Funny revelations, intense broodings, and the occasional angry outburst reverberated throughout the Elks Club Tuesday night, as local artists animatedly recited original, spoken word creations for Missoula’s city-wide poetry slam.
“It’s loud, in your face and nothing like what you’d think a poetry reading would be like,” said participant Colter Murphy.
Cosponsored by Big Sky High School’s Aerie and the University of Montana’s Oval literary magazines, the event showcased talent from across Missoula, and awarded cash prizes to the top five acts.
“It’s never about winning, though” said murphy, a senior at Big Sky. “It’s a way of expressing what I really feel.”
Slam poems are dynamic, combining recitation elements like rhyme, rhythm, body language and vocal range into a compelling, three minute presentation. Topics are broad, and the Tuesday’s crowd applauded poems ranging from apocalyptic musings about earth’s future, to an insightful reflection from murphy on Missoula County Public Schools Superintended Alex Apostle’s recent pay raise.
“It’s a public forum,” said Lorilee Evans-Lynn, English teacher at Big Sky High School and faculty advisor to the Aerie program. “Poems go from hilarious to heartbreak.”
The slam format provides a great avenue for expression, Evans-Lynn said, especially for youth demographics.
“Young people are hungry for that,” she said. “They tell me all the time: we don’t get to vote but we still have lots of things to say.”
Since arising from the Chicago jazz scene in the mid 80’s, poetry slams have quickly become popular across the nation and around the world, appealing to a new breed of artists eager to shed the constraints of tired traditions.
It’s so unconventional and has so few rules,” said Chelsea Elwood, editor of UM’s Oval Magazine. “People that are bored writing sonnets say; Yah, I’ll write a slam. It’s pretty empowering is what it boils down to.”
Big Sky student and Aerie member Stacia Hill said what draws her to the form is the ability to explore daily issues which sometimes get bogged down in traditional poetry.
“It’s less focused on flowery language,” she said, “and gives people a chance to focus on what they really want to talk about.”
According to Evans-Lynn however, underneath slam poetry’s contemporary exterior lie roots tracing all the way back to the sonnet king himself.
“It’s a little bit like modern Shakespeare,” Evans-Lynn said. “He wrote for the common people of the time. It was haughty and there were great sexual jokes and all kinds of things and slam poetry is sort of like that.”
Whatever its appeal, the form has taken hold around the world.
German exchange student and slam performer Damiano Dimuro said slam poetry clubs are almost as popular as sports in his home town.
“I’ve noticed that American’s have more serious poems than Germans,” he said. “Ours are more about entertainment.”
Dimuro said he’s learned from performers in Missoula and has started incorporating more politics into his pieces.
This learning experience is what slam poetry is all about, Evans-Lynn said. It allows for artists to further develop their voice, a unique tone which she said Missoula has already begun to develop.
The Aerie program has been putting on poetry slams for nearly a decade, teaming up with UM’s Oval magazine about six years ago to attract a more diverse pool of performers.
So far the response has been good, and Oval editor Chelsea Elwood, an Aerie alumni herself, expects artists to continue searching locally for that ever elusive, original voice.
“Niche arts like slam poetry,” she said, “can definitely find a home in Missoula.”