Slam Poetry Sweeping Across Nebraska
By Phillip Howells
This website serves to document and give testament to the tradition of poetry within the state of Nebraska throughout its history. Therefore, it is vital to point out the rising influence of poetry slams in the state. In some ways, the movement of slam poetry today seems like a stylistic shift in poetry in general, or at least a shift in popular style. However, slam poetry was never really a style of poetry, but rather a kind of performance event. A poetry slam is an opportunity for poets to come together and to celebrate the works they have been creating by reading them live. Such an interactive space may only exist for a period of time, but when artists come together to share their art, they form a community. In Nebraska, the largest community of slam poets consists of young people mainly because of the Louder than a Bomb: Great Plains organization (LTAB). Funded by the Nebraska Writers Collective and directed by Matt Mason and Stacey Waite, LTAB has become an annual slam festival that involves thousands of students from dozens of schools all across the state. By creating a forum for students to practice their writing and performing, LTAB and other recurring poetry slams like it create a foundation for the creative arts. When kids are allowed to experience what it feels like to move people with and be moved by poetry, they recognize the power in words and they are driven by the energy it gives them.
Slam poetry first gained popularity in the 1980s due to the rising notoriety of performance poetry. Open mike poetry nights were held in cities, essentially performing the functions of salons in early ages where poets would form connections and share their ideas and artistic stylings. However, the introduction of poetry “slams” served to remove of some of the academic undertones to the practice of poetry as well as adding a competitive element for fun and as an incentive to do well. The goal of participation in a poetry slam is to “slam” the audience with your performance, to elicit deep feelings. Poets try to outscore one another by trying to move a panel of judges more than anyone else. And considering that the judges are most often other poets, a poetry slam is a constructive event guided by this unofficial mantra: “The points are not the point, the point is poetry.”
Slam poetry was introduced to Nebraska in the late 90s. A slam was held in 1999 at Wayne State College and has been held every semester since then. The event style quickly caught on and other slams began popping up in Omaha, Lincoln, and Kearney. Today there are several slam communities that still meet regularly, including the Omaha Poetry Slam, the UNL Slam Poets, and the Louder Than A Bomb: Great Plains youth poetry program. Some slam communities, like LTAB, are directly connected to school programs, but others are open to the public. For help finding out about slams being held in the future, look to the Poetry Menu, a web tool created by Matt Mason to facilitate more interaction between Nebraskan poets.
Because of the decidedly interactive nature of the events, a poetry slam often feels like an exhibition or an extremely supportive reading. Instead of seeing one person win a competition, most attendees are more interested in listening to original poetry. Rather than cheering for a favorite poet or team, the audience is actively encouraged to show their appreciation for every poet who performs. If a poet makes a mistake or shows some sign of discomfort, the audience usually encourages by snapping, a quieter show of approval than applause, or cheering them on. No one wants a performer to be humiliated because anyone could find themselves in a similar tough spot on the stage. By democratizing a space for performance, a poetry slam allows writers the opportunity to see tangible proof that their work can affect people.
Poetry slams in Nebraska are places where poets can express themselves and get supportive feedback. This form of artistic community keeps the art of poetry alive. By giving students an opportunity to stand in front of a crowd and speak their hearts with intention, a community of young creative people can become a cultural movement. Performance and competition encourage writers to pursue originality and discipline, but they also provide an opportunity for an artist to interact with an audience. Any interactive performance requires the performer to develop an ability to read a room, but the solitary sensation of reciting spoken word poetry is especially intimate. A reader with a spoken word poem needs to be aware of how the sound of the words will hit the listener as well as their meanings. For a writer to read a poem out loud is to embody the idea of the poem; add a dash of adrenaline and a room full of enrapt faces, and the idea of the poem expands to fill that space.
The poetry community in Nebraska knew the draw of poetry slams to poets in training, and that is why the Nebraska Writers Collective took efforts to bring LTAB to the Midwest. As executive director of the Collective, Matt Mason has made it his job to provide opportunities for other poets in his state. Matt is known to say that “poetry is a gateway drug to harder and harder forms of literature,” and he facilitates that slippery slope by hosting many poetry events including a number of LTAB meets. By procuring funding for these events, Mason and his colleagues provide students with opportunity to socialize and practice a skill. However, by being present and energetic at the events, Mason shows the students that poetry can be an end in itself. Seeing the state poet at a high school poetry event can help young writers to see that a career in the arts is possible. Stacey Waite, who helps direct LTAB as the NWC Lincoln City Coordinator, also gets to see how the program affects students after they graduate. As an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she coaches the UNL slam poets team. According to Stacey, about four out of five of her team members came through the LTAB program because it gives students a reason to contemplate a college career even if they had not done so before.
Louder Than a Bomb was established in 2001 by the Young Chicago Authors group, and it has since spawned the Louder Than a Bomb: Great Plains chapter. The goal of the organization has always been “to bring teens together across racial, gang, and socio-economic lines, LTAB is a friendly competition that emphasizes self-expression and community via poetry, oral story-telling, and hip-hop spoken word.” In 2011, the Nebraska Writers Collective brought LTAB to the Great Plains for a trial year. 12 Nebraska schools formed teams and participated in the tournament. With pointed dedication and much fund-raising, the Nebraska Writers Collective has grown that small start from 12 schools to 42, including many towns in the western half of the state like Ogallala, North Platte, and Scottsbluff. Now, students from all over Nebraska are able to participate in this state-wide celebration of young creativity. The program affects the lives of thousands of students in Nebraska and Iowa by giving them a creative outlet that can allow them to explore their thoughts and emotions through art and community.
At an LTAB event, one can expect to hear high school and even middle school students speak on themes such as sexism, racism, mental illness, gun violence, or any number of political issues on their minds. The slams give them a tangible forum through which they can filter their curiosities and insecurities and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Students may write a dark poem to vent about a social reality that frightens them, or they might write a comedic narrative about a lost pet; either approach requires the writer to practice crafting narratives. And regardless of the form, the content is always met with respect and support. From the perspective of a young writer, struggling with self-confidence and anxiety, such a supportive community can be foundational.
Anyone who thinks of poetry as a worthwhile endeavor should appreciate the impact of LTAB and the other grass-roots poetry slams in Nebraska that draw the attention of the youth. By enabling students to not only learn but to create their own poetry and also getting them excited to do so with their friends and peers, these organizations have helped to shape the future of Nebraskan literature. Slams provide a physical and emotional space for the practice of poetry with low risk and high reward. They also represent an incentive for poets and their poetry to stay here in Nebraska. Job opportunities come along with the funding from groups like NWC allowing nonworking poets to procure an income while still participating in the growth of poetry in this state.
Popular styles will always change with the times, and it is true that slam poetry gained its recognition during drastic cultural shifts during the turn of the century. However, just like Hip-Hop didn’t “ruin music” but instead innovated the entire music industry, poetry slams can only nurture the presence of poetry within the state of Nebraska. After all, “the points are not the point, the point is poetry.”
College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational – https://www.acui.org/poetryslam
Louder Than a Bomb: Great Plains – http://www.ltabgreatplains.org/about
The Nebraska Writers Collective – http://newriters.org/
Powerpoetry – https://www.powerpoetry.org/actions/what-slam-poem
The Poetry Menu – https://poetrymenu.com/
Young Chicago Authors – https://youngchicagoauthors.org/louder-than-a-bomb