There is a poem by Neil Hilborn that recently gone viral to the point where Gawker described the poem as “hauntingly stirring”.
Poetry slam has a tremendous history of poets embracing something that they identify with and using it or them to create a narrative that addresses them. Dan Ferry’s “The Scalping” was one of the first of these types of poems I saw through Slamnation
As well as Beau Sia’s “Asian Men Are Hung Like Horses”
While it has been almost twenty years since the documentary, the narrative style of expressing and embracing or addressing something hasn’t largely changed. At the 2001 National Poetry Slam in Seattle, I saw Beau Sia perform “Chasing Bruce Lee”. It was a narrative addressing his Asian identity and it demonstrated tremendous growth from his earlier work.
But it still is more monologue than poem.
Hilborn’s has successfully created a narrative that most relate to. Love is universal. Heartbreak is universal. Obsession is universal. Those who have OCD relate to it because they connect with the experience of living with OCD. I would expect this poem to score very well in most rooms, among most judges. Hilborn is also a fairly attractive man, which also contributes to the attention the poem has received. While poems on the page rely solely on content, the aesthetic appearance of a poet on the stage has an influence on the way the poem is processed and judged. What if Hilborn was less attractive? What if Hilborn was a woman or not heterosexual? Would his poem be as well received as it has been now?
From a content perspective, the piece falls into the narrative trap of the identity genre of slam. While the direct form of the narrative contributes to its universal appeal, it is also what causes it to not work well as a poem from a craft perspective. Whether it works on the page though doesn’t matter. The fact that it works and continues to work after two years of performing it matters (based on YouTube). For a poem to continue to work within slam for that long is a testament to its longevity within the competitive format. Yes, it is stirring because of the volume and passion but it doesn’t stick for me like it does for others. There’s no lines that make me say “damn, I wish I wrote that”. When a poem can make me say that, I know it has got me.
I am surprised though that this poem isn’t getting more attention.
There are so many amazing gut punches within this poem. It uses the narrative format of a slam poem to deliver its message and has craft within it that allows it to transcend the identity genre within slam.
Another example of a poem that transcends the tropes within the identity genre is Rachel McKibbens’s “Letter From My Heart to My Brain (The Last Nerve)
Note: I know there are other poems out there that transcend identity tropes in slam. I haven’t been in the scene for a few years. If you have more that aren’t narrative and actually contain poetry within said identity poem, feel free to share them.
There is this awesome website called SlamCenter that does sports style recaps of poetry slams. They’ve been covering this year’s National Poetry Slam and it makes me miss competing (not organizing, competing). If I ever became active again, I would push myself to avoid exposition and create work that relies on the power of craft and content to get the poem across to the audience, scores be damned.