Yale is at the forefront of an up-and-coming populist form of art and poetry, spurred by fifteen undergraduates looking for a way to combine interactive performance with written expression.
Teeth Slam Poets will host the annual Regional College Poetry Slam starting tonight, the second time since the undergraduate group was founded less than three years ago. Dubbed “poetry for the people” and “democratization of the verse,” slam poetry is a competitive form of performance poetry that has grown exponentially since its inception in 1984. The Slam, this year under the title “New Haven Word Factory,” brings together eleven teams from New England and the Tri-State Area for a two-day competition.
Slam poetry, which only reached the international stage in 2004, is strictly distinguished from other forms of performance poetry by its competitive nature and strict 3-minute time limit.
But Teeth poets agree that the form also offers much more direct and raw expression than other types of poetry do, trying to engage the audience by encouraging participation through judging.
“[Slam] doesn’t dwell on form or how beautiful it sounds, but tries to connect with the audience,” Teeth poet Rebecca Aston ’14 said. “It’s a kind of communal experience. You feel like you’re part of the performance, and are encouraged to express your [feelings and reactions].”
However, slam poetry has received some criticism for lacking innovation and using formulas to create a crowd-pleaser.
In an interview published in the Spring 2000 issue of the Paris Review, Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom had only contempt for poetry slams. Bloom wrote, “Young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other.”
“The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be,” Bloom continued. “This isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.”
Teeth members defended the competitive nature of slam as a “gimmick” to further engage the audience in the performance, and Carmen Chambers ’12 said there still remains a lot of room for the art form to innovate, which has been spurred at the national level by awards for “pushing the art forward.”
In this way, the form and discourse of poetry slams might serve as a barometer for assessing cultural trends. Chambers reiterated slam poetry’s unique power to engage audience members in the poetic process, and expects that the art form will continue to evolve and rise in popularity.
“It really tugs on human emotions,” Chambers said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been moved to tears by slam poems.”
Yale’s on campus slam poets take their name from a spoken word group that existed at Yale in the ’90s. The name “Teeth” also evokes slam poetry’s direct and edgier style — “poetry with a bite,” as the group motto goes.
Members have joined the Teeth Slam Poets from a variety of backgrounds.
Teeth team member Aston said she had never been to a poetry slam until she arrived at Yale, where its direct and personal style engaged her in contrast to written poetry, which she finds difficult to relate to on a human level.
Chambers wrote poetry since second grade, and used to present them by standing on the coffee table and reading them out loud. Discovering poetry slams only as a sophomore, she was drawn in by their accessibility and powerful expression.
Sophia Sanchez ’13, now the group’s president, said she found slam poetry when searching for a new hobby after debating in high school. Emphasizing performance and interaction with the audience, slam poetry appealed to her love of public performance with a very personal and expressive feel, which gives her an almost “therapeutic” break from the academic rigors of her biology major.
Teeth’s team of five, selected from a group of fifteen to twenty initial candidates through a poetry slam at the beginning of the year, ranked eleventh in the nation last year, with Macalester College’s team scoring in first place.
This is the first major competition of the semester in a series of three, and Chambers said the key to a strong performance lies in memorizing the poems and exuding confidence.
Competition offers Teeth the chance to interact with other performers and gain exposure to other techniques and styles.
For Chambers, the slam poetry community is like a huge family, and she has made many friends on other teams with whom she remains in regular contact, sharing poems and YouTube videos of their performances.
“Many people do poems about a breakup or the death of a mother,” Chambers said. “[Competitors] are making themselves vulnerable in front of hundreds of people, so they get really close.”
Michael Rosen, last year’s head of the Wesleyan slam poetry team, the team with whom Teeth members bonded the most during last year’s season, said he greatly enjoyed getting to know the Teeth team, calling them “a group of people with a lot of heart.”
“A lot of us were nervous that it’d be too intense, [but the Teeth poets] really created a lot of positivity and made us feel welcome,” Rosen said.
Slam poetry has also certainly influenced the Teeth poets’ lives beyond the art. Teeth founder Amaya Dimyen ’13 said that the experience of slam competition has taught her to be able to look beyond scores and “ask the valuable questions: did you connect with those listening? Did you genuinely share a piece of yourself? Did you shift people’s perspectives?”
The Regional Slam will begin this evening at 6pm in LC 101, with the first three rounds taking place over the course of the night, and the final round will take place Saturday at 8pm in Sudler Hall.