The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett’s

Somers-Willett, Susan B.A. Performance of Popular Verse in America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. 191 pages. $22.95 paper.

In The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett analyzes poetry slams as “places where the possibilities of identities are explored” (9). Based on participant-observer methodology, the book critically examines the relationship between slam poets and their audience, focusing specifically on African American poets and the ways in which their performance of marginalized identity furthers our understanding of broader questions of race, identity, and authenticity in the United States. Somers-Willet focuses her study upon poetry slams – specifically, three round poetry competitions where poets are judged by five sets of randomly selected judges – because they highlight the relationship between the audience and the performer. In analyzing the concept of authenticity, Somers-Willett situates slam poetry as the contemporary end of a historical trajectory that begins with minstrelsy, the Beats and the Black Arts Movement. She argues that slamming, or the practice of participating in poetry slams, enables the performance of a positive and “authentic” African American male voice that seeks to contradict the commercial African American male voice rooted in a hip-hop aesthetic.

Somers-Willett utilizes the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and philosopher Judith Butler to frame her analysis of the constructed nature of identity. Juxtaposing Goffman’s focus on quotidian performance alongside Butler’s discussion of “the intricate ways in which identity is constructed through one’s citation of normative behavior” (75), Somers-Willett argues that poetry slams “prove to be sites of negotiation between poet and audiences where the performance of identity is judged for its success or failure (its authenticity or inauthenticity) in the world” (76). This problematic assessment of success or failure is relevant with respect to African American male poets in that they then serve as stand-ins for the non-commercialized “authentic” voice of the African American male experience.

Extending her examination of the performative potential of slam poetry, Somers-Willett relates J.L. Austin’s speech act theory to the work of poets Roger Bonair-Agard and Saul Williams, arguing that these artists’ work challenges the stereotypical representations of self as presented in mainstream hip-hop. In addition, Somers-Willett analyzes shows such as Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam and Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and traces the troubling ways in which these operate as vehicles for staged versions of identity disseminated for a form of mass consumption that is rooted in the presentation of a doubly constructed self.

While an obviously well researched and written text, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry focuses overwhelmingly on male performances within the hip-hop aesthetic and fails to examine the ways in which African American women perform their identity within slam poetry. Although she mentions artists such as Jamaican national Stacy Ann Chin, Somers-Willett fails to include artists such as Celena Glenn aka Black Cracker whose work troubles not only the politics of authenticity, but also those of gender, sexuality and class. Despite its overwhelming focus on male poets, the book still proves useful for understanding the genre of slam poetry as an artistic practice that extends beyond the cliché of gesticulating limbs, cadenced speech, and uncritical performative affect. In addition, a component of the text that I found particularly useful is the appendix taken from “The Official Rules of National Poetry Slam Competition,” which helps readers to understand some of the terminology used throughout the book and the rules of poetry slams in general. Furthermore, while framing her discourse within the work of scholars such as Goffman, Butler, and Austin, Somers-Willett manages to open up an important discussion on both the way in which identity is performed by minoritarian subjects on stage, and how these performances of self are subsequently received by audiences. In this way, the book represents a significant contribution to work on the politics of reception and performance.

Karen Jaime is a New York based spoken word/performance artist, cultural activist and writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University and her Master of Arts in Performance Studies from New York University. She is a 2003 recipient of a Rockefeller Humanities Research Fellowship and served as the host of the Friday Night Slam at the world-renowned Nuyorican Poets Café from 2002-2005. Karen is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University.