Performance poetry hits LA

The cultural phenomenon known as slam poetry has been attributed to a man named Marc Smith, who in the late 1980s began performing a new spoken-word style at a poetry dive known as the Green Mill Tavern in Chicago.

Since then, many artists seeking an outlet to express the wins and losses of life have practiced the free-form performance art.

The inkSlam Los Angeles Poetry Festival, which started Wednesday and runs until Saturday, showcases the finest talents in the world of slam poetry. Hosted at the Greenway Court Theater in Los Angeles, the festival offers six instructional workshops for those interested in cultivating a propensity for the art form.

The event also presents eight of the nation’s elite slam teams and places them in competition with one another in an effort to highlight the purity of poetry.

“The festival acts as a marketing tool for poetry because its possibilities are often misunderstood,” said Shihan Van Clief, a slam poet and director of inkSlam.

The intrigue surrounding slam poetry stems from its service as an alternative to the academic poetry standards familiar to those who have ever taken an English class or studied literature.

The art form advocates a newfound interest in the struggling world of written verse, providing a more accessible and musical channel to the world’s youth. Its emphasis lies in the belief that its performance basis provides a surrogate for those disillusioned with traditional forms and that the intensity of live recitals lends more insight to the poet’s inherent emotion.

“Even Shakespeare, perhaps the world’s most recognized writer, meant for his work to be performed. That is what slam tries to achieve,” Van Clief said.

Though inkSlam has been the brainchild of Van Clief and his colleagues for a number of years, this is the first year the Los Angeles Poetry Festival has included slam poetry in the schedule. In fact, as there have been few events of its kind and enormity in Los Angeles, this will be the city’s first structured taste of the medium.

It is not a surprise, then, that almost none of the event’s coordinators, artists or presenters hail from Los Angeles. The poets scheduled to perform at the showcase come from many different urban regions around the United States, from New York to Seattle, and, as a result, their work encompasses varying life stories and backgrounds (as well as reasons for arriving at their poetic calling).

But the general message of their words highlights social consciousness and cultural progressivism while commenting on the struggles of personal and interpersonal relationships.

The renowned teams and individuals go by names indicative of their passion and hometowns: Bluz and Slam Charlotte, Marc My Words, Shawn Nercity Gullat and Bay City All Stars, Chris Wilson and Elevated!, Judah1 and Empire Mindstate, NYC and Team Whitman.

Van Clief says that the arrival of slam poetry in Los Angeles will bring genuine heart and emotion to a city artistically starving from its emphasis on vanity.

“Los Angeles is a city that has a strong basis in the idea of image. InkSlam is meant to bring an art form to a city that really needs it,” Van Clief said.

Because slam poetry’s widespread recognition grew through shows like HBO’s Def Poetry, which was hosted by hip-hop musician Mos Def, the art form has often been acquainted in the media as a separate branch of hip-hop culture. This indication has also been formed as many of slam poetry’s proponents and champions speak of urban issues and cultural strife.

But what is seen as influenced by rap music, Van Clief asserts, is a summation of the struggle and dangers of life experience.

“Slam poets speak from life experience and find inspiration from real emotion,” Van Clief said.

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