An essay about Slam Poetry and Buddy Wakefield by James Bonner

The Power of Slam Poetry: An Introduction to Buddy Wakefield and the Spoken Word

I’m often surprised by who and what people are and are not familiar with. And I don’t mean through the lens of arrogance or elitism, what we know and do not know is little more than the chance of whether a person’s experiences intersected with a particular idea or person or artwork; not knowing a thing is arbitrary, not characteristic. I have happened upon people and asked if they’re familiar with the world of slam poetry. No, it’s not my favorite question, it's not like I’m interrupting strangers in a bar asking who their favorite poet is; it’s a contextual question that I ask when the conversational context allows.

While many have been unfamiliar, others have responded to me as though I’ve slandered them in some way, “Of course, pfft” They’ll respond, bleeding out of their ears with insult for some reason (I mean, everyone can’t be expected to know everything, and for their experiences to escort them everywhere). I have a hard time understanding why people feel like they’re supposed to know everything, and if they don’t, why they would blindly and desperately follow along instead of just saying, “Hmm, no, sounds interesting, tell me more….”

Buddy Wakefield is a slam poet with a unique way of reflecting on our general reactionary and unconscious thoughts and behaviors through poetry. He presents the human condition in an all-encompassing way and can help open new perspectives to how many of us think and feel. This is a characteristic of most spoken-word artists. Listening to Buddy Wakefield’s poetry throughout my life has meant different things to me, presented itself differently, and has allowed me to explore the human experience in a way that’s between the black and white of our ingrained behaviors.

Buddy Wakefield was born in Louisiana and raised east of Houston, in Baytown, Texas. Shy of thirty years old, and after working as an executive assistant at a biomedical firm in Washington state, Wakefield sold everything he owned, moved into his Honda Civic, and started touring poetry venues across the United States (this is something that I can, kind of, relate to). At a young age, Buddy Wakefield discovered the power of words. While touring and performing his poetry throughout the United States his style and magnetic presence quickly set him apart in the world of spoken word.

Slam Poetry, for those who might be unfamiliar with the term, is a form of spoken-word poetry that combines the elements of performance, writing, competition, and audience participation performed at events called, “poetry slams;” coined from the power of the audience to praise or destroy a poem in the attendance of the performance. Buddy Wakefield won the Individual World Poetry Slam competition in 2004-05. I’ve never been to an official poetry slam, though I have enjoyed open mics dedicated to spoken word poetry.

The Information Man,” is a poem by Wakefield about the complexities of human connection and the search for meaning in a digital age. “The Information Man” was my introduction to Buddy Wakefield, I can’t even recall when the first time I heard it or even how Wakefield stumbled into my purview. But I memorized the poem and have since recited it a few times at open mics in different places.

Convenience Stores” paints an image of the everyday life of struggling Americans, with poignant observations and heartbreaking realities of how mental health—but the underlying foundations of mental health, not necessarily the blatant forms of mental health like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and psychosis that we might immediately, and subconsciously associate with the colloquialism, “mental health,” affect us throughout our day to day lives.

I’m not as familiar with other spoken word artists as I am with Buddy Wakefield, I have enjoyed listening to the poems of Sarah KayGeorge the PoetEmi Mahmoud, and Blythe Baird, but for every one poet there are a thousand more waiting in the wings; people who got tired of maneuvering the bureaucracy of expression so, standing in place, they just started talking out loud, and eventually they were given a microphone. I like this world because it’s expressive and introspective simultaneously, for example, I was researching for this post and I happened across a poem called “To This Day,” by Shane Koyczan.

I’m sitting here listening to “To This Day,” and it’s amazing how a lot of the ideas that his poem expresses sound alarmingly familiar to me, if you have read some of my writing, and have clicked the link and watched the poem you might recognize what I mean. This is why I appreciate the spoken word. It’s desperately relatable. Poetry is universal but people shy away from it because they’re familiar only with classic poets or quotes from poems that spread online. People don’t explore ideas so much anymore. We’re comfortable enforcing and reinforcing someone else’s ideas that we’ve acknowledged and accepted.

It’s the reason that I’m writing this post, there are so many ways that “we” are similar and yet we disconnect at one of the various stages throughout our lives: the way an idea is presented to us, the way we experience an event, we misunderstand an intention, and the shadow of the weight of one or all of those that we carry with us. We’ve all got to get back to our art, and slam poetry/spoken word can be a way to reroute us—if we let it. Steal a few minutes, listen to these poems, and let me know what you think—comment with your poem.

In the long run, it's not about being familiar with everything, but about being open to discovering new ideas and perspectives. Buddy Wakefield’s poetry and the world of slam poetry have taught me that; it’s about embracing our shared human experiences and finding connection in the unlikeliest places. So, let’s embrace the unknown, listen to each other’s stories, and find our way back to the art that makes us feel alive; in the comments below, share your thoughts, share your poems, and let’s keep the conversation going.

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