Slam Poetry: Bringing the Word to Germany

"Spoken Word Artists in Berlin-Mitte", 2002


by RonAmber Deloney (Flow)

Flow began a bi-monthly installment of Engendered Stages, an open mic aimed at bringing women of color to the stage at the Begine, a women’s café in Schöneberg.  The Issue Lounge sponsored by ADEFRA e.V (Black Women in Germany), is also an endeavor to provide a performance space for Black people in  Berlin.

With roots that stem from oral traditions that date centuries back, slam poetry and spoken word is rapidly becoming its own evolutionary hip hop.  On any given night anywhere in the world, chances are if you ask around in any city, there’s some form of slam or open mic that lays host to contemporary bohemian crowds, upscale candlelit lounge goers or interested listeners who just want to sit back and enjoy the word. 

To put you down with the jargon, slam poetry is a performance competition between poets.  The rules of a slam are usually: 3-5 minutes to read, with point deductions if you exceed the time limit- no props, your own poetry, no exceptions.  An open mic is an event where anybody can read and there’s no winner in the end.  In this setting, there are no rules, just an open stage for performers. Spoken word is technically performing poetry with music; be it the live band vibe or the latest Ursula Rucker cd, although generally it’s also considered anything to do with words and performance.

Internet history says slam poetry as a competitive performance event started in 1989 when Marc Smith of Chicago’s The Green Mill decided the regular open mic was just too dull.  He inserted the contest, where poets perform their original poetry within a system of rules before an audience that determines the winner.  This idea spread rapidly in the United States and before long slam poetry was making lots of noise as the underground cultural expression through words; an alternative to rap, without the music and the videos, but yet and still the rhythm.

Now if you pick up a copy of Pinero, a film on the life of Nuyorican (New York/ Puerto Rico) poet head Miguel Pinero, you can date the idea of performing poetry as entertainment and cultural expression back further than the late 1980s.  New York’s Alphabet City, where the Nuyorican Poet’s Café has its home, is said to be the birthplace of slam poetry.  Of course, the real roots lie in the oral traditions of African griots and storytellers and in even more modern times can be accredited to groups like The Last Poets who began performing in the late 1960s in the parks and spaces of Harlem, New York.

In Germany, slam poetry began in 1993 when local slam pioneer Wolfgang Hogekamp began organizing with fellow pen-mates Rick Maverick and Priscilla B.  Wolfgang, Rick and Priscilla started doing slams in Berlin not as a serious attempt to start a business but to give artists a place to be free and creative unlike the spaces provided by government subsidized literature houses at the time.  These places didn’t allow things like smoking or offer the creative atmosphere you can find in some East Berlin bars.  It offered poets the chance to receive an honest response coming from an audience not selective or exposed to all kinds of literature.  Wolfgang is the founder of Spoken Word Berlin that hosts the largest poetry slam in Germany every first Thursday of the month in Bastard Prater in Prenzlauer Berg.  Here you can catch the essence of slam poetry in Germany live.  Spoken Word Berlin has also recently begun Berliner Wald, another performance event in Festsaal Kreuzberg every second Thursday of the month.

There was an east and west movement in the rise of literature and slam poetry in Berlin.  In the east, there were Lesebühnes- not competitions or open mics but groups of people who organized readings to bring literature in different forms to an audience with a set structure and format.  The Brause Boys and the Surf Poeten are two of the more contemporary Lesebühne groups.  Slam was in the beginning a West Berlin fad and now it is simply a part of Berlin culture though still underground.

The first slam was at a place called the X and Pop in Schoeneberg which at the time was known for musicians, so bringing the idea of poetry fit into the venue’s format.  The X and Pop slam ran for two years before Wolfgang learned that it was happening in the States.  The judges were usually Sozialhilfe EmpfängerInnen who were offered free entrance in exchange for their services as judges.  The first years weren’t very successful but they attracted an American crowd and Wolfgang for a while was the only one reading in German; something ironic for a place like Berlin, which at the time was considered the literature capitol of Germany.  The slam ran every week for the first two years and seemed to be a thing for people from English speaking countries like UK/London, Australia etc. contrary to the scene now where it is all mainly German speaking.

The first national poetry slam was in 1997 in Berlin with five other cities participating and now there are over 70 cities across German speaking Europe with their own regular slams.  How does slam in Berlin compare to slam in other German cities? According to Wolfgang, Berlin being the capitol of Literature makes it easier to attract artists and performers.  You don’t really have to work as hard to get features or people who perform as special guests from other cities because they come here normally for tourist attractions. Berlin is also known for its literature scene advertised widely in local city newspapers and magazines unlike other cities such as Munich where you more than likely won’t find readings advertised every day.

How is German slam like Cabaret?  You have poets like Sebastian Kraemer from Berlin and also the German International Poetry Slam Champion for the last two years who bring comedy into slam poetry though the intense lyric and hysterical situation, and poets like the newly recognized novelist, Bastian Boettcher, winner of the first German International Poetry Slam with amazing rhythm and text to match but not so comical and not too serious. Poets in Berlin write with a subjective emotion, and connect through comedy.  The way to win an audience over is to make them laugh.  Some would say it’s too funny and not serious enough, which is ironic because of the stereotypes that Germans are usually subjected too; too stern, not enough smiles.  Compared to the States, the political climate in Germany does not promote the anti-bush commentary because here there is a different reality.  Minorities are absent from the stages because politically and socially they are also invisible and what’s left when you remove these factors from the pool of themes- something to laugh about.  The political gets subjected into the “Ich-form”, what I did or what I feel, what happens to me over there, what I experienced- which is in essence what poetry reflects, our own individual realities. 

Black Female/People-of-Color Performers

The absence of women and minorities from the slam poetry scene also reflects these collective and individual realities.  At the national poetry slam in 2004 a female trio including MC Fiva and Norah Gomringer, who was also a part of the Berlin Poetry Festival in 2004, spoke well to the female relationship issue, but this is about it as far as women performing in slam poetry in Germany; outside of these major events, women performers are minute compared to men.  The scene is very male dominated on the organizing and performance end but things are changing. 
Mutlu Ergun, a scholar and performer of Turkish decent organizes “Tausend-Worter-Tief” in Café Vor Wien in Kreuzberg.  Abok (Afro-Berlin Organisation of KünstlerInnen) recently staged a reading of Kinjeketile on the Maji Maji uprising in “German-Colonial-Tanzania”.  These individuals and groups are making the experiences of Black people and People of Color heard in Berlin.

Black Culture in Germany 

How is slam in Germany different from slam in the States?  In the States you have Def Poetry Jam, produced by Russell Simmons, Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and almost five times the venues, poets and audiences that you find in German Europe.  That's mostly due to the roots of slam poetry being embedded in a more various ethnic base and having had the time, public and funds to develop.  Slam in Germany has had the time but not the public and media attention or space to move in a direction like Broadway.  They had radio and television press in the beginning but now there is hardly any media coverage.  This isn't a bad thing though because the identity of the people is the essence of their art and essence is truth and reflects the world we live in most candidly. You find the consistent comic identity in German slam compared to the socio-political themes that override poetry in the States.    

Culture in Action

On any given night you can find a poetry slam happening just about anywhere in the world.  From Great Britain across Western Europe to Croatia people are taking the stage and using the art of slam poetry as a form of expression. 
It is important to keep in mind that when you are in a country and attending a poetry slam, you are not just witnessing a person perform or read one of his or her texts, you are watching and hearing culture in live action; a small piece of a person's experience jammed into 3-5 minutes behind a microphone.  Think about that.  If you close your eyes and imagine the story behind the poet, behind the people, behind the country and history that has influenced that poem, it's intense if you can see it..

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Ron Amber Deloney (Flow), geb. in Dallas/Texas, lebt seit 2003 in Berlin, wo sie Gender Studies studiert. Sie bekam ein Fulbright Stipendium für das Projekt Slam Poetry. Sie tritt als Spoken-Word-Künstlerin seit 5 Jahren auf, CD “Dope Thought Factory”.