The Rise of the Slam Poet
“I am…amazed at how your choice of clothing is an artistic expression but mine spells repression, possession, sometimes potential weapon…This is what a feminist looks like.”
When she first penned these words, 19-year-old Iman Etri never expected her original three-minute spoken word poetry piece would be met with a standing ovation and have her crowned winner at Bankstown Poetry Slam's inaugural “Slam Olympics” last month.
"Seeing the way Muslims are spoken about in mainstream media, especially the way people perceive the lives of Muslim women, as people who are oppressed, who have no education or ambition or independence, irritates me to no end..."said Iman of the inspiration behind her winning poem.
The first of its kind in Australia, the Slam Olympics attracted a crowd of hundreds to the Art Gallery of NSW with competitors identified after a year of monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam events.
“The Olympics is about more than just competition, it signified an opportunity for some of the most captivating local performers and wordsmiths to come together and demonstrate their immense talent,” said Ahmad Al Rady, one half of the Western Sydney-based duo behind the Bankstown Poetry Slam – or BPS – and the Slam Olympics.
“Poetry has been a powerful form of self-expression, especially for those of us who never had access to this platform or could connect to traditional forms of poetry growing up,”
– Sara Mansour
“We introduced a ‘group’ component to the competition not only to challenge the poets artistically, but to encourage them to build bonds between each other –and that is exactly what happened. Like family, a group of 27 people came together in support of one another,” he said.
“Poetry has been a powerful form of self-expression, especially for those of us who never had access to this platform or could connect to traditional forms of poetry growing up,” BPS co-founder and fellow poet Sara Mansour said.
“Far from slam corrupting poetry as an art form – as has been said by critics, anyone involved in slams like BPS knows that it has helped us grow as artists, and also enabled us to contribute our works to build poetry as an art form.”
One thing that distinguishes a spoken word poetry slam from a traditionally more passive poetry reading is its active engagement with the audience and a more ‘democratic’ and inclusive approach to participation.
Poetry slam audiences show their appreciation for a good performance by “clicking” along with the poet in appreciation of a line or verse. In the slam there is a point scoring system at the end of the performance, with chosen audience members or judges holding up their scorecard. But the poets are not just performing for the points.
Western Sydney based Al Rady and Mansour said they founded the slam in 2013 to challenge the privileged poetic institutions that are inaccessible to individuals from a minority background. They wanted to create a safe space that celebrated ethnic, gender and sexual diversities, and to reclaim a poetic voice that was long reserved for a privileged Eurocentric elite.
The concept has clearly resonated with poets and audiences alike. In just under three years, the Bankstown Poetry Slam has gained national recognition as the largest regular slam in the country, attracting over 300 people from a diversity of backgrounds each month – a microcosm of its heterogeneous homebase in Western Sydney.
The mixture of styles on display at the Slam Olympics suggests an emerging art form that does not dedicate itself solely to form, tone or content. This Slam is creating a new grassroots artistic movement in Australian society.
The Slam plays a critical subcultural role in Western Sydney, where minorities are so often accustomed to being ‘othered’, fetishised, or denied a voice altogether in the political, cultural and artistic mainstream narratives.
True to its roots, the Bankstown Poetry Slam continues to be a platform for minority poets to question power structures and flip them on their heads, owning their stories and offering alternative perspectives about everyday issues – be it family, identity, love, war, gender, racism – instead of letting others dictate it for them, in front of an audience that can actually relate.
This is the element that has been missing when analysing the emergence of Slam, and why it is short-sighted by the privileged to dismiss it as ‘pop poetry’, without critically exploring its true impact in the present day manifestation and context.
The Bankstown Poetry slam has been growing in numbers and hosted the first 'Slam Olympics' in Australia - but the form itself has caused some controversy