Written by Clifton Gachagua
The session was moderated by Njeri Wangari of ‘Mines and Mind Fields’. The discussion focused on the meanings of slam poetry, spoken word and poetry in general. Njeri asked whether slam poetry is necessary at all, and what competitions do to the psyche of the poets who don’t win. Beth Lisick started writing poetry by reading it out to people in bars and cafes in San Francisco just when the slam movement was beginning in the 90s. She said that performance was a great way to meet other writers and hear voices from across America. Slam poets are restricted to three minutes on stage so they end up with perfectly honed poems like pop songs. There are great poets who slam and are fine if they loose. Marc Smith, the man who started slam poetry in Chicago, said the point is the poetry not the poet.
Yusef’s thought on written versus spoken poetry; he took a class from Indiana University and the young poets there came back to class with the question ‘why doesn’t the best poem win?’ Yusef said “Perhaps it takes us back to the oral tradition where poetry comes from, but I do think that the poem has to live on the page as well, it has to deal with that silence. And in living on the page the poem beckons, it invites the reader to experience the poem in a different way. The reader is also co-creator of meaning; the poem isn’t an ad for an emotion but the poem can live in different ways again and again, and there is a kind of passion and trust in language. The image is also important. I don’t think the image is as important in slam poetry as statement. The statement can evaporate with time. The image is rather subversive, and that way, perhaps, the poem that lives on the page may be more political; we are talking about time and endurance.”
Wamathai who runs Wamathai.com, an online platform for poets, started blogging by accident. He had been writing for a long time when facebook came and he decided to share a short story. He got overwhelming response and shared more poetry and stories until facebook became a limiting platform. He decided to open his own site. “The internet is amazing,” he said. “You can be unpublished offline but published online.” People from all over the world can come to your blog or website and read your work. He gets 500,000 hits per month.
Tony Mochama shared different thoughts on publishing. There are still unsold copies his first book of poetry while there are no copies of his second book of fiction ‘The Road To Eldoret’. People approach poetry as if it is an easy thing, he said. “I always feel so fiercely defensive of poetry because I feel like it is that beautiful lastborn child, the one you feel protective about, as opposed to the big bully novel.” Mochama said. He admits that there are many charlatans in the Kenyan open mic scene, people who go there to pour out their souls and get laid.
Ngwatilo Mawiyoo of ‘Blue Mothertongue’ said that the open mic space prefers a certain kind of performance, which is limiting when you want to experiment with different forms. She started her own projects.
Samo Bryton also insisted on it being about the poem rather than the poet. The numerous blogs, open mic sessions in the city offer spaces to be competitive which takes the attention to the poet rather than the poem. So the question is, are you really growing as a poet? “Poetry has to be interactive. Like when Beth Lisick performed with a band behind her,” Samo added.
The session was punctuated with amazing performances from all the poets and it was amazing to see how their diverse cultures and experiences all spoke with the same intended and unintended meanings.