Video Killed the Poetry Star
The first time I saw a poetry slam I thought it was really stupid. I was at the Mercury Cafe in Denver, Colorado. There were more performers than audience members. It felt like an AA meeting where people scored the addicts after they spoke. I watched a soul-patched man in a Disturbed t-shirt cry when his poem was not well received.
Two years later, I attended the American National Poetry Slam in Minneapolis. NPS is a week-long event, where teams of poets from different cities compete for a national title and barely enough prize money to pay for the trip. The rules are the same as at the local level: Five randomly selected members of the audience are given score cards which they use to judge the poets on a scale from 1-10. The audience is encouraged to boo or cheer for the scores given. Even at the finals, which can often draw around 2000 people, the judges are randomly selected.
There were thousands of people in the room, and all of them were actively giving a shit about poetry. Even if it was only for the length of that slam, they were engaged, and it was because of some stupid, arbitrary game. The slam was the least important part of it, merely the foil around the burrito. And I love burritos.
Inspired by my experience, I returned home wanting to do poetry slams. The following year I made in onto my first Denver Slam Team. In 2006, I won the American National Poetry Slam. I also won the prestigious Grand Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City. Despite this success, my most important slam venture was my work as the founding director and coach of a youth poetry program in Denver named Minor Disturbance, which won back-to-back world titles at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.
Slam opened up doorways for me to become a full time touring poet and arts educator. I’ve been signed to several agencies that book me as a speaker and performer at colleges and universities. I have toured internationally, or at least to Britain and many of its former territories. I’ve even published two books. I have been very fortunate.
Going from a poet paying his rent by cooking at a vegan restaurant to a poet paying his rent with poetry took years of hard work and luck. In a time when a single poem posted online can garner millions of views and catapult a poet to instant, viral fame, I recall years of touring slam venues for very little pay, hosting local events for other touring acts and self-publishing chapbooks. For lack of a better term, I hustled. Having high quality, recorded footage of my own work was something didn't consider, seeking it only when the agency requested it. A poet now, however, might have footage circulating online after their very first performance; might win the love of the internet before winning a single slam.
There have always been poetry videos on YouTube since its inception. Channels such as SpeakEasy NYC produced great content from the New York scene. Poets would often post their own footage. Denver poet Kate Makkai was arguably the first slam poet to ever reach one million views on YouTube with a recording of her poem “Pretty.” Back in 2006, another Denver original, Podslam.org, touted itself as the first ever online slam venue. Poets were filmed performing in a studio. Viewers visited the site to vote for their favourite. Podslam.org faltered pretty quickly. The content was exclusive to the website which made it hard to share and spread the word. Overall, it was a great concept but possibly ahead of its time.
As an educator, I have always used YouTube videos in my classroom. Even as far back as 2009, when I would ask my students where they had seen a poetry slam before, the answer would almost always be online, or maybe Def Jam on HBO. Occasionally, some young hipster had seen a slam in real life, but that was rare. Now, the answer is almost always the same.
In a time when a single poem posted online can garner millions of views and catapult a poet to instant, viral fame, I recall years of touring slam venues for very little pay, hosting local events for other touring acts and self-publishing chapbooks.
Sam Cook and I share a similar trajectory in slam. We both discovered it in Denver, but fell in love with it in Minneapolis. When I returned to Denver, Sam remained behind and started Button Poetry, an organization dedicated to generating and distributing spoken word media. They're known primarily for their YouTube videos.
He also went on to win a National Poetry slam in 2010. My team took second. It’s cool. We’re still friends.
Sam is handsome but twitchy. The guy talks in quick, passionate bursts, like an engine trying to turnover. He doesn’t avoid eye contact so much as not worry about it. Anyone who doesn’t know Sam might think he’s on the verge of a breakdown, but he’s always been like this. The paranoia is part of the charm. He looks like a guy who makes his living off of computers. Or art. Or computers and art. Or something that allows him stay home and chain smoke.
“In the beginning,” Sam says, “I wanted to burn CDs for slam teams - produce high quality fundraising materials they could use to raise money to attend competitions. I never completed that exact project, but on the way we started to film viral videos.”
In conjunction with an organization named Poetry Observed, Button began producing staged poetry videos. These got more attention and buzz via social media then anything else they had previously produced.
After earning a Verve Grant from Intermedia Arts and the Jerome Foundation, Sam bought a higher quality camera which allowed them to generate better content. They had a few videos gain momentum but when Neil Hilborn’s performance of "OCD" gained the attention of Adam Mordecai, editor-in-chief for content-sharing site Upworthy, things really took off.
Now Button’s videos are regularly shared on websites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and NPR. Their YouTube channel has nearly 500,000 subscribers and collectively, their videos have around 105 million views. They were not the first to post performances of slam poets online but they are easily the biggest. At this point, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call them the largest distributor of slam and spoken word poetry content in the world.
“We have an office these days,” Sam says proudly. “It’s incredible.”
Most of Button’s videos are filmed during bouts at large scale competitions like the US National Poetry Slam. This means that they record a live performance in a slam setting. The poets are at peak emotion and the audience is too, cheering and clapping in response to the performer. The videos do a pretty decent job of capturing the excitement of a slam and drawing the audience in, even if the viewer has no idea what that is. They also avoid some of the awkward pitfalls encountered with Podslam.org or Poetry Observed where the poets are performing to the camera.
Even when produced well, staged performances can sometimes feel like music videos that forgot to add a soundtrack. Most poets aren’t trained performers. We often just memorize things and then start yelling them when given permission. Taking us out of a live setting can change the performance in a drastic way. It shows how reciprocal the art is. It’s a conversation: the poet speaks and the audience responds. It makes the viewer feel like they’re a part of it.
When a distinct voice comes along, in any medium, it can have a strong effect. It changes the lexicon... Now, however, the same kind of imitation is taking place on a global level.
American culture is a language that most of the world speaks, even if they didn’t choose to do so. If the world was a bench we’d be the hefty dude man-spreading and taking up all the room. We are everywhere. And now, our poetry is everywhere too.
It’s not all that uncommon to find hip hop artists from other countries who rap with American accents. It’s how they think they need to sound in order to make the music, largely because it’s how their idols sounded. Similar are the blue eyed soul musicians of Britain, or California Bay Area punks that sing with shitty London accents. Life imitates art.
On my first visit to New Zealand, as a touring artist in 2011, slam poetry already had a stronghold. There was a thriving, if small, spoken word culture, driven by some of the country’s ambassadors: The South Auckland Poets Collective; Penny Ashton and Poetry Idol; the NZ National Slam; the Saturday night slam at Going West.
The isolation of the country still affected the voice. It wasn’t inundated with many of the clichés common in American slams. Poets were quieter, more conversational. Sometimes the poets were over the age of forty, or they even rhymed - both of which are extremely rare back in America. It wasn’t uncommon to hear bush poetry and a piece about the Polynesian Panthers at the same event. Contemporary local poets such as Te Kahu Rolleston, Marina Alefosio or Tourettes are as worthy of international stages as anything I’ve seen in my career.
But New Zealand pre-Button wasn’t a utopia for slam by any means. Touring was hard and there were huge divides within scenes on both geographical and cultural levels, but there was something exciting about the lack of artistic hegemony and pretence.
When I moved to New Zealand in 2015, things had shifted. Button Poetry’s popularity and influence had grown enough to be felt, especially with the younger poets. They sounded more, well, Button. There was more yelling. Performances were polished and followed established formulas. The work in general was less tongue-in-cheek and more earnest, addressing societal ills in direct and deeply confrontational ways.
On one hand, it feels like the bar had been raised as far as presentation and ability. The growth since that first visit has been astounding. The popularity of spoken word increased in a way I had not seen elsewhere. But on the other hand, it sometimes feels like a form of artistic colonisation. There have even been instances in which New Zealand poets have taken ownership of American social and political issues in their work.
In a way, this makes sense. When a distinct voice comes along, in any medium, it can have a strong effect. It changes the lexicon. Ten years ago in the states, Buddy Wakefield had such a strong stylistic influence that it wasn’t all that uncommon to hear a poet from Boston or Seattle tossing in a Texas style “y’all” in the middle of their poems. Also, I’d like to send a special shout-out to the thousands of hyperventilating Andrea Gibson fans (who think they need to forget how to breathe in order to properly perform a poem).
Now, however, the same kind of imitation is taking place on a global level. It just so happens that the majority of poets on the Button channel are American, so the influence is notably prominent.
All artists imitate the work they love, it’s how we learn. What’s interesting, and where real growth happens, is when people take something that’s already been done and then twist that until it becomes their own.
Enter Jessie Fenton.
Competitively, Jessie has been a big success. Last year, she placed in Rising Voices, The New Zealand National Poetry Slam and the Auckland University Slam, three of the country’s largest competitions. She did all of this within her first year of competiting.
I was a judge at Jessie’s first poetry slam at Auckland University. Her performance was polished and professional. Her mannerisms - the way her voice offered the perfect believable vulnerability, even the way she breathed - felt calculated. You’d think she was invented in some kind of secret slam poetry laboratory that combines all of the best bits from every Button video ever created. It’s like watching Federer play Tennis: she was almost too good.
One of her poems, "Storytellers", is particularly powerful. It’s a confessional piece about how privilege and history has influenced her life as a young Pakeha woman growing up in Aotearoa. It is gracious, self aware and understated in a way reminiscent of New Zealand performance poets Zane Scarborough or Grace Taylor. The language is also undeniably Kiwi.
While Jessie emulates the style and cadence of American or Button poems, she sticks to her heritage and her life when it comes to subject matter and tone. Another of her poems talks about domestic violence and its correlation to the All Blacks. This is a New Zealand-specific reference but a universally understood issue. Swap the All Blacks for the Red Sox and it’s an American story.
“I guess I came into [poetry] through Button completely,” says Fenton. “I'd never been to a proper poetry slam before I started competing really, so I hadn't had a chance to be exposed to NZ poets at the start. These days I think I'm definitely influenced by my peers…and Jahra (Rager) and Rewa (Worley) taught me so for sure any improvement I've made is on them!"
She’s just studying what she loves and interpreting it through her own cultural lens. It’s an interesting hybrid. Jessie also says that when she watches her peers perform she can tell which poets from Button they watch.
As poetry slams are fundamentally grassroots events, it's a suprising that Jessie had already written, and absorbed an unbelievably large amount of performance poetry without ever having attended a slam in real life. Perhaps this adds to the homogenization of artistic styles, but it also creates a stronger connection to the world beyond one's immediate, local community. A poem is not a Lonely Planet guide book or a tourist brochure. But it is an experience, of a society or a story that is not your own.
“It’s great to hear the voices of people I would never otherwise get to meet and try to understand them,” Jessie says, explaining what she loves about Button. “To hear someone articulate something that you’ve thought all your life and have never been able to say.”
There has been some controversy within the US slam community about which videos go viral and which don't, or how some poets appearing on the channel more regularly than others.
While Button has a devoted following, a huge amount of its success - at least in terms of view count - might have less to do with poetry and more to do with subject matter. This is not to say that quality doesn’t stand out. Two poems could be written about the same thing and end up with a very different amount of hits based on how well one is written or performed. The amount of people that experience a Button video may also indirectly increase the amount of poetry fans in this world but there’s a good chance that the pursuit of poetry is not what got them there to begin with.
Spoken word poetry engages with many topics that proliferate on the internet, which has become a space of both identity projection and visibility for subject matter excluded from more regulated types of media. Poems range in topics as diverse as the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, or gender politics.
It’s a positive thing, but it also allows people of privilege to pass comment on social issues in the most passive of ways; to be activists without any real activity. There's a possibility that sharing slam content, such as the videos from Button, merely promotes "clicktivism” - the act of sharing media that takes a strong stance on a social or political issue without doing anything tangible afterwards. It's not dissimilar to wearing ribbons for causes or Greenpeace stickers on gas-guzzling trucks. And yes, this may be true, but it's also short sighted.
In high school I had a friend named Brian. he and I worked at an ice cream shop. Brian happened to be lactose intolerant and therefore never ate any of the ice cream he was serving to people. Despite Brian’s lactose intolerance, the other customers never seemed to be affected. Most of them had no idea. Those who did know were never bothered by it and continued to enjoy their ice cream.
The point is that Brian’s lack of ice cream consumption didn’t stop others from enjoying it for themselves.
Though the person posting the article couldn’t actually give a shit, the person who sees it might. The fact that information is spreading is important, even if the person inbetween is only passively engaging in the conversation. Being an entitled armchair activist is a personal choice, just as much as deciding to volunteer or protest.
It’s a privilege to be able to speak out passively on an issue that you can afford to distance yourself from, especially when the outcome doesn’t mean anything to you. In some cases it’s not just art, it’s a person's life. This happens often in slam where the artist's identity is intrinsically linked to the work.
Furthermore, the viewpoint also assumes that the sharing of the poetry isn’t its own action, regardless of the outcome. For the poet, it so often is. Creating and then performing what you’ve made is a necessary and powerful act for a lot of poets. Sometimes just reminding people that you exist is an act of resistance.
Sites like Upworthy offer a visibility that Button can’t give a poem on its own. They increase the reach of the art and therefore its potential to affect change. Their purpose is to generate viral content and traffic for whatever cause the editor chooses.
Performance poetry is an effective medium for discussing social issues because it lends credibility in ways that other platforms do not. A poem, when performed by the author, gives a face to an issue. It makes it personal because we are often under the belief that the poem is biographical.
“Poems with short, punchy titles that state what issue they are about generally get more clicks, at least initially, than poems with more artistic titles,” says Dylan Garity, speaking from his apartment in Los Angeles. Dylan is the other driving force behind Button Poetry, Sam’s more approachable half.
"With the majority of videos," he says, "they cost us more money to produce than we make. The big videos kind of pay for the little ones."
It turns out YouTube doesn’t actually pay all that much. Before a poem is posted, poets have to sign a release form allowing Button to feature their content. If a video has enough views to generate significant revenue then a portion goes to the artist.
"Our videographers have had folks get really intense with them about if their videos will go up or not,” Dylan says, when I ask if there has been conflict with the slam community. “And I understand it; we film thousands of poems a year. Less than ten percent of what we film gets broadcast, and that's gotta be frustrating for folks. At the same time, that doesn't mean we hate your poem just because it doesn't go up. There are poems we absolutely love that we have to cut, whether because of days available, or technical issues - which are unfortunately common.”
There has been some controversy within the US slam community about which videos go viral and which don’t, or how some poets appear on the channel more than others.
“In general, it’s really just a lot of factors. The same poem could have wildly different popularity with a different title. The same poem could have wildly different popularity if it happened to be run at a different time. Some people tend to write work that appeals more broadly, while some has a narrower focus. There are also unfortunate racial elements, these usually have to do with external media and what they run: there have been times where we might send out ten videos to a media source over the course of a month, and they choose to run the one white person (or the one guy, etc.) in that set.”
It’s an interesting comment, especially considering that both Dylan and Sam are white men, and it’s an issue they are aware of.
“We try to make sure that we're not just having external diversity,” Dylan says,” amongst what we broadcast, publish, etc., but also internal, in terms of having a diverse group of people involved in the curation process.
Sam agrees, though admits there are challenges. "The number one spectrum of diversity that we fail on at Button and with slam in general is age,” he says. "We represent a very specific slice of the pie.”
They have been actively taking steps to change this. Specifically, starting a show in Minneapolis called Button Poetry Live. BPL flies in special guest poets for full shows that Button films for the channel. These are usually older poets that have had a lot of influence or the slam scene but haven’t been featured prominently on the channel in the past.
The event is also live streamed. In order to pay for the cost of the event, Button received a large grant that specifies the need for diversity, including poets over the age forty and specifically older women of colour (statistically one of the least represented population in literature and the arts).
Dylan gets particularly excited about exposing the Button audience to poets they may not go out of their way to see.
"We just posted a Ross Gay poem. It got only about 10,000 views, but that's still 10,000 new people who get exposed to his brilliance," he says, grinning. "We also just posted our first ever poem from Anis Mojgani. We are showing this art that we love to millions of people. Every time I get stressed about the business side of things, I say, ‘this is good work.’”
Ten years ago, a signature performance poem could get you recognized within the slam community, maybe even give you a chance at a finals stage where more people would hear it. You might get to perform on Def Poetry Jam on HBO but even if you did, that didn’t guarantee any financial or critical success.
These days, however, a single viral video can get you the kind of notoriety that it took many of us years to achieve.
These days, however, a single viral video can get you the kind of notoriety that it took many of us years to achieve.
Kevin Kantor is a former student of mine and a 2012 Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam Champion. He became a professional poet, making his living exclusively from poetry, less than a year ago.
Kevin Kantor just appeared alongside fifty other sexual assault survivors on the Oscars as part of Lady Gaga’s performance. Although Kevin didn’t do much more than stand there and look cool, his being there has everything to do with poetry.
His Button poem “People You May Know” went viral in April of 2015. To date it has received 1,032,699 views on YouTube. Buzzfeed went on to produce a concept video based on the poem, which has received 3,076,999 views. He’s already completed two college tours and even performed his work on US network television for an episode of the ABC drama American Crime. Although these numbers pale in comparison to popular musicians or even cat videos, it’s pretty amazing for poetry. But the speed of his rise has been so quick that it’s practically Rebecca Black-esque.
Here’s the catch though: “People You May Know” is not an obnoxious pop song. It’s a very serious exploration of life after sexual assault.
“The first part that’s been really difficult is that everyone wants to share their trauma with me. That’s been really difficult to metabolize. I’ll get a lot of messages from people thanking me for my poem who also feel it necessary to share their experiences. I don’t always know how to handle that.”
Kevin, like the majority of poets that Button features, is young.
“80% of the poems are from people 18 to 30 years of age,” says Sam Cook.“Less than 25 of the poets featured on Button are over the age of 40.”
Some of these poets might be sharing trauma that they’re still processing, or using poetry to process it. Doing this in such a public forum can sometimes create unforeseen issues when it comes to how the outside world reacts. Poets have also requested that poems be taken down because the work may affect relationships with family members.
“We had a couple of people who have asked us to either change their name, or make the video private so that it’s unlisted while they are in the middle of job searches,” he tells me.
In some instances, the reaction to a poem itself can have a profoundly negative affect.
Rachel Rostad wrote the second Button poem to ever go viral, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.” The poem is a condemnation of the Harry Potter author’s alleged racial bias, written from the perspective of the only character of Southeast Asian descent in the book.
The piece contained several cultural inaccuracies that deflated much of Rachel’s argument, like claiming the name Cho Chang was exclusively Korean and not Chinese, which is untrue. The backlash was harsh and overwhelming. It received serious critiques from both the Asian community and angry Harry Potter fans, running to Rowling’s defense. The comments ranged from informed to genuinely hurtful. For Rachel the response was overwhelming.
“I don’t want to say traumatize, that’s a big word,” Rachel tells me, from a cafe in St. Paul, “but it definitely soured my feelings towards performing, and being on a public stage. I didn’t feel like I had the authority to speak publicly after that. In some ways I think it was the opposite of what many people would want poetry slams to do. It actually made me feel like my voice was less valuable.”
As an educator who has coached hundreds of youth poets, I can’t help but watch the video with great concern and empathy. I see an angry, intelligent and well-meaning kid, who was thrown into a gauntlet most adult performers wouldn’t have handled well. Celebrities have whole teams of publicists who can help them through these situations.
She went on to post a video in response to her critics, admitting to some of the inaccuracies in the poem and trying to take responsibility for them. The reception was lukewarm at best.
All things considered, Rachel’s handled it well. Speaking with her now, it appears as if she’s spent plenty of time processing the experience and can talk about it eloquently.
“I beat myself up over my piece for a long time. The feedback I had gotten at a competition was high scores, praise. But obviously in a room where someone is forced to …physically be there with you and see you perform, they are going to have more empathy. Online, they have no idea who you are, what the context is. They’re not there because they’re poets.”
She says that the piece even made it to frothy Hollywood critic Perez Hilton’s website, opening it to a whole new audience of comment-section-trolls. “They’re just random people. They’re seeing it in this kind of alienated medium, compared to being in a room that encourages compassion and empathy.”
On the internet, the haters run free
In a live setting, folks can be held accountable to an audience. It’s a microcosm for society. A bigot probably won’t scream an epithet at a poet while they’re on stage. There are real consequences. There’s a good chance you’ll be ejected, or worse. Also, most people are there because they went out of their way to be. They didn’t stumble across the video while on a YouTube binge.
But on the internet, the haters run free. The comment section is the bathroom stall of the digital age. Only now, the subject of the joke can scroll down and read it for themselves. The worst can read like a series of signs at a Donald Trump Rally.
“There’s a list of scary words that we don’t allow on our videos.” Sam Cook tells me. “They are flagged as soon as someone writes them. We even go through and weed out people who are aware of these things so they purposefully misspell words or use numbers instead of letters.”
Poets come to open mics and slams to feel like they belong to something. To be applauded for being themselves. It’s supposed to be a supportive environment. When that space is opened to the rest of the world, it changes things.
Javon Johson is a professor of communication and performance studies at San Francisco State University and a two-time National Poetry Slam champion. “The poetry room becomes a confessional booth for many of us.” he says, Skyping in from Oakland. “You just brought a camera into the confession booth.”
He’s working on a book about slam that will be published through Rutgers University Press in late 2016. The tentative title, Killing Poetry, is a reference and dismissal to critic Harold Bloom’s infamous quote in the Paris Review where he stated that “The poetry slam isn’t even silly; it is the death of art.”
Bloom said that back in 1991. It’s nearly a quarter of a century old. It’s ironic too, in that such a huge number of young people who participate in poetry do so because of slam. American organizations like Youth Speaks and Urban Word or the New Zealand-based Action Education and Rising Voices work with thousands of youth every year, and they do it by utilizing the poetry slam. Interest in poetry is at an all-time high.
The conflict between slam and the academy is mostly a myth at this point, and perhaps it always was. Many poets who came up in the performance world are now getting MFAs and enjoying success in more traditional pathways. Names like Susan Somers-Wilet, Raymond Antrobus, or Jamaal May come to mind.
In a sense, they are legitimizing their roots. Gaining approval from the academy, or infiltrating it, depending on who you ask. Javon is fine with that, but it’s not what interests him.
“Rather than trying to prove that slam is a worthwhile literary endeavor I’m saying, fuck it. Kill poems, kill poetry, kill art and build anew. Slam's biggest potential is not in our ability to speak back to power,” Javon tells me,“but in our ability to imagine systems that are entirely different than what are previously given to us.”
One of the reasons that the slam still appeals to me is its populist nature. I believe in the greater good, in the idea of putting your community ahead of yourself. I think that art for arts sake exists, and that’s great, I guess. It’s just not that interesting to me. I believe that art is at its best when it serves a function. When it informs, inspires dialogue or mobilizes a community.
Something taken for granted in slam is that it’s not an artistic genre as much as a platform. It was a game invented to get people to participate in poetry, and therefore to participate in community. For slammers, it’s a chance to speak to a society that rarely listens. A society that, for many, was designed to perpetuate their silence because their identity doesn’t fit into a normative space.
"Some older poets get mad at me because I don’t have animosity towards some of the younger poets. I’m just like, Oh well,” says Javon.
I couldn’t agree more. Looking back on the time it took for me to achieve what little success I have, it would be easy to get bitter about how quickly it can come to someone today. A stage that once came with an audience of thousands now offers an audience of millions. A young person from South Auckland can find kinship with another from West Denver. A trans student in Wellington feels less alone because of something a South African poet says in a video they recorded in front of their home computer. There are important voices that have not always been afforded a platform the way I have and poetry videos on YouTube are helping to change that. If someone can make a career out of it, how marvelous is that?
Button, if anything, is simply a digital library of stories told through the genre of poetry. It’s a peoples’ history. A soapbox to the world, not just the street corner. As the world becomes more globalized it makes sense that our oldest art form will follow suit.
“Historically disenfranchised communities often rely on alternative paths to democracy because they’re not given democracy," says Javon. “If I don’t have the vote in the early 20th century, and being black meant that I didn’t, then I relied on the Harlem renaissance movement to prove to you that not only can I be a good citizen, I can be one of the finest human beings ever. If I am a woman, of any race, and I cannot vote, then I rely on art to give me backdoor means.”
It has less to do with the art and more to do with connection. To simply know that you may not be alone in how you feel or think, whether it’s from a computer screen today or in a theater in Minneapolis 14 years ago.
This is not to say that great artists don’t come from slam. They can and frequently do. Sherman Alexie, George Watsky and Patrica Smith all cut their teeth on poetry slams. Penguin recently published Australian slam champion Omar Musa’s debut novel Here Come the Dogs. Mahogany L, Browne, my former coach at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, was nominated for an NAACP award. Recently, Danez Smith, Jamila Woods and Nikkita Oliver performed alongside Macklemore on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Poets, performing socially relevant work on a major American television network. Great art happens, often. It’s just not the end game, at least not for me.
Alan Wolf famously said,“the points are not the point, the point is poetry”. It’s one of the most repeated phrases within slam. It’s a great idea that speaks to what slam, in and of itself, is for. But it’s only one part of the story. The point is not the points or the poetry. The point is the people. Button, just like the slam or poetry itself, is simply a vessel for an idea. It’s about what happens after the slam, how we share those ideas and then implement them into the world.
As Kevin Kantor puts it, “Not all of the poetry on Button, I think, is good. But I think that all of it is important.”