Poetry slam: A war of poets in modern times

I was having an interesting conversation with a poet and graffiti artist Martijn Bekvegter Nelen I met in Belgium last year. He was telling me about how poetry slam is a fad in Europe now and how he has become a full-time poet.

Poetry slam. Though the phrase was vaguely familiar I was not all sure about what it was. Nelen explained the concept and also sent me links (in English) so that I could get an essence of what poetry slam was about.

Poetry Slam is a competition where poets read or recite their original work in front of an audience on a range of topics, mostly social but not restricted to that. As history goes, it was started in 1984 by an American poet Marc Smith in Chicago. It is common in the US and now the rage is picking up in Europe according to Nelen.

In India too we have a community called Unerase poetry that is popularising poetry slam. Recently ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’, which was about gender parity in society and work place, went viral. I have to admit that it was good and gets the point across. It made me think that there is indeed a need for an alternate medium to spread message across and also much needed awareness about equality, sexuality, climate change and what not. It also made me realise that there is no better reference to use than our ancient culture, where poetry slams were as common as debates (lets us call them that for courtesy’s sake) in modern times.

If you remember the Tamil movie Thiruvilayadal, the movie was never short of poetic wars between court poets and ones visiting the country. There was an important debate about what gives a woman’s hair its fragrance? Pointless though it may be, it was decided that the debate would be solved by a competition. All poets across the kingdom were invited and the prize money was hefty. Let us just say if a poet manages to win, he never has to worry about his future. All they had to do was come up with a poem that gives an answer and recite it in court. The king along with eminent poets would be the judge. That was how it was done for any poetry competitions centuries ago. (Someone did win and it was decided that a woman’s hair is not fragrant by nature and it is only by using fragrant oils and other substances, the hair is able to maintain its fragrance.)

Now getting back to poetry slam, the concept had existed before at least in Dravidian culture, where poets fought not only the useless topics I had mentioned before but also on more pertinent topics during those times like war, female empowerment and slavery. In fact there were instances where war, which could damage lives and property, were avoided simply by making the best of court poets butt their heads through poems.

There was a time when literature and poets flourished in the then Dravida Nadu. My mother, who is an avid reader and follower of Tamil literature, used to tell me that there was a time when there were so many poets it was hard to decide whose work was better. So the poets threw their works in the Golden Lotus pond at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple. Only the ones that float were considered superior. That was how strong the literary talent was during the period of Tamil kings Chera, Chola and Pandyas. Most of the Sangam literature of that time were lost and there are barely some preserved lending insight into literary strength.

We are in 21st century. It is to revive that old culture now. We cannot have people reciting unintelligible verses about female infanticide. Because things have changed of course and there would not be a single body that would actually listen to the long-drawn barely understandable poems. I’m already seeing songs that has no meaning going viral. Stand-up comedians are probably doing a decent job. But I think we need more and different medium that could attract people. Poetry could be one such thing.

Just like what ‘Unerase poetry’ is trying to do, interested people could come up with original poems that are thought-provoking in a language that anyone can relate to and fun to listen. I’m sure in India, where there is a story and issue rising every day, finding inspiration is hardly a hurdle.


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