The Constellation of Movement: Matt Mason and the Art of Slam Poetry
By Jeremy Caldwell
Typically written in first person narration, slam poetry incorporates a wide range of rhetorical strategies. The tone is often passionate and protestive, frequently political, and often confessional in nature. Literary devices include repetition, singing, call/response loops, and rhyme. Slam poetry’s popularity has been steadily increasing since the 1980s, not just in urban centers like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, but in smaller suburban and rural areas as well. Some of these places host competitive poetry readings, like in Fargo, ND and Iowa City, IA. Venues are just as varied, ranging from bars to coffeehouses to universities. The element that sets slam poetry apart from the wider spoken word tradition is its competitive nature. Performances are usually judged by selected members of the audience, or a panel of judges, which scores any given poem based on both text and performance. Thus, the stakes appear higher than open mics, readings, or traditional spoken word. Much like debate or forensic meets, there are winners and losers, awards and trophies that help professionalize the competitive format.
To perform slam poetry is to perform one’s identity. It is, in the words of Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, to “directly proclaim [the] performer’s self” in a very public way, which judges use as one criterion to evaluate “realness” or “authenticity”; the slam poet’s performance is also rewarded by the audience based on that performance of identity. Thus, to be perceived as “authentic” is to reveal some truth about the performer’s/speaker’s subjective experience which reveals that self. This variety of performance reflects Judith Butler’s conception of a performative act, where performativity seeks to conceal the very norm it repeats. The expression of identity thus makes identity both novel and authoritative.
As executive director of the Nebraska Writer’s Collective – a program focused on sponsoring the local slam scene throughout Nebraska – Matt Mason creates poetry that brings this tradition into the Great Plains nexus. On the surface, slam poetry seems to defy the logic of place-conscious writing. The identity politics typically associated with slam poetry often involves broad sociocultural issues or human rights issues like sexuality, racism, and trauma, coming mostly from marginalized voices. Performance poetry, then, doesn’t offer a very straightforward regionalist perspective, or one that can be readily defined when trying to “place” a particular poet in a region. However, every poet has idiosyncratic tendencies—a personal social milieu that both describes and inscribes the world around them. For Matt Mason, this cultural context plays itself out in the movement of everyday life in Nebraska and the Great Plains at large. Mason’s poetry offers an instance of identity performativity, as the expression of one deeply invested in the region’s delicate balance between the perceived stereotype of being “drive thru/fly over,” and one that is both central to him and the country.
Driving often becomes the “vehicle,” both literally and figuratively, for engaging the world and making connections—a sort of twenty-first century version of Thoreau’s walking. In Mason’s aptly named poem “Connections,” the road itself becomes the vehicle through which to engage the world:
The highway passes through town after town after dark,
populations under each name announcing numbers
like 146, 217, 91, a mush of snow disappearing
Small population numbers are very familiar for those growing up or traveling throughout the Great Plains. The poem continues, blending speaker and the movement of travel, as headlights float past, the FM radio continuously rolling, same as the trains. These elements of landscape continue as the speaker prepares to teach poetry to high school students, “connecting worlds” from the elements of their lives.
Driving parallels the flow and rhythm to that of performance poetry. The performance is the instrument for the message, and many of Mason’s poems embody unique cadences and sonic features to record moving through one’s landscape, often highlighted by catalogs of things one experiences on a road trip.
In “The Thin Line of What I Know,” the mile-markers, which we are told are “familiar,” whiz by on the speaker’s way to Des Moines: “Number 31, and Six-Eighty becomes I-Eighty; / 66, I’m halfway to Des Moines; 88.” Later, the speaker lists the road signs of towns he is passing through, eventually coming upon the “East or West Nishnabotna Rivers.” These are two parallel streams that are tributaries of the Missouri River, where a pond sits, “drowning elms like bony arms / clinging onto the sky.” Although we are assured by the speaker that he never goes past this point, it is the driving that has gotten him there, traveling among these lists of landscapes and the people that inhabit them.
As Edward Hirsch has noted in his Poet’s Glossary, a catalog or list poem can become a sort of praise poem, instilling in the reader a sense of wonder while praising both the diversity and the unity of the universe. By way of this sense of wonderment, the “thin line of what I know” – which is the interstate itself – becomes an observational dérive, or “drift” of a spontaneous journey where travellers leave their lives behind for a time to let the spirit of the landscape and architecture attract and move them. By the end of the poem the speaker has become master of the terrain, knowing “every mile ticking by, I know, can drive by sense of touch.” The trees, road signs, John Deeres, and corn become a catalog one can get to know—like the back of one’s hand—while driving.
Movement is also personified in terms of forces of nature in Mason’s poems. Those poems are peppered with the unique lexicon of Great Plains weather. Words like “thunderclap,” “tornadoes,” “snow,” “ice,” and “wind” make regular appearances where nothing stays still, nothing remains static. In “Notes For My Daughter Against Chasing Storms,” where storms become a stand-in for teenage boys, meteorological terminology runs throughout the poem in words like “showers,” “cloud-free,” and “hail.” The metaphor, however, is meant to warn us that storms are dangerous and that, therefore, so are teenage boys. This “tornado” of a teenage boy “swings through,” but also rips, flattens, sticks, stacks, and tears everything around him without much cause. Both are “amoral force[s] of nature.” Tornadoes destroy crops, hail damages houses and cars, and wind whips with the sting and precision of a hive of hornets. All these elemental forces often seem beyond our explanatory power, but nonetheless we must be ready… we must prepare. The speaker in the poem states, “you listen to my forecast,” as if parent and weatherman/woman merge, but just like the weather there is only so much one can do—only so much one can “forecast.” In the end, both teenage boy and storms are forces of nature, unstoppable and beyond comprehension. All one can do is run for the basement.
Through the use of movement, as described by driving and the forces of nature, Mason weaves a delicate fabric that metaphorically melds the rapid catalog of driving and Great Plains weather with that of the rolling rhythm and flow of performance poetry. Craft and execution are just as important as the message, and readers get the “sense of movement” whether they are listening to him perform his poems live, or whether they read them privately, performing them in their private readerly imaginations.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York, Routledge, 1993.
Hirsch, Edward. The Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.
Somers-Willett, Susan. “Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 38, no. 1, Spring 2005, pp. 51-73.