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Slam the Mike

To wonder whether slam poetry in Kuwait is organic or imported and alien is to miss the point that it at least catalysed the emergence of Arab identity in the first place.

I’m a Kuwaiti writer and performance poet who writes in English. Very often, however, people ask me why I chose to neglect my rich Arab heritage to excel in a clearly Western genre—slam poetry. It is no secret that Marc Kelly Smith “sowed the seeds” of slam in 1984 at the Get Me High Jazz Club in Chicago, defining slams as “captivating poetry events that focus a live audience’s attention on the presentation of poetry that’s been composed, polished and rehearsed for the purpose of being performed—very often in a competitive arena, but not always.” But that was then. Slam poetry contests came to Kuwait in October 2010 through Ayana Ashanti and the Jamaican Embassy. Clearly, the craft is imported from the West and bears no genuine ties to my own culture? Not only do I disagree with the notion that slam poetry is ­alien to my own society, but I also contest any attempt to equate writing in English as anything less than patriotic.

Before Arab identity existed, Bedouins or nomads, to whom the Greeks referred as sarakenoi, meaning “the people who dwell in tents,” mingled as separate tribes. These tribes battled one another, intermarried, and traded in marketplaces and oases. They also managed to compete in oral poetry events, in which men and women participated and money and fame were granted to victors. In Take the Mic: The Art of Performance Poetry, Slam and the Spoken Word, Marc Kelly Smith highlights two main aspects of a slam. First, the audience listening to the performance equals the poet on the stage in terms of importance. Second, performance itself is an art, as crucial as the crafting of the text.

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