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March 9, 2012 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Sierra DeMulder is one of the most accomplished and recognizable young women in the world of slam poetry. The two-time National Poetry Slam champion has spent the past five years energizing audiences at colleges and poetry events across the nation, seamlessly weaving complex issues of identity and gender with the honesty of heartbreak. Her piece 'Paper Dolls', recently shared on Project Unbreakable (previously), is very, very good. TRIGGER WARNING - subject matter pertains to sexual assault.
posted by lazaruslong (31 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
She's definitely good. Mildly related: are people still mad at slam poetry?
posted by serif at 5:31 PM on March 9, 2012


Mildly related: are people still mad at slam poetry?

I'm guilty of sounding off about the medium a bit, but I was impressed with this piece. I thought it was articulate and explored rather than exploited a difficult subject. It didn't just tell the audience what they already knew. It had some great lyrical flourishes and it was performed really well.

The only 'slammy' thing I didn't like was that idiot clicking to show their approval. Show your approval by listening, you moron.
posted by RokkitNite at 5:44 PM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mildly related: are people still mad at slam poetry?

Eh. I think it's a valid criticism that it only showcases a certain, very specific style of poetry well- but within that range, it works.

Strong piece. I started out skeptical but the end was incredibly powerful and evocative.
posted by quincunx at 5:51 PM on March 9, 2012


The only 'slammy' thing I didn't like was that idiot clicking to show their approval. Show your approval by listening, you moron.

At the last slam poetry event I went to, the poets were actually begging us to snap and clap. It was kind of sad. The problem was that they were actually good so everyone was paying very rapt attention- and by the time you've remembered to snap, you're not thinking about what comes next and other people can't hear what comes next. Maybe for a slower-paced piece, but...yeah.
posted by quincunx at 5:53 PM on March 9, 2012


I don't really go to slam poetry thingies often, but the ones that I do make an effort to make it to are related to sexual assault.

Just from personal experience, and this is anecdotal I know, but the noise of clapping and snapping are frequently used to encourage a poet who is choking up, quavering, or killing it and rushing. They are sort of these little ways of reminding the vulnerable performer that they are in a safe space.

Just my two cents.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:56 PM on March 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't mean to suggest that the only acceptable response to a poem is silence. It might be a cultural thing. I come from the UK performance poetry scene, where that kind of whooping and clicking is generally seen as disruptive and a bit ridiculous. There's a massive difference between rapt attention and a dead room. And then, when the cheering and applause rushes up like a wave at the conclusion, it's all the more powerful.

I take your point about showing support, and maybe with a less experienced poet it could be a really nice thing to do. It doesn't seem like Sierra is by any stretch of the imagination inexperienced, though, so I suppose - perhaps selfishly - I would have liked to have been able to listen to her piece with a slightly sharper noise to signal ratio. But anyway, it was great to hear and watch the poem.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:05 PM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


are people still mad at slam poetry?

Yup. Without question. It's like the pop music of poetry. A short shelf life and mostly crap, with the rare exception of something great. Still, the great and the bad are equally temporary.
posted by ReeMonster at 6:07 PM on March 9, 2012


True. Poets who read. Their work aloud. Should only. Use that. Cadence. That they all tend. To use. Otherwise, who needs. It?
posted by rtha at 6:16 PM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem that I have with performance poetry, at least what I've seen (which admittedly isn't a lot) is that even when the poetry is good, the performance is bad, or at least, pretty similar to everyone else.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:16 PM on March 9, 2012


are people still mad at slam poetry?

Maybe a better start to the thread would be, "How do people react to this slam poetry?" It's not like we all need extra incentive to just talk about our existing opinions rather than anything inspired by the link.
posted by Jpfed at 6:26 PM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe a better start to the thread would be, "How do people react to this slam poetry?"

That's the thing -- for those of us who've seen a lot of bad/unsuccessful examples (self-indulgent, or therapy-thinly-veiled-as-art), we're hopelessly predisposed. I've gotten sick eating black licorice before, so even if you have the very best black licorice in the world, I'm still not going to want it.
posted by mochapickle at 6:32 PM on March 9, 2012


It's like the pop music of poetry. A short shelf life and mostly crap, with the rare exception of something great.

That's neither fair to pop music nor slam poetry. I suppose there are people who think some genres of creativity are inherently degraded. I would invite them to try to see beyond their glib dismissal.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:38 PM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't think "add to favorites" ... is.. correct.
posted by odinsdream at 6:46 PM on March 9, 2012


For folks who don't like having to listen to performances of poems, Sierra's work is also available in the old-school codex format.

A brief history lesson: the audience's vocal feedback at poetry slam events was originally a way to empower audiences to offer feedback (good and bad) to poets. I don't know if anyone's ever been to the other kind of poetry reading, where the audience is made to sit through self-indulgent, pretentious, eye-roll-inducing poem after poem, but it can be tedious. When Marc Smith started the poetry slam in Chicago in the 80s, he encouraged his audiences to prove both positive and negative feedback. The original slam show still happens (and is actually the longest-running weekly show in Chicago - 27 years) and Smith still hosts, and still encourages the same audience feedback.

This included snapping to disapprove of poems, and also stomping one's feet or audibly groaning for superlative disapproval. One may hiss if one finds the poem's content sexist. And one may heckle the poet. But one is also encouraged to applaud vigorously if the poem is good.

When the slam made its way to New York, it encountered NYC's own already-growing performance poetry sense, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where the negative audience feedback was eventually dropped, because it didn't fit in with the existing scene's culture. Smith maintains that the negative feedback is actually what makes slams entertaining for audiences, and also what pushes the poets to become better performers of their own work.

And, yes slam is, in a way, it's own art form - there are things one can accomplish on stage that one cannot on a page - but that needn't mean that the writing is bad because the performance is good.

Of course there is a lot of bad slam poetry - but then there is a lot of bad poetry in general. And of course, a lot of the less complex, and more accessible work is favored by slam audiences, especially at the national events. That's because slams do something most other poetry shows never do - they regularly bring in non-poets to hear poetry. The result, though, is that at national events, a lot of the participants are first-time listeners, and have the tastes of first-time listeners -- more accessible stuff is, well, easier to access for a new listener. But the same thing happens in more academic settings - Jewel's book of poetry from 15 years ago is one of the best-selling poetry books of the last quarter-century. Last year Billy Collins sold ten times the number of books that Wendell Berry did (and that wasn't much - I bet Jewel's old book outsold Collins's new one last year.)

The point being that the slam has produced some very interesting writers, many of whom have gone on to write fantastic books. (Jeffrey McDaniel, Craig Arnold, Patricia Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Roger Bonair-Agard all come to mind).

And academia has produced some terrible performers. Ever heard Robert Bly or Franz Wright read their own work? It's excruciating to sit through, and the thing is, whether or not academia wants to admit it, as soon as you step to a microphone, you are performing. While I certainly don't expect every poet to be as gifted a performer as Sierra, recognizing that one's reading of one's own work is always a performance goes a long way to helping a writer accept the reading as an act of performance with its own craft and conventions that are not difficult to learn.
For example - the fantastic Heather Christle is a fabulous reader of her own poems - she's obviously not a performance poet, but she understands timing, how to properly read a poem aloud, how to use a microphone, etc. She's still awkward, but she's smart enough to have figured out how to work the awkward into her "act" so that the result is something charming rather than torturous.

Or check out this video of William Stafford working his Mr Rogers-like personality into an excellent, humorous reading of one of his poems.

I'm ending with this poem by Robbie Q Telfer, because it seems relevant.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:15 PM on March 9, 2012 [10 favorites]


Connecting this...

I come from the UK performance poetry scene

With this...

True. Poets who read. Their work aloud. Should only. Use that. Cadence. That they all tend. To use. Otherwise, who needs. It?

Is this (17 second) poem I wrote in tribute to the performance style of Roger McGough and the question of going through life with the cadence of a performance poet.
posted by howfar at 8:17 PM on March 9, 2012


Please just shoot me if you ever find me at a poetry reading listening to a "slam poet" seamlessly weaving complex issues of identity and gender.

Sorry, I just can't take that shit. The declamatory way of speaking, that every slam poet seems to use, just makes me want to drive ice picks into my ears.
posted by jayder at 8:22 PM on March 9, 2012


He declaimed.
posted by howfar at 8:39 PM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


A short shelf life and mostly crap, with the rare exception of something great.

Welcome to motherfucking every last corner of human endeavor.

OK. Slam is by nature participatory. I was at a slam in New Orleans in 2003, and the only white face in the crowd. A woman in her late teens gets up and does a love poem with the refrain, "I am a slave for you." The place erupts... feedback, intense and instant, supportive and negative at the same time. They hear her through, though, and then decide she did not think about this as deeply as she should have.

The second best date I ever went on was the Providence Slam Nationals, where Iyeoka Okoawo declared, "I am BEAUTIFUL!" and a woman who never realized she was woke up next to me, in her chair, in that auditorium, and spent the rest of the night weeping in my arms.

The best performers live and thrive with the audience. In Providence, it's a "SSSS!" for agreement, and a romp-stomp-stomp for an excellent turn of phrase and a "You got it, you own this, pick it up, pick it up, go!" if a poet looses track in the middle.

In Boston, at the Lizard Lounge, there is an improv jazz trio there to pick you up and carry you.

Slam is and isn't poetry, the same way lyrics are and aren't. Slam is its own artform with its own conventions and restrictions... it's a lot like Haiku in that respect. It can surprise and shock you, like Taylor Mali's "What Teachers Make..."

No, sorry, I can't follow that with anything and be fair.

Slam is transformative and experiential and ours.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:41 PM on March 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


The declamatory way of speaking, that every slam poet seems to use, just makes me want to drive ice picks into my ears.

I know. Pretty much any specific style that is associated to a performance genre drives me crazy. When singers sing? Shakespearean actors speaking with English accents?

Fuck. Ice pick time.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:27 PM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't know anything about slam poetry. At all. Until coming into this thread I had no idea that there are gender issues in it, or predominating in it, I didn't know about hissing or clicking of fingers, I didn't know most of anything that I've read about in this post. Given that it was/is called slam poetry, I figured it was raucous and/or festive, dependent upon the reception -- good or bad -- of whatever poem.

Fortunately, I watched/listened to the vid before I read what I did in this thread, and I heard and saw what the video was, and not any preconceived notion that I'd maybe have carried with me while watching. Having spent considerable time recently re-reading in that massive, eye-opening (to me), heartbreaking, infuriating "Hi, whatcha readin'?" post, the topic of her poem is right up in my face, it resonated with what's rolling around in my heart, rolling around in my head.

So all of this is all up in my face and I listened to her poem, a couple of times now, heard her read and watched her move through it, express it as she told it. I admire her, and I like her poem. I like the strength and determination that's blazing out of her, for herself but also giving to all women, too, seems she's got enough fire to give away for all of her lifetime and still have a large reservoir. And in fact I know that this is the sort of thing that the more you give it away, the more you are given, a gold mine that keeps producing so long as you keep giving it away, but as you give it away you get to have it, some of it is in your hands as it comes through them.

RokkitNite: ""There's a massive difference between rapt attention and a dead room. And then, when the cheering and applause rushes up like a wave at the conclusion, it's all the more powerful.

... I would have liked to have been able to listen to her piece with a slightly sharper noise to signal ratio. But anyway, it was great to hear and watch the poem
"

I'd rather have heard her read without any hooting and hollering. I like many different kinds of music, some loud and in loud places and some quieter, and performed in listening rooms. One of the very good things about Austin is that there are a few places where you (I) can go and people are not chattering away about their boss said this or their brother said that or texting someone about the performance while it's happening or whatever, it's quiet but as RokkitNite noted, silence can be attention. In fact, I think that silence is actually way, way more respectful to the person and the song/poem, the people in the audience are shutting up and giving the performer room. Rapt is the right word, for sure, and it can be felt, or it can damn sure be felt by me anyways.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:30 PM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's the thing -- for those of us who've seen a lot of bad/unsuccessful examples (self-indulgent, or therapy-thinly-veiled-as-art), we're hopelessly predisposed. I've gotten sick eating black licorice before, so even if you have the very best black licorice in the world, I'm still not going to want it.

So... Really maybe not the thread for you, then? Thank goodness there are so many others ti choose from.
posted by hermitosis at 10:53 PM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


And of course, a lot of the less complex, and more accessible work is favored by slam audiences, especially at the national events. That's because slams do something most other poetry shows never do - they regularly bring in non-poets to hear poetry.

In my experience, this is especially true at the national events, but maybe not for the reasons one would think. Nearly everyone at the National Poetry Slam is associated somehow with one or more of the people onstage. So sometimes the only people left as eligible judges are... weirdos. Tourists who thought they were going to something else, bored bartenders, high-school-age volunteers etc. (Particularly at the lower-level bouts. When you get to the semifinals and finals, those generally take place in bigger clubs and are advertised in the local media.) It's really interesting to see how poets try to figure out how to please the "East German judge."

Slam is and isn't poetry, the same way lyrics are and aren't. Slam is its own artform with its own conventions and restrictions... it's a lot like Haiku in that respect.

I take issue with the idea that slam is a genre at all. It's a venue, and it's a venue that works better with some kinds of writing than others, but it's not a genre. And when you look around it who's known in slam scenes nowadays, its folks who aren't necessarily writing exclusively - or even primarily - for slam. I think you're going to start seeing a lot more poetry and schtick variety shows, a la The Encyclopedia Show or Derrick Brown's "Revivals." And that's nice to see; it's people with slam backgrounds taking convention into their own hands in a really exciting way.

And nothing against Marc Smith, but what you're really seeing is a scene reaching past the Green Mill and discovering something more like its real roots in the new poetries of the 60s and 70s.

And academia has produced some terrible performers. Ever heard Robert Bly or Franz Wright read their own work? It's excruciating to sit through, and the thing is, whether or not academia wants to admit it, as soon as you step to a microphone, you are performing.

But you know that your references are a little rusty. The academic poets (that's a problematic term, of course, but that's a discussion for another day) who are making waves and doing interesting work nowadays are fantastic performers, many of them. And the way they tour around and sleep on couches and bounce from program to program make them spiritual heirs of the slam poets of the 90s and 2000s in a way that some of the slam poets of the 2010s haven't yet figured out or accepted.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:54 PM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


In my experience, this is especially true at the national events, but maybe not for the reasons one would think. Nearly everyone at the National Poetry Slam is associated somehow with one or more of the people onstage. So sometimes the only people left as eligible judges are... weirdos.

Ah, that's an interesting point.

I think you're going to start seeing a lot more poetry and schtick variety shows, a la The Encyclopedia Show or Derrick Brown's "Revivals."

Agreed, though I think the "variety show" approach isn't limited to poetry -- Chicago has spawned several, of varying genres - The Encyclopedia Show, Write Club, The Paper Machete, the Interview Show. But, yes, I think you're right, and I don't think Marc Smith would disapprove at all - dude knows slam has maybe reached its own limits in a lot of ways, and he actually mentored Robbie Q when Robb was starting up The Encyclopedia Show (disclosure: when I lived in Chicago I both appeared in and was the lights/video projectionist guy for the Encyclopedia Show).

But you know that your references are a little rusty.

I just saw both men (Wright and Bly) read last year, which is why they came to mind. I could name younger poets if you like. Example: I love Major Jackson's poems, but his reading style frustrates me.

that's a problematic term, of course
I take issue with the idea that slam is a genre at all.

Agreed - I don't like the "divide" between slam and non-slam poetry, to be honest. To me, there's just poetry, and some of the poets are more skilled at performing their own work than others. But we need nouns to make sentences. If you've got better ones than the ones I used, I'm totally down to switch up my terminology.
And yeah, slam isn't a genre -- it's a game. It's a gimmick whose original goal was to parody the closed doors are arbitrariness of the literary publishing world at the time as well as force poets to consider their audiences -- not the imagined audiences in their heads, but the living, breathing people in the room with them. It's kind of become a parody of itself in many ways, but yeah, it's not a genre.

The academic poets who are making waves and doing interesting work nowadays are fantastic performers, many of them.

Who? Who? I linked to Heather Christle, because her performance blew me away when i saw hear read a while back. I think Matthea Harvey, Patrick Rosal, Ross Gay all do well on the stage. But who else?
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:08 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I disagree with you all. She was powerful and convincing. She swayed me both with her rhyme and argument. I will be passing this clip on to people that will appreciate it greatly.
posted by unliteral at 5:07 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pretty much any specific style that is associated to a performance genre drives me crazy. When singers sing? Shakespearean actors speaking with English accents?

Not really an accurate comparison. More like if every singer sang like Eddie Vedder, and every actor had the cadence of Christopher Walken or William Shatner.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:13 AM on March 10, 2012


The only 'slammy' thing I didn't like was that idiot clicking to show their approval. Show your approval by listening, you moron.

Snaps are an expression of support - usually saying, depending on the context, "So true," "Holy shit you just blew my mind," or "It's alright, breathe, you got this." Seasoned slam poets are totally accustomed to getting reactions from the audience, including snaps.

Calling the snapper a moron is kind of like me going to see a symphony orchestra and deriding "the lazy fuckers in the audience for not hooting and hollering."

Or, yeah, maybe people in different subcultures than you are just objectively stupid. Good call.

It's like the pop music of poetry. A short shelf life and mostly crap, with the rare exception of something great.

Have you read, y'know, books lately? Poetry is the pop music of poetry. Your second sentence could describe written work just as easily.

Poetry is really hard to do well, whether you're doing it for an audience or on the page. It takes years of practice and a real commitment to craft - something most poets in either medium just don't have. Performance poets who do have it also have the misfortune - and courage - to practice almost exclusively in public. They are their rough drafts, audiences are their rejection letters. True, it's a little more presumptuous than plying one's typo-ridden pseudo-ghazals through some pretentious fuck's vanity press, but... shit, no one's forcing you to watch a slam. Sorry that people trying (and not always succeeding) to create a real immediate shared experience among strangers offends you so much.
posted by Mike Smith at 9:25 AM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here is something I did a while ago aka "Related"...

http://www.metafilter.com/96644/He-made-himself-a-Daddy


ProTip, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eYH0AFx6yI - this is good.
posted by Cogentesque at 12:51 PM on March 10, 2012


Sierra DeMulder read at my college a couple years back. She's by far the best slam poet I've seen live. She's also a really sweet, funny, adorable person. She kept warning us how dark her poems would get, and asking us to bear with her because there'd be a payoff. The last poem she read was a work in progress about fucking after the apocalypse. It was great.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2012


That youtube was not especially horrible but slam poetry is an art which works very poorly on youtube. You have to emote and project into far dark corners off that stage and if you are sitting in the front row with all that depth behind you it's fine, but with a camera pointed only at the performer and there isn't anything behind the viewer almost any slam poet is going to come across like a screaming banshee, not a spoken word artist regardless of the quality of their performance.

Somebody posted a video of James Earl Jones on stage in Fences a couple months ago and it was a similar deal.
posted by bukvich at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Phew, the Robbie Q. Telfer piece is fantastic.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:14 PM on March 10, 2012


Most of the comments in this thread seem to be about slam poetry as a genre and not about the poet herself or her piece, so I'll say this. "Paper Dolls" scored a line in the hard casing I built up around a burrowed-away ball of pain and shame and dirt, pulled something out of that shell and held it up to the light, lovingly polished it clean, and placed it somewhere in my happiness instead, making that little tumor sullenly brooding away at the back of my mind a little smaller.

For that, Sierra DeMulder (and lazaruslong), I thank you.
posted by Devika at 11:03 PM on March 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


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