive most of its prestige from the association with Russell Simmons and the Def Poetry Jam. Indeed, there are many artists that appear on both channels, but the brand recognition simply isn’t what Button is despite the prominence of Russel Simmons and Def Poetry Jam. The fact that it is an offshoot of a larger media empire almost gives the channel a lack of authenticity-a corporate giant trying to follow a trend as opposed to the homegrown Button (whose very name conjures a hipster bespoke grassroots vibe).
Write About Now (or WAN) is the final large contender for audiences seeking audiences or performance poetry (full disclosure I have a poem on WAN). WAN does not have nearly the amount of followers as Button, and thus not as much of an audience. Despite this, the boasts nearly as many videos as Button in only three years in joining YouTube, following the Button strategy of posting daily. There is quite a bit of distinction between what WAN posts and what other channels post. To start, many pieces presented by WAN have been mined from poetry ciphers outside of the slam competitions (a poetry cipher is where a group of poets will gather around and take turns spitting poems, then selecting who will go next; they are poems performed for poets). While poems presented in competition are the pieces that have been determined to score well, they may not be the pieces that the poet feels the greatest amount of connection to, and they may not be pieces that are great risk-takers. Poems presented in a cipher are much lower stakes, and thus the poet might take greater risks in the writing and presentation of the poem. This means that the viewer may expect to find a greater diversity of writing and presentation style, that is, if WAN decides to stick with the cipher-style filming.
Worth noting is the location of all of these channels. As mentioned before, Button Poetry is located in St. Paul/Minneapolis Minnesota. Therefore, much of what you find on the channel will be from around that area. Despite their location, Button has been able to travel to various major poetry slams and film every piece performed, giving them a substantial stockpile of performances to post. All Def is located, I believe, in NYC, though going through their channel, I recognized many California/West Coast poets. This leads me to believe the All Def really focuses on larger metropolitan areas. WAN is out of Texas. Specifically, College Station. Therefore, many of their features may be out of Texas and the southwest, though I’ve seen quite of few videos of out-of-state poets perform in their venue. WAN has also begun traveling to record performances. An example of this was their journey the Salt Lake City for the Utah Arts Festival where several teams of poets from around the west convened. This meant a great deal to the community in a smaller town who may not see national competition very often.
While all of these channels are great resources to find an incredible amount of performance poetry, I would have to say the best resource to begin seeking out performance poetry is to GO TO YOUR LOCAL POETRY OPEN MIC OR POETRY SLAM.
While cruising through YouTube channels for slam and performance poems can be a great resource, nothing really beats going to a local open mic and poetry slam, hearing what local styles are brought up to the mic, and interacting with those individuals in person. While it’s great to hear incredible poems on the screen, it doesn’t quite compare to being able to interact with a poet in person, asking them where they find inspiration, what resources they use to create their pieces, and so on. If you are so determined, hang out with poets during the cipher, compliment them on what they do, go to the workshops that they provide if they have any. Often, the caliber of writing and poetry may not be on par with what you see online. In fact, there might be a lot of terrible poetry performed. Sometimes, the poem is so terrible that it’s good. Sometimes, you get to have the joy of observing a young poet develop. Sometimes, you hear the best poem you have ever heard that will never make it to any of these channels. Sometimes, you sit at an open mic and hear bad poem after bad poem, only to hear that one line that makes your whole night. Sometimes, you hoot and holler with the crowd, and you feel more connected to the poet onstage than you do with the poet on your computer screen. And that’s the magic of going to your local open mic and poetry slam.
To find your local slam, check out SlamFind. For those who are looking for something a little more laid back and not as high stakes, seek out your local open mic by asking any hipster barista at your local 2nd or 3rd wave coffee shop.
Shameless plug because it’s my blog:
My piece on Button can be found here.
My piece on WAN can be found here.
My feature in Eugene as captured by Poetreenet can be found here.