Slam Poetry as Punchline: 22 Jump Street Reminds Me of My Childhood Bully

Stop After the First Movie, Then Listen to These Amazing Poets in the Real World

PopPoetry is a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. Check out the archive to see other TV shows, movies, and films whose intersections with poetry I’ve covered. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post!

The first time I ever had my poems read aloud was against my will.

When I was young, I wrote in a secret code language that, while easy enough to crack if one wanted to, couldn’t be read at first glance. I wanted to be able to write in public (read: at school) without having anyone read over my shoulder or see what I was writing. I used this language for notes to friends, but it quickly became the only way that I drafted poems, too: on a sheet of blue-lined looseleaf in an inscrutable language.

Poetry was something secret. A private act brimming with the capital-T Truth of life and my innermost feelings. I was passionate about my work: I cared. And caring, as an adolescent (or at least as an adolescent coming of age in the 1990s), is deeply uncool. All the things that make for great poetry—vulnerability, big feelings, a dash of ego—require that one be seen. And as a weird, insecure, highly verbal Midwestern only child who was mostly certain that she was not human-ing correctly at all times, the last thing I wanted was to be seen.

And so, when a cruel classmate plucked the first draft of a poem I’d written from my hands and ran to the front of my English classroom one day in 7th grade, my blood ran cold. I had only recently begun to write some of my poems in plain English rather than in secret code, and my worst fears about the dangers of writing publicly were almost instantly confirmed.

He was operating, it seems to me now, under the influence of stereotypes about what poetry was and who poets were. He was histrionic, theatrical, loud.

The boy installed himself at the front of the room and began to read out my entire poem to the class, most of whom had been working independently. I do not know where the teacher was. She does not appear in this memory. But I will never forget how over-the-top the boy’s recitation of my work was.

He was operating, it seems to me now, under the influence of stereotypes about what poetry was and who poets were. He was histrionic, theatrical, loud. What’s more, the poem was about dancing. The boy sensuously acted out all of my most ridiculous turns of phrase, running his hands over his body, doing dance steps, and chewing the scenery. I felt like I’d been liquified. I was, as I say now when I can’t stop laughing, no longer alive.

I wish that my first encounter with poetry off the page had been under my own power—that I’d had the chance to read my work aloud or have it read aloud because I wanted it to happen. But back then I wasn’t ready, and the boy who stole my work and mocked me ensured that I stayed silent for a while longer.

Poetry Out Loud

Though I relish giving public readings now, as an adolescent I was not only terrified of the prospect but also certain that poetry’s first home was on the page. It could be contained there, made private and safe. I admired Dickinson’s fascicles and had only just begun to dream about what it meant to write for an audience.

As I grew older, I was erroneously taught that there were two kinds of poetry: a false binary between “page” poets and “stage” poets. The former intended for their work to be read, and the latter intended for their work to be heard. Page poets were literary, academic. Stage poets were Judy Funnie types who were more invested in the performance art aspect of their work.

Mercifully, those distinctions have broken down and those stereotypes are, I hope, dissipating. We’re more attuned to the inherent racism of denigrating an art form that has historically been important to and led by people of color. Slam poetry, spoken word, and poetry readings are all more nuanced, more powerful, and more relevant than the stereotype of the slam poet that my childhood bully acted out.

In their description of the multiracial Dark Noise Collective, The Poetry Foundation calls the page vs. stage distinction “archaic,” and rightly so. (See more about Dark Noise and some of its members in the Pop Palate Cleanser below.) Today, poets of all kinds write books and give skilled readings of varying intensity. You can do both; you can be both. Slam poetry is not a punchline.

But no one told Jonah Hill about any of this.

Pulled Onstage: Every Introvert’s Nightmare

In 22 Jump Street, Jonah Hill treats audiences to a slam poetry performance that is definitionally stereotypical. It’s the same kind of histrionic, theatrical, and loud poetry reading that kid did when he stole my poem. The difference is that my traumatic pseudo-slam performance took place around 1998; Hill’s took place in 2014.

My friends, it’s time that we do better.

Based on the Johnny Depp-led TV show that originally ran from 1987–1991, 22 Jump Street is the sequel to—you guessed it—2012’s 21 Jump Street. Both movies were written by Hill and Michael Bacall (co-writer of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Project X) and contain a lot of fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgment to the ludicrousness of the entire franchise.

The premise of the movie has police officers Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Charming Potato… I mean, Channing Tatum) going undercover as college students to track down a synthetic drug supplier. This assignment involves acting like college students both in and out of the classroom: going on Spring Break, doing science labs, and trying to get girls. In a bid to woo co-ed Maya (Amber Stevens West), Schmidt attends a slam poetry performance with predictably disastrous results.

When the emcee asks if anyone would like to take advantage of the open mic, Maya puts him on the spot because she thinks he’s lying about loving slam (he is). Undeterred, or only slightly deterred, Hill gets up on the mic and puts on the perceived mannerisms of slam poetry and even speaks them aloud. Here’s his poem, as I would transcribe it:

Slam… poetry!
Yelling! Angry.
Waving my hands
a lot.
Specific point of view
on things.
Cyn-thi-UH?! Jesus died for our SIN-thias!
Jesus cried. Runaway bride. Julia Roberts! Julia Rob-hurts.
Cynthia. Mmmmm, Cynthia—you’re dead. You are dead.
Bop boop beep. Bop bop boop bop.
You’re dead.

This is… not good. Schmidt’s whole straw-grasping free association has him emphasizing parts of names in order to draw out homophones (i.e., “sin” in “Cynthia” and “hurts” in “Roberts”). When he does this, he looks at the audience like, “Right? That’s something, yeah?” He’s completely flying by the seat of his pants, and while seasoned freestylers are quite good at this, Schmidt is not.

Behind the laughs about Schmidt’s terrible slam poem lurk two more sinister stereotypes about slam poetry in general.

Coupled with his delivery, the finished product is ridiculous. Jenko gives him the “cut” signal and urges him to get off the stage. While this is a comedy and Hill’s performance is kind of funny, behind the laughs about Schmidt’s terrible slam poem lurk two more sinister stereotypes about slam poetry in general.

When we don’t know what we’re doing, we revert to what we do know. For example, we might assume that walking a cat might be like walking a dog, so we put a harness and a leash on Whiskers. We might be shocked when we learn that Whiskers would rather have his lifeless carcass dragged across the lawn than walk like a dog, but we tried.

All this to say that the choices that Schmidt made while performing at the slam poetry open mic would have been predicated on his existing beliefs about slam. His ridiculous free association and word salad approach tell me that Schmidt the character and Hill the writer may believe that:

  1. Slam poetry is invested in making connections that aren’t really there.

  2. Slam poetry doesn’t make sense and doesn’t have to make sense.

Why does this matter? Why am I harshing this movie’s enviable mellow? Because when people believe these things, it’s easier for them to jump to darker, more damaging conclusions, like this one: Slam poetry isn’t serious and doesn’t matter. Slam poets are not real artists. The poetry in college textbooks is real, but the stuff that young folks are spitting is just nonsense. That’s dangerous.

And that, to me, is the underlying message of send-ups like Hill’s.

At the same time, Schmidt is so laughably bad that his performance highlights how skillful good slam is, in some ways. This is one small silver lining a can find glinting in this portrayal. I can’t tell if the popularity of the slam poem online is a way that folks express their admiration for the movie or if it’s a long-lived way to dunk on slam poets. I mean, you can even buy a print of Schmidt’s “verses” if you’re so inclined.

Poets working today know how vital the human voice is when it comes to poetry. Long gone are the days when we drew a distinction between the page and the stage. Part of the magic of slam is that it’s liberated from the page. But because it’s not voiced when it’s encountered, page poetry has other tricks up its sleeve: line breaks, for example. As so often is the case, nothing is one or the other. It’s always both. Written poetry is good and serious and spoken poetry is good and serious. Multiplicity and multivocality are the orders of the day.

The slam poet stereotype has its roots in the derision of the Beat generation and Beat stereotypes that are popular in depictions of poets, too. But from where I’m sitting, exciting performances of poetry are not only a part of poetry’s past but also an exciting and critical part of its future.

Pop Palate Cleanser

Since 22 Jump Street features two white boys making fun of slam poetry or doing it very badly, I’ll end with some of my favorite poets who are incredible both on the stage and on the page. Poets like these make us remember that poetry began its life as an oral art form and destroy outdated dichotomies. Their work is immediate, powerful, quick-witted, and sparkling. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing most of these poets in person, and though they’re even better live, these videos should give you a taste of their magic.

Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”

Writer and performer Smith has been a finalist for the National Book Award, has been on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and has written several incredible books, the most recent of which is Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020). You can visit Smith’s website and learn more here.

Franny Choi, “Pussy Monster”

Choi doesn’t describe herself as a performer, but her hypnotic, energetic readings always move me. Choi and Danez Smith are members of the Dark Noise Collective and host a podcast together called VS, where poets “confront the ideas that move them.” Choi’s latest collection, Soft Science, was published with Alice James Books in 2019.

Elizabeth Acevedo, “Self Portrait of Eve as Cardi B”

A former National Poetry Slam Champion, Elizabeth Acevedo has written several books of poetry and fiction, including The Poet X, which was a New York Times bestseller. You can learn more about Acevedo’s many talents here.

Junious “Jay” Ward, “Gentrification”

Ward was the winner, in a three-way tie, of the 2019 Individual World Poetry Slam. A teaching artist and performer, Ward’s Sing Me a Lesser Wound was released as part of Bull City Press’s Inch series in 2020.

Aziza Barnes, “my dad asks, ‘how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?’”

Barnes also performs slam poetry and has also written several books, making them a double threat on the page and on the stage. Their full-length collection of poems, i be, but I ain’t, won the 2015 Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books. Their novel, The Blind Pig, was released in 2019.

P. S.

  • Porsha Olayiwola, dreamer-upper of the Roxbury Poetry Festival, is working to change the perception that poetry is elitist and only fit for academic study.

  • Neko Case’s new Substack The Lung is, so far, a delightfully weird hybrid of meditations on creativity, nature, and place. I can’t wait to read more.

  • AI still can’t write good poetry, which is unsurprising, as is the fact that the developers included mostly dead, white authors in its “muse” base.

  • Originally published last year, this outstanding rundown of how Rumi’s poetry has been subjected to a kind of “spiritual colonialism” is a must-read. H/T to Porochista Khakpour for reposting it.

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