Sunday, November 18, 2012

Slam, Shakespeare and Homer...Was The Iliad the First Slam Poem? [Great teaching points and background]

Slam Poetry are poems meant to be spoken and performed aloud for a live audience, often (but not exclusively) in a competitive environment.  It is a verbal-visual-vocal retelling involving words, facial expressions, movement, voice volume adjustments and visual body cues.

One of my favorite slam poets is Taylor Mali (which I've posted previously. Here are some of my favorites: (What Teachers Make, Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh-Grade Viking Warrior, and Totally Like Whatever, You Know?

But here is another SLAM I found by teen slammer Kate Tempest and Shakespeare's influence on her, her culture, our lives, our culture - this is a poem that should be shown before anyone teaches the Bards' works (and there's another Kate poem later to savor as well):

SLAM is new, vibrant and 'of this generation' yet...many say Homer's Iliad (the cornerstone of Western literature and one of the best classic stories ever - over the 27 centuries it's been performed) is the epitome of slam:

Slam's origins are generally credited to Marc Smith, a construction worker / poet, who in 1984/5 started a poetry reading series in a Chicago jazz club where the emphasis was on performance. In 1986 Smith approached Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill (another Chicago jazz club - noted as a former haunt of Al Capone) where they host a weekly poetry cabaret.

Thus "SLAM" was born. It is now an international phenomenon in clubs as well as in schools. Inner city urban schools in particular are incorporating SLAM into their curricula to motivate and reinforce kids' literacy skills.

It is ironically fitting that "Poets and Profs: Looking at the Iliad” and Iliad Out Loud" is now coming out of The University of Chicago.  The article, written by Lydialyle Gibson in the Chicago Magazine (Sept/Oct/2012), relates the work done by Mark Eleveld and Ron Maruszak in a joint Master's thesis (that resulted in a documentary) positing how Homer's ancient epic The Iliad presaged slam.
According to Lydialyle Gibson, Mark Eleveld and Ron Maruszak realized that:
Homer, the blind bard, ancient Greece’s greatest poet, whose epics on the Trojan War and its aftermath founded the Western canon and influenced 3,000 years of literature, was, basically, a slam poet.
What else to call a man—a showman and writer—who made his living turning poetry into entertainment, who traveled from town to town performing memorized verses before crowds of listeners? “ 
The article discusses Eleveld and Maruszak's documentary, Poets and Profs: Looking at the Iliad”: which ivory tower luminaries like Robert Pinsky and Nicholas Rudall, Herman Sinaiko,  and James Redfield, share the screen with leading lights from the slam poetry world: Taylor Mali, Bob Holman, Regie Gibson, Marc Smith. West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet provides some of the film’s most stirring moments, discussing the Iliad’s lessons—literary, military, and moral—for future soldiers.
Here is some background to their project:
In 2005, Eleveld and Maruszak—high school English teachers... and cofounders of a small poetry press—read the Iliad... in classics scholar David Wray’s class ... untangling Homer’s allusions and etymologies, his rhythms and descriptive epithets: “swift-footed Achilles”; “Hector, breaker of horses”; “rosy-fingered dawn.” They also studied the Iliad’s oral tradition, and in Homer’s cadences, Maruszak and Eleveld kept hearing the words of slam poets they’d known for years.
In 1991, as an undergraduate at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, Eleveld took a class from Marc Smith, of Chicago’s Green Mill nightclub.... “The misconception is that these guys get up there and read some crap off a napkin, or that they go off into these profanity tirades,” says Eleveld. “But that’s not it. That’s not the good stuff.”
Eleveld and Maruszak's Poets and Profs combines performances from the Iliad with ruminations on the poem’s vast thematic terrain.
Early in the film, Sinaiko rhapsodizes on Homer’s ability to construct “a whole epic about the shape of a single emotional experience”—Achilles’s rage—within a narrative that also encompasses war, death, love, loss, friendship, immortality, and “on and on and on.”  Homer, Sinaiko says, “managed to fold into the structure of the Iliad the whole of human life, focused around or as elements in this anger.”
Eleveld and Maruszak ultimately hope to see Poets and Profs  used in classrooms. In the meantime, they’re considering plans for a sequel, about the Great Gatsby, or maybe the Grapes of Wrath. “Or,” says Eleveld, “the Odyssey, obviously.”

Here (again) is  the trailer for Poets and Profs: Looking at the Iliad.  It is SO WORTH YOUR TIME - it's inspiring as we see students, academics and professional slammers relate Homer's genius, the power of performed poetry, the power and relevance of the Iliad today, and the horrors of war regardless of time or technology:

I leave you with LINKS to  make slam poetry and Homer's Iliad a part of your home/classroom:
I realize I talk about slam and give some links, but decided to give you a treat by teen slammer Kate Tempest.  Below are more slam /poetry links:

First, "Teens' Speech"

 And if you want another treat:

  • Kate Tempest is a teen slam-poet - here are two POWERFUL links you may want to show, inspire and talk about with your kids.  You may want to talk about the way she uses her facial expresisons, rhythm, voice volume, pauses, and how she performs her poems - poems that she wrote and performs: Icarus, The Teen's Speech
  • PBS has a wonderful resource with lesson plans and "Using a Poetry Slam to Teach the Mechanics of Poetry" (Grades 9-12)
  • The Lesson Planet - a search engine for teachers has a great link, Poetry Slams and Lesson Plans
Thank you for your visit.   Please leave your reactions, slam experiences and/or teaching suggestions in the comments and have a great Thanksgiving holiday.


  1. I love slam poetry, I wish I could work up the courage to do it sometime!

    I hope you have a great Thanksgiving. :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog, have a wonderful Thanksgiving...

  3. What's old is new again. Or vice versa. I long thought rap existed long before its designated time. Don't know slam - except from YOU! - but your observation works for me.

  4. Very interesting..making it relate to the kids. Excellent!

    TracyAnn from and

  5. Thanks for the great links and information.

  6. Wow, that's very detailed and informative, thanks for sharing!

  7. That was very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Royalegacy Reviews & More

  8. I think Slam poetry is so cool, though I have never seen i performed in person. I bet that would be quite an experience!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. Audio poetry has it's place but may miss the subtly of the written word which is meant to be read. For instance this written in response to a *word challenge Slam:

    All in One Un-Hallowed Evening

    Another spoke in the wheel of time ever turning
    Won’t be long ‘til O *Jack-o-Lantern be burning
    *Boo hoo hoo Who cares?
    Not you, not you, Who shares
    Not the smallest part
    Of this ever hardening heart's
    No trace of sweetness lingers there
    Haunting specter like, in the *Ghost of this *Hard Candy shell,
    Whose taunting soft creamy centers are all but hallow-ed out by your broken spell
    Why? Did you return to heist,
    Stripping the jeweled lotus of my love in bloom
    Leaving only the barest crescent of its *Full Moon
    *Dark in your *Shadow. *Vampire, you peeled me like an *Orange sucking out
    My juice, leaving me just this one slice of doubt
    When you ran shedding your vile & treacherous *Costumes, leaving me to ask
    Challenging, Why? I’m left out w/ e’en the dignity of a mask.

  10. I've never seen it performed, but I bet it's fun!

    abcw team

  11. there is so much important work being done through the themes explored in slam, so much amazing poetry to be heard/seen. there are some incredibly talented artists speaking truth to power using this valid form of expression. I would encourage you to check out Saul Williams, Katie Makkai's 'Pretty', Zora Howard...there are so many! just go to youtube and search Def Poetry Jam - there's some great stuff on there. (side note: I learned the phrase 'the beast with two backs' from the Arabian Nights, not Shakespeare)

  12. Hey! Found on the Wordless Wednesday linky.

    Here's mine:

    Now a new follower. ;)

  13. A little complicated for me as English is not my mothertongue
    ABC Team

  14. Poetry is a beautiful thing ...

    Happy WW :)

  15. Thanks for linking up on my blog!

  16. This is my first introduction to slam poetry, so now I want to hear it performed in person!

  17. That teen slam poet Kate is pretty amazing. I can't remember what I had for lunch and she has committed all that to memory? Interesting stuff. Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving! :)

  18. In the spirit of American Thanksgiving – thanks for participating on my meme – I also wish you and your loved ones a healthy and happy holiday season!

  19. Thanks for sharing this awesome post with us at Inspire Me Monday Meryl!
    Slam poetry is awesome!
    Congratulations for being featured this week at

    Create With Joy

  20. Great resources! I agree about reading aloud to children! Thanks for sharing this with us at Trivium Tuesdays last week. I hope you have another classical education related post to share with us tomorrow!