Before this summer, Namik Minter ’04 was a virgin. A virgin to the mike, that is, until Atlanta, where she got her first taste of performing spoken word poetry.
Actually, all spoken word artists are virgins to the mike at one time. It is just part of the lingo.
“This summer, I was in Atlanta at a spoken word poetry club, and I just got up there,” Minter said. “It was my first time, and it was good. It felt quite powerful.”
Spoken word and slam poetry have become the artistic endeavor of choice for many Yalies. Spoken word combines poetry with a more rhythmic structure, which is performed, often with gestures and a theatrical flavor.
Imagine a room lit only by candles, soft music playing in the background, and people reciting poetry, sometimes softly with a mike, others loudly, seeming to jump from place to place. Spoken word venues are usually characterized by a different atmosphere than more academic poetry readings.
“That’s what I like the most actually, being around people who are so articulate, and what they have to say is positive,” Minter said. “The chill vibe is really nice; there is not a lot of smoking and drinking.”
One of the main problems with a definition of spoken word is determining when written poetry becomes spoken word. Lia Bascomb ’05, who attends many open mike sessions around campus, including those at the Afro-American Cultural Center, said that any poetry could be spoken word.
“I think any poetry is spoken word — it just depends on the delivery,” Bascomb said. “The reason it’s become so popular is because people are seeing the commonalities with song and rap, because if you think about it, a song is just poetry with music behind it.”
Suzy Khimm ’03, who hosts an poetry night at Ezra Stiles College called Open Mind, Open Mic, said that the differences are a little more pronounced because of the strong hip-hop influence on spoken word and slam poetry.
“Slam poetry comes from a different history, a different style. It’s a very different vibe from people who work on academic poetry,” Khimm said.
Jamila “Cocoacure” Thomas ’04 hosts a spoken word radio show on 1340-AM every Monday from 8 to 10 p.m. She said that to her, spoken word is less restrictive.
“All of the people [in a college English class] were into Emily Dickinson and Shakespearean sonnets,” Thomas said. “If poetry rhymed, then that was elementary, it wasn’t quality work. When I found people who were doing poetry and making sense it was spoken word.”
Khimm has seen the scene grow at Yale, and she credits venues like Calhoun Cabaret’s Six Feet Under and the beginning of the Yale Slam team with increasing poetry’s popularity.
“Freshman year, I didn’t know that much about spoken word,” Khimm said. “I think the Yale Slam team last year was good in bringing people out. Now people are trying to create a sense of community and combining projects. It has been encouraging.”
Raphael Soifer ’04 founded the Yale Slam team to get the word out about performance poetry. Soifer, who participated in National Slam competitions before coming to Yale, thought that they were a good way to get people interested.
“I did a lot of slam stuff during my year off, and when I got to Yale, I was disappointed in the spoken word scene,” Soifer said. “I am not a huge fan of competitions, but they’re a way to get people out there.”
Last year, Soifer organized a series of slam competitions in order to put together a team. Randomly chosen audience members judge the poets on the content of the poem and the performance.
The team went to the National College Championship at University of Michigan last spring. The team made it to the final round and placed third in the competition, after the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan. The team included Dora Malech ’03, Scott Kirschenbaum ’03 and Soifer. The team gains points through the scores from each team member’s individual performances.
Malech got involved with spoken word at Yale through the Women’s Center open mike nights and Six Feet Under, as well. She said the slam atmosphere was unlike anything she expected.
“It’s a little more intense; people are more likely to have poems memorized and rehearsed,” Malech said. “It was competitive. It was an excuse to get people together who enjoy performing and enjoy poetry.”
Slam poetry and spoken word differ only in the competition aspect, Malech said.
“Slam poetry is inherently competitive, and performance poetry is not necessarily in the realm of competition,” Malech said. “Slam has gotten the reputation of being sensational. Performance poetry is a much more broad term.”
Since Six Feet Under, the Women’s Center and the Yale Slam team, the Yale spoken word scene has exploded.
“I’m excited about the stuff that is going on,” Soifer said. “I’d like to see it continued. There is a National College Slam again this year, and I need someone to take over. There is lots of interest among freshman, which is encouraging.”
Among one of the other signs of a growing spoken word community is Thomas’s radio show, “Words and Sounds vol. 2,” which began this academic year. She said she has also seen spoken word grow, not only at Yale, but also in her hometown of Atlanta.
“I saw the environment grow a lot in Atlanta, and I knew that when I got to Yale I was interested in something like this type of show, especially through radio,” Thomas said.
The cultural houses have also become an outlet for spoken word artists.
There are regular open mikes through Despierta Boricua, as well as collaborations between the cultural houses. Also, some members of Jook Songs, a performance group through the Asian American Cultural Center, write and perform spoken word.
Taneika Taylor ’02 started Contact, an open mike session at the Afro-American Cultural Center, last year after spending time at the Nuyorican cafe, a club that often features poetry, and other places in New York City, and realizing that New Haven lacked these venues.
“My freshman year, there were maybe one or two events, only at the Black Solidarity Conference or a talent show were there venues or shows dedicated to poetry and spoken word,” Taylor said. “Now, we have many places, Blackout-New Haven; Despierta Boricua; Open Mind, Open Mic; the Blues cafe. I think it’s grown exponentially.
“It’s bigger than hip-hop”: A history of spoken word.
The rise of spoken word on Yale campus coincides with the rise of slam poetry nationally.
Friday, Dec. 14, 2001 was a momentous day in the history of spoken word, with the beginning of Def Poetry Jam on HBO.
The show, which featured poets from around the nation, brought spoken word poetry to a larger audience than can normally be found in coffee houses and slam competitions. Although December was spoken word’s television debut, the roots of spoken word are much deeper.
Among the artists some consider the first spoken word artists are The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. These artists took poetry and put music behind it, forever connecting spoken word to another tradition, the hip-hop tradition. The Def Poetry Jam Web site lists spoken word as the first element of hip-hop.
Thomas said hip-hop and spoken word come from the same tradition.
“I think that it’s a cycle, one opened up the door for the other,” Thomas said. “People like the Last Poets have been around for a long time. [Hip-hop and spoken word] coexist.”
Taylor agrees that hip-hop has had a strong influence on spoken word.
“I think people like the Roots and Mos Def have done a lot for spoken word,” Taylor said. “The level of consciousness they bring is the kind of thing that many poets strive for.”
Spoken word also shares some other elements with hip-hop, i
ncluding freestyling, Taylor said.
The beats behind some spoken word poetry lead to even stronger similarities between the two.
“The level of respect for hip-hop and spoken word is different,” Thomas said. “You might listen to spoken word, but you can’t go to the club and dance to it. You’ll know what it is when you hear it; you don’t necessarily have to define it.”
Soifer said the best spoken word artists have an appreciation for hip-hop music.
“The best spoken word artists are people with an appreciation of hip-hop because they use language dynamically as well as meaningfully,” Soifer said.
While explaining where spoken word came from is relatively easy, for Thomas and many others defining where it is going is difficult.
Since Def Poetry Jam’s debut, many within the spoken word community have worried about it becoming too commercial, and going the way of hip-hop music.
Soifer said that in his experience, the college slam competitions are the most inspiring.
“I was fifth at the youth poetry slam, and at the slam there were many different styles, from reading to hip-hop to sung poetry,” Soifer said.
Spoken word’s growing commercialism is just a symbol of its growing popularity Thomas said.
“Right now, a lot of people don’t know about spoken word,” Thomas said. “But, in a couple of years, I don’t think that’ll be the case.”