Slam Poetry : History, While We’re Creating It (An Introduction)


It’s 2005. Anis Mojgani, a poet from Texas, has just begun performing at the U.S. National Poetry Slam. As he reaches the middle of his poem, the lights in the theatre go off.

But Anis keeps on going.

It’s 2013, India. Students are crowding inside Cocoberry, a frozen yoghurt shop situated in the small corners of Fergusson College Road, in Pune, behind the flat 50% off sale on skin-tearing Oshos, the smell of butter dosa tossed and served at Wadeshwar, and the famous chocolate sandwich seller whose face is invisible to the impatience of the visitor tempted by his food. That day, no one knows any more than that there is a poetry slam happening at this cafe at 4 pm, a piece of information carried only by the traditional word of mouth.

At this moment, there is a similar crowd gathering in the underground spaces of Delhi’s distinct Shahpur Jat Village as well as at the college assembly conducted at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, in South Campus, New Delhi.

I’m standing here inside Cocoberry nervously, as the crowd waits behind and in front of me. Five poets go up on stage, one at a time. Kc Vlaine performs a poem which is a conversation with God of a father who finds out that his son has turned gay. We’re five minutes into the slam, and the cell phones have already turned into video cams, while murmurs are being replaced by the silence of an audience sitting stunned till the end, at the honesty of the poets baring their souls one by one, with nothing behind their backs holding their vulnerability in front of the crowd. There is an unfading wave of enchantment that stays for a few seconds as the slam ends and everyone sticks around till the night steps in immaturely.

Slam poetry came to India at a time when what slam poetry is, was a far less important question than what slam poetry does and, did. The poets at Cocoberry, or Shahpur Jat, or Lady Shri Ram College were writing fearless poetry which was meant to be performed, and the audience continued to save their spots on the floor and in the front rows, filling up spaces wherever they could find one quickly. Speech did not take away the relationship of the abstract and the concrete from poetry, but allowed for the audience to participate in the experience that the poet on stage went through, with him/her.

It’s November 2014, Shantanu Anand and I are visiting Symbiosis School For Liberal Arts to conduct a five-day packed spoken word poetry workshop. Disappointingly, the first day drags like the hot summer sun. The level of comfort and confrontation that is generally achieved in two hour sessions has not been achieved. We leave questioning our activities and our element. We return the next day with a revised plan and sit patiently, after taking a writing session, for a performance.

Purvi Edara, one of the students at the workshop, takes the stage created by the simple understanding of intimacy through a semi-circular seating arrangement around the performer.

“I am blue,
blue in the face,
choking on all the words
I want to say, all the words
I probably never will.”

She performs a poem she has written, as she holds the attention of her fellow batchmates till she completes it, “you see that over there, it’s my last shred of confidence, you probably don’t see it and you know what the sad part is, neither do I.”

There is tension in the air, and no one in the audience looks at one another. They’re uncomfortable by the words but comfortably holding on to their seats. This feeling of being able to stare at a soul standing naked on the other side is irreplaceable and one permitted only by the fearlessness of a slam poet. For Purvi, this was a moment of liberation, performing something that meant so much to her, in front of her classmates – always part strangers, familiar only by their faces.

It’s 2015, and there is already a headlong rush among students in colleges like Ramjas, NUJS, Xaviers, all across India, to enter the realm of slam poetry and use it as a medium to express what one feels, what is necessary and what often stays inside like a soft feather.

At NALSAR University of Hyderabad, when Anasuya, a fresher, comes to perform on stage after being given a prompt, I cannot tell what her poem will be about from her expression, but at that moment I forget what it was supposed to be, because it was beautiful. When Anasuya begins, her voice trembles like the air, too scared to see itself in the mirror and her hands shake like disturbed waters. This image of a person so human, so relatable, so close to me as to everyone in the room, was what slam poetry in its purest sense gave Anasuya and the audience, a feeling of being vulnerable and being able to be ok with it.

For most of the early adopters of the art form, one can easily say that the introduction to slam poetry was through videos on Youtube, where they were learning the methods of education through technology and stumbling upon, often innocently emulating, the styles of legendary American spoken word poets like Sarah Kay, Anis Mojgani, Andrea Gibson, Phil Kaye, Rives.

Among all, Sarah Kay’s influence has been the deepest. She is a poet based in New York, and it’ll be hard for me to tell you about the impact she’s left on the New Yorkers, but in India, to say that she’s just another poet is not an easy settlement. It comes at the cost of thousands of young spoken word poets who fell in love with spoken word poetry after watching her videos, especially her TED talk which begins with one of her most loved poems, “If I Should Have A Daughter.” She’s an inspiration to those whose voice often gets lost like a layered tune of an electric guitar missed by a bad sound system at a bar.

It’s 2016, and I haven’t mentioned Kajol Runwal yet, but I think this is the right time to. Let’s go back to February 2015. We’re conducting an activity at Artsphere, Pune. This  activity is to bring synchronisation in our movement but at the same time, it is to allow the freedom to think clearly. It’s scary, because it could go two ways – it could really be intense if gone right, or it could be completely messy, if gone wrong.

It goes wrong.

We seem to have lost control. At this moment, I’m struggling to hold my ground. Shantanu recognises this as a time for him to take control. He brings everyone together and we begin the Under-19 Slam.

“To a tenth grade student who has been taking a lot of algebra lessons but kept flunking in every test he gives, ask him what it is like to see some hope on his grade card,
To a mother whose kids are going to bed empty stomachs, ask her what hope really means to her. ”

Young, electric, inspired Kajol comes up and performs her poem, and wins my heart right there. She’s shared with me a space to be in for the rest of the slam.

Soon after the slam that month, Kajol went on to take workshops in two schools in Kolhapur, started slams in her college, Symbiosis Center for Arts and Commerce, a couple of months later and convinced us of the magic that spoken word poetry  is.

Kajol tells me today, “I can’t keep a count of the rewards that spoken word poetry has gifted to me. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I would not falter even a little bit before stating that it has changed my life in unimaginable ways. It has taught me to look at this world through different lenses and contrasting perspectives. It has taught me to embrace ambiguity. Spoken word poetry is not just a form of self expression for me, it is so much more than that. It is my dose of inspiration and it keeps me going.”

I remember before I returned home on the slam day, disheartened and overly critical of my ability as an educator of spoken word poetry due to the miserably handled workshop, Kajol walked up to me along with her mother who had accompanied her from Kolhapur, and said “This was one of the most beautiful evenings of my life.”

Kajol had forgiven me.

To have understood this that night, was to have held close the comforting heart of a stranger that made me sit bravely, even if for a little while, to stop silently weeping.