Slam Jam Poe

Long night tonight, in my job as college teacher.  I run a film course on Wednesday evenings and tonight we discussed expressionism in the film Metropolis.   I ended the night by screening the gloriously weird b/w avant garde adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, 1928). 

Right after that, I ran across campus to catch a portion of a slam poetry event in the student union building, where nationally acclaimed slam poet Travis Watkins was delivering an exciting reading.  I think I was most impressed with his rendintion of “My Fear is 4 U”, which urges the audience to “rebuke the n-word” in a powerful and emotional way.  Wonderful.

It is very strange stepping out of an avant garde silent film and into a lively slam poetry event.  But I live for such “collisions” of culture. 

“Usher” is high art, fru-fru to the max, but elegant in its aspirations and form.  It is an ingeniously and meticulously crafted series of images, designed to inspire wonder and generate unease. 

“My Fear is 4 U” is more “folk art” than “high art” to some degree, but it is no less artful, and it is just as meticulously crafted.  Tonight, as Travis read so well, I was reminded just how much work and craft goes into slam poetry and I’ve been contemplating what it is, exactly, that makes spoken word poems “poems.”  While I’ve never felt that slam poetry “reads well” on the printed page, when a poet recites it aloud it really comes alive in a way that is far more powerful.  The slam poet memorizes much and delivers with emotional conviction each and every word; in printed poetry the words themselves are left naked and alone to do all their work.  Slam poets are all about message, avoiding the ambiguities of literary forms, driving home their theme, whereas printed poetry often revels in its ambivalence.

Printed poetry and spoken word are very different animals, but both are differently good.  And as Travis Watkins reminded me, a good poet can provide a bridge between such differences, and in the process cross racial/cultural boundaries, too.

So I was wondering:  How would “House of Usher” sound if a slam poet were reading it?  How much different would “The Raven” be if delivered at a spoken word performance? What would Poe wear, let alone recite, if he appeared on Def Poetry Jam?  And what would an avant garde filmmaker in the 1920’s do with a poem like Travis’ “My Fear is 4 U”? 

Maybe slam poets have already played with these ideas.  But right now, these are the kind of questions that I have in my head…and which I am having a blast imagining on my own.

Good poetry — slam or not — inspires me like that.

Guest blogger Michael A. Arnzen is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the flash fiction collection, 100 Jolts: Shockingly Short Stories, and the novel, Play Dead. His most recent project is a spoken word cd called Audiovile. A collection of his best fiction and poetry to date — called Proverbs for Monsters — is due soon from Dark Regions Press. You can find out more about him by subscribing to his award-winning newsletter at

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