Bringing Back the Spoken Word: Santiago's First Poetry Slam

Chile is not exactly a country of small words, nor a country that strikes you as unpoetic. Names like Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende or Roberto Bolaño usually ring a bell or two. Yet the concept of Poetry Slam – a competition between poets in front of a live audience - seems to be new to Chile. Until now that is.

First Poetry Slam Chile kicks of on April 6 at MAC (photo by Marvin Ruppert)
First Poetry Slam Chile kicks of on April 6 at MAC (photo by Marvin Ruppert)

In Europe and North America this urban phenomenon - a tantalizing mixture of a classic poetry recital, performance art and the thrill of competition - has wormed its way into the underground scenes and added an important piece to the cultural patchwork rug of almost every major city. Although the culture of Poetry Slam has certainly arrived in Latin America – with vibrant scenes in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala – it has not found its way to the southern Pacific coast yet. Next month that's going to change when “Poetry Slam Chile” hits Santiago for the first time on April 6 at the MAC (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo); a result of the collaboration between different organizations in Barcelona (Hipnotik Faktory and Centre de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona) and Santiago (Anilla Cultural del Museo de Arte Contemporáneo).

Marta Torras, from Barcelona, and Ismael Guzmán Ortúzar, from Chile, are the masterminds behind “Poetry Slam Chile." They lived in Barcelona for a decade where they had been actively involved in the Slam scene, organizing monthly events and bigger competitions that have been among the most successful Slams in Europe. When returning to Santiago last December they were surprised that the Slam scene in Santiago was so poor; that it was, in fact, nonexistent. “I cannot say for sure if our event will be the first Poetry Slam in Santiago, but it seems like it,” Ismael smiles, “I couldn’t find any information on Slams that took place here before, so we thought we would start this project on our own.”

In a Slam the audience is the judge (photo by Carles Rodriguez)
In a Slam the audience is the judge (photo by Carles Rodriguez)

For Ismael a Poetry Slam is of special importance in a place like Santiago: “Historically Latin America, and Chile especially, has always put a strong emphasis on the spoken word.” In the Mapuche culture orality plays an important role in education. Older generations pass on knowledge and teach values to younger ones through oral narration. When the Spanish conquistadores came to Latin America they brought along the tradition of cuentacuentos (the storytellers or troubadours that used to entertain medieval Europe with their satirical stories) who had a strong influence on Latin American storytelling. Since Slam Poetry only comes to life through its orality, Ismael sees Chile’s tradition of the spoken word being revived in a new, contemporary format.

In a Poetry Slam the poets or “slammers” perform their work in front of a live audience. The same audience also decides on the winner of the Slam. The rules are quite simple: performance time is limited to three minutes, no disguise, musical instruments or props allowed and the poet must, of course, recite his or her own work. Other than that, there are no further limitations and the ways of presenting one’s poem usually vary widely. Some read, some rap, some sing, some do stand up-comedy or interact with the audience.

In fact, the audience in a Slam is just as important as the Slammers themselves, since it’s only they who decide on the winner. This creates an atmosphere quite different to a classic reading or a poetry recital where one author thrones over an audience who is doomed to listen in silence. “In a Slam the poet and the listener interact, they are equals.” Ismael explains. “And in my experience,” he adds, “the atmosphere in a Slam is much more friendly and the spirit much more collective than in an ordinary reading.” The aspect of competition, as he sees it, is an inspiration and an incentive for poets rather than a ranking. “At the end of the day it does not really matter who wins and who loses. What matters is the collective celebration of poetry.”

By organizing Slams in Santiago Ismael hopes to create a platform for young poets and eventually establish a scene for Slam Poetry. “I am very curious to find out what the Chilean style of Slam will be like,” he says with excitement. “In Europe, Slam Poetry is oftentimes very personal and self-involved. I guess that is just a consequence of the rather individualistic European lifestyle. Here in Santiago I expect the poets to be different, more political maybe.”

Courtesy of Poetry Slam Barcelona
Courtesy of Poetry Slam Barcelona

Starting time is unusually early (12:30 pm) but it has a reason: At exactly the same time another Slam will be held in Barcelona which will be streamed live at the event in Santiago and vice versa, creating a unique international environment and allowing the audience to experience poetry from two different continents at the same time.

If you are interested in participating you are welcome to sign up, no matter if it's your first time ever or the hundredth! All you have to do is send an email with your contact details and two texts (all languages welcome!) to:
Deadline for registration is March 31st!

For more information visit Poetry Slam Chile on Facebook.

Poetry Slam Chile
Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:30 pm
Free Admission
MAC (Mueseo de Arte Contemporáneo)
Calle Matucana 46 4,
Metro: Quinta Normal

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