“Slamlet” merges modern poetry, the Bard

Members of Teeth Slam Poets gave William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old texts a modern-day update on Saturday night in “Slamlet” at the Whitney Humanities Center.

The event, part of this semester’s “Shakespeare at Yale” festivities, featured Kate Tempest, a poet from London who combines Shakespeare’s language with spoken word poetry. After Tempest performed four poems, members of Yale’s Teeth Slam Poets took over the stage with their interpretations of various plays and sonnets.

“I was really excited for us to be a part of Shakespeare at Yale, because people don’t usually think about slam poetry and Shakespeare in the same breath,” said Ifeanyi Awachie ’14, a member of Teeth. “People think spoken word is low-brow, too populist, too sensational. We wanted to show people that slam poetry can be anything,”

Mark Bauer, associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center, approached Awachie last spring about coordinating a Shakespeare at Yale event with Teeth. When Bauer discovered Tempest online and sent Teeth a video by the poet, the group applied for funding from Shakespeare at Yale to bring Tempest to campus.

Tempest opened the event with her poem “What We Came After,” inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and written for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Sound and Fury,” a 2010 project that fused Shakespeare’s language with contemporary wordplay. Tempest added that she did not consider the play’s title when she chose her stage name years ago.

Tempest repeated the line “That’s when you know that Hell is empty, ‘cos all the devils are here,” many times during the poem, explaining after that it is a riff on one of Ariel’s lines in the play. Next she performed “Balance,” a poem about the relationships between four friends, Pride, Envy, Talent and Ambition. Her third poem, “Renegade,” made references to Banquo from Macbeth, and she concluded with the premiere of a poem about Shakespeare and his relevance today.

In addition to performing at “Slamlet,” Tempest led a workshop on Saturday afternoon that focused on blending Shakespeare with spoken word poetry.

Awachie said that in the workshop Tempest told Teeth members that she thinks Shakespeare is viewed as elite and elevated above spoken word poetry, and she encouraged the members of Teeth to “claim Shakespeare again.”

Rebecca Aston ’14 and Juliet deButts ’14 introduced the event by explaining how, in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare’s plays were viewed as lowly entertainment, on the same level as bear-baiting. Awachie added that she sees similarities between that phenomenon and how spoken word poetry is often viewed today.

“I think slam or spoken poetry is so easy to dismiss as something not worth as much as written poetry,” Tempest said. “But Shakespeare’s language only makes sense when you hear it. It was written to be performed, to be lived with, just like spoken word. That kind of snobbery about expression is such a waste of time.”

Members of Teeth held workshops on Shakespeare’s texts leading up to the events, in which they analyzed different passages and sonnets together and worked the language and ideas into their poetry.

David Kastelman ’13, a member of Teeth, said his approach to incorporating Shakespeare into his poetry differed from his usual writing process. Kastelman’s poem, “Helen of Troy, Helena of Shakespeare, Hella Cute of Right Now,” was inspired by the character Helena of “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

Kastelman said while looking at different Shakespeare plays, he was struck by the idea of “acting stupid around a cute girl” that he found in “All’s Well that Ends Well.” He said that starting with an idea and writing from there differed from how he usually works around lines he has previously written.

Sophia Sanchez ’13 wrote her poem, “The Anti-Shakespeare,” about the pressure to “write in the shadow of Shakespeare.”

“With Shakespeare there’s always pressure to do [him] justice and not just be some punk who’s written a poem that mentions Hamlet a few times,” Sanchez said. “How do you respond to perhaps the greatest writer in the English tradition? It’s almost this mammoth task that’s impossible, but you have to try.”

Tempest said that seeing students engaging with Shakespeare’s text during the show was inspiring, even if that engagement is “struggling with him.”

Shakespeare at Yale will culminate in a Festival Weekend April 20-22.

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