Department of English

The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2009)

Tue, June 2, 2009

A groundbreaking book spanning the fields of poetry, African American studies, popular culture, and performance, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry considers the formal and social functions of poetry slams, the raucous performance poetry competitions sweeping the nation. Focusing on slam poets’ performance of identities and how public audiences receive them, Somers-Willett situates slam poetry within a history of popular verse in performance from blackface minstrelsy to Def Poetry, revealing a race-based dynamic of authenticity that lies at the heart of American popular culture. Rather than being reflections of culture, she argues, poetry slams are culture; they are places where identities and political values are publicly re-figured between poets and audiences through lyrical performance.

A veteran of the National Poetry Slam scene for over a decade, Somers-Willett also discusses the emerging popularity of spoken word poetry, exploring the commercial ties between popular verse, mainstream media, and hip-hop music—and their entanglements with the exploitation of black urban culture. Written in a voice that is both intellectual and accessible, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry is the first book of criticism dedicated to examining a body of verse that has demanded serious scholarly attention for several years.

Praise for The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry

“Finally, a clear, accurate, and thoroughly researched examination of slam poetry, a movement begun in 1984 by a mixed bag of nobody poets in Chicago. At conception, slam poetry espoused universal humanistic ideals and a broad spectrum of participants, and especially welcome is the book’s analysis of how commercial marketing forces succeeded in narrowing public perception of slam to the factionalized politics of race and identity. The author's knowledge of American slam at the national level is solid and more authentic than many of the slammers who claim to be.”

—Marc Kelly Smith, founder/creator of the International Poetry Slam movement

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