Performance Poetry and Slams: Background information when reading The Lost for Words Bookshop

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The Lost for Words Bookshop

by Stephanie Butland

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland X
The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland
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    Jun 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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Performance Poetry and Slams

This article relates to The Lost for Words Bookshop

Print Review

Poetry Slam LogoEarly in the novel, The Lost For Words Bookshop, the main character attends a weekly poetry competition night. This made me immediately think of "poetry slams" and wonder about their origins. I easily found connections to ancient traditions dating back to times of low literacy that existed long before the age of the printing press. Obviously, the great Greek and Roman traditions of theater also included performing poetry and many of Shakespeare's plays are essentially epic poems, written in iambic pentameter. These early instances of reciting poetry in a formal setting has lasted to this day, with poets reading their works at public events.

Regarding open mic evenings and performing poetry (as opposed to just reciting it), I had no idea how recent an advent this was. First, I found a trend in the 1970s in the USA called "performance poetry." There are two types: poems are written (and memorized) prior to the performances, and impromptu performance poetry where the poets compose spontaneously while on stage. This led me to other sources that place the origins of performance poetry to the 1940s and the poets of the Beat Generation who read their poems with prepared music playing live in the background. The music was usually minimalistic, with few instruments (often employing only a type of drum or bongo), where the beats were timed to put some sort of emphasis on words or phrases of the poem. Of course, it is no stretch to see that both Rap and Hip-Hop are direct descendants of these types of performance poetry.

Marc Kelly SmithMost sources date the first "poetry slam" to Chicago in 1984, when the American poet Marc Kelly Smith held the first open mic. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Smith did this because "poetry readings and poetry in general had lost their true passion" and he wanted to "bring poetry back to the people." So he initiated the weekly poetry slam, which was open to all. "Poets would perform their work and then be judged by five random audience members on a scale of 0 to 10. Out of the five, the highest and lowest scores were dropped and the three remaining scores were added to give the poet an overall score. Whoever had the highest score at the end of the competition was deemed the winner." What Smith started back then has today grown into a full-blown non-profit organization called Poetry Slam, Inc. with active groups across the US. They host a yearly National Poetry Slam, which is a team competition, as well as a yearly Individual World Poetry Slam.

The city of York, England (where The Lost For Words Bookstore takes place) has an active poetry scene including York Spoken Word which has been established for about 12 years and hosts a monthly Poetry Slam.

Video of the National Poetry Slam 2017, Brooklyn Slam

Poetry Slam Logo
Marc Kelly Smith

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Lost for Words Bookshop. It first ran in the July 11, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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