The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry

Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America
Susan B. A. Somers-Willett

How do slam poets and their audiences reflect the politics of difference?


The cultural phenomenon known as slam poetry was born some twenty years ago in white working-class Chicago barrooms. Since then, the raucous competitions have spread internationally, launching a number of annual tournaments, inspiring a generation of young poets, and spawning a commercial empire in which poetry and hip-hop merge.

The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry is the first critical book to take an in-depth look at slam, shedding light on the relationships that slam poets build with their audiences through race and identity performance and revealing how poets come to celebrate (and at times exploit) the politics of difference in American culture.

With a special focus on African American poets, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett explores the pros and cons of identity representation in the commercial arena of spoken word poetry and, in doing so, situates slam within a history of verse performance, from blackface minstrelsy to Def Poetry. What's revealed is a race-based dynamic of authenticity lying at the heart of American culture. Rather than being mere reflections of culture, Somers-Willett argues, slams are culture—sites where identities and political values get publicly refigured and exchanged between poets and audiences.

"For a lucid and thorough 'real-world' analysis of the movement from the ground-up—including its history, aesthetics, and culture, there is surely no better place to start than Somers-Willett's trailblazing book."
—Jerome Sala, Pleiades

"Finally, a clear, accurate, and thoroughly researched examination of slam poetry, a movement begun in 1984 by a mixed bag of nobody poets in Chicago. At conception, slam poetry espoused universal humanistic ideals and a broad spectrum of participants, and especially welcome is the book's analysis of how commercial marketing forces succeeded in narrowing public perception of slam to the factionalized politics of race and identity. The author's knowledge of American slam at the national level is solid and more authentic than many of the slammers who claim to be."
—Marc Kelly Smith, founder/creator of the International Poetry Slam movement

Photo by Jennifer Lacy.

Susan B. A. Somers-Willett is a decade-long veteran of slam and teaches creative writing and poetics as an Assistant Professor of English at Montclair State University. She is the author of two books of poetry, Quiver and Roam.

Praise / Awards

  • "Anyone looking for an introduction to slam poetry will find Somers-Willett to be a knowledgeable, clear-headed guide. The book is scholarly, but its interdisciplinary approach makes it appropriate for non-specialists and undergraduate students alike. (I will definitely be assigning portions of this work the next time I teach slam poetry).... If Somers-Willett is right about the important cultural stakes of this poetry—and I wholeheartedly believe that she is—then literary scholars need to begin addressing these and other difficult questions. We need to bring slam poetry into our classrooms, our critical studies, and, ultimately, our canons."
    —Melissa Girard, Poetry & Popular Culture

  • "While framing her discourse within the work of scholars such as Goffman, Butler, and Austin, Somers-Willett manages to open up an important discussion on both the way in which identity is performed by minoritarian subjects on stage, and how these performances of self are subsequently received by audiences.  In this way, the book represents a significant contribution to work on the politics of reception and performance."
    —Karen Jaime, E-Misférica

  • "In The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett offers both insight into slam poetry method and culture and a respectful yet critical analysis of the functions of slam poetry in the performance, commercial, and sociopolitical arenas."
    —Marie Fleischman Timbreza, MELUS Review

  • "For a lucid and thorough 'real-world' analysis of the movement from the ground-up--including its history, aesthetics, and culture, there is surely no better place to start than Somers-Willett's trailblazing book."
    —Jerome Sala, Pleiades

Look Inside

Copyright © 2009, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • 5.875 x 9.25.
  • 208pp.
  • 4 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07059-6

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  • $84.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05059-8

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  • $25.95 U.S.

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  • slam poetry, poetry slam, spoken word, hip-hop, performance poetry, popular verse, African American performance, Def Poetry, cultural politics, performance of identity