SickSpits artist will be performing their spoken word pieces on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the TCS Building (also known as the Art Annex Building) at this year’s SickSpits CUPSI Qualification Slam. Admission is free, but SickSpits is requesting donations of $5. All proceeds from donations will provide the SickSpits team with the opportunity to attend the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, a slam competition featuring collegiate spoken word artists from across the nation.
SickSpits, founded in 2005, has served as a collective for spoken word poets throughout the area. Throughout the years, the collective has served as an outlet to promote and celebrate the art of slam poetry.
Owen Somerfield, a fourth-year English major who has attended SickSpits’ slams, is appreciative of their on-campus presence and the outlet they provide for local spoken word artists.
“Slam poetry is a great outlet for expression that isn’t really discussed much, if at all, in class because it’s reliant on performance,” Somerfield said. “[…] SickSpits is invaluable to our campus because it teaches students the many shapes that slam can hold.”
Slam poetry – created in the 1980s by poet Marc Smith – was used as a way to provide the young and disenfranchised population with a means of emotional expression, while eschewing the common modern perception of poetry as a medium for the elite and privileged. Where poetry that is generally studied from an academic perspective emphasizes the diction and poetic devices to describe ideas that is open to various interpretations, slam adds the element of performance, as the poet reads their written work aloud, sharing a more direct, subjective interpretation of the piece.
Iris Bloomfield, a second-year English major and a core member of SickSpits who will be performing on Wednesday, shared her insight on slam poetry and how the performance of the poem alters only interpretation of her work.
“The performance of slam poetry is not mediated by symbolic language,” Bloomfield said. “It is sound, and the effects it stirs within us that comes first. Slam poetry first and foremost engages our empathy and musical sensibilities.”
Bloomfield went on to explain that this performative aspect also changes the way in which the poem is created, in contrast to a “page poem” that is meant to be read.
“When I’m writing page poetry, I take advantage of the visuality of text and how the page allows contradictions to cohabitate,” Bloomfied said. “When I’m writing a performance piece, I’m focusing more on tone, color, gesture, silence, rhythm — my physical presence.”
When art forms that originated in marginalized cultures gain popularity, one issue that may arise is the question of appropriation. While the debate over appropriation of black culture is predominantly in regards to hip-hop, slam poetry – like the musical genre of rap/hip-hop – was also created and molded as an avenue of expression for poverty-stricken black youth. As a movement born out of black frustration, this is an unavoidable issue that SickSpits faces, as it is a slam poetry group made up of mostly white students and has been established at a university where only around 3 percent of the population is African-American. This puts some of the members in a precarious position of expressing themselves truthfully while still respecting the originating culture.
Bloomfield, as a core member of the collective, is highly aware of this position, acknowledging that for her, slam is a “borrowed art form.”
“[…] hip-hop and slam, like jazz, are black art forms,” Bloomfield said, “and America has a long and [expletive] history of not acknowledging their value until they can appropriate it and put a white face on it.”
While acknowledging this borrowing of slam, Bloomfield also believes that because slam comes from a different perspective and has an emphasis on “complexity, rhythmic mobility and colorful tonalities,” if a slam poet recognizes these differences, they can utilize the form and transcend the ultimate and usual poetic forms.
“[…] slam collapses the boundaries of what poetry can be,” Bloomfield said, “and gives that deciding power to any person present.”
Tanya Azari, a third-year Spanish major, is also a core member of SickSpits and will be performing on Wednesday. She shared similar thoughts and commented on how she, as a member of SickSpits, maintains a level of respect for the originating culture and properly utilizes the art form.
“I try to keep [the hip-hop influence] with the members we have,” Azari said. “[The spoken word genre] came from hip-hop and is very closely tied to ancient African [culture]. It’s not a white art and I feel like modern spoken word has been turned into a white-art, mainstream poetry that is extremely descriptive. It’s still incredibly good and very important, but [in the spoken word] I’ve seen on the internet, at poetry slams there’s an uncomfortable preference toward white poetry and I don’t like the idea that [SickSpits] would be turned into a very flowery one that doesn’t necessarily deal with the history of spoken word.”
One of the ways SickSpits has dealt with the history of spoken word is by using slam to give a voice to marginalized demographics. The LGBTQIA community, in particular, has received a vocal presence in the spoken word community.
“Spoken word and the poetry slam give a voice to people who don’t feel they have that voice,” Azari said. “There’s [different times in history] where [certain groups] get a stronger voice to speak. I feel like a lot of queer individuals are silenced in so many ways, [like in their families and communities], that it’s an empowering way for them to share their thoughts and experiences.”
The idea of a democratic form of expression that respects the social and cultural history of spoken word is also shared by Bloomfield.
“The SickSpits ultimate goal is like democracy in that it’s not yet here, and we don’t know what it will look like,” Bloomfield said. “We want to foster a community that is committed to social justice and is a safe space, especially for people whose voices are often silenced. We want a community that desires poetry as it might be. Again, I use the word ‘we,’ but I speak in my own voice.”
As a teaser for the upcoming event, Azari obliged Muse’s request to share a poem she wrote and performed which is an untitled response to a prompt about “something that is human and not-human at the same time.” We have excerpted a transcribed section of her poem that highlights the power of poetry and spoken word:
ever since i was a child i wanted to believe
that magic floated around in the air i breathed, and i could
pocket it for keeps as if it fell out of my sleeve —
but i made no miracles, saw no signs,
try hard as i might i colored inside the lines.
but then i found rhymes.
and it’s hard to describe what that’s done for my life.
For despite how it appears to my peers that i
posses the steering wheel on the vehicle vernacular
my controllessness is spectacular,
i’m driving blind with the headlights on
because it’s hard for me to illuminate on
it’s allah and beyond,
the synchronicity of a song
and the secret silent pleasure of phase locking with a poem
and the best part is
and it’s golden.
For more information on SickSpits, including upcoming slams and poetry workshops, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/SickSpits.