Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama in 1934. She lived with her grandmother and then her father in Harlem after her mother passed away. The passing of her grandmother at the age of six caused her to develop a stutter. She became introverted, but this gave her lots of opportunity to read. She became well acquainted with language and sound during this time. She used her time in college to develop her poetic voice. In 1955 she earned a BA in Political Science from Hunter College before moving on to post-graduate work at New York University. There she studied poetry and formed a poetry workshop which was attended by other well-known poets. Sonia Sanchez has taught at 8 universities and spoken at over 500. She became recognized as an influential voice of the Black Arts movement in the late 60’s as her book Home Coming came out. This is one of many books, children’s books, and plays she has written since that time. She was also Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate from 2012-14.
Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1955, Patricia Smith is a well know figure in the literary community. Smith is a poet, an author, and a teacher. She is currently a Creative Writing professor at Sierra Nevada College. While she does teach at Sierra Nevada College, Smith is a four time individual Nation Poetry Slam champion and was featured in the documentary SlamNation. Her poetry has been featured in literary journals such as The Washington Post and Tin House. She is the author of several books. The books she has written includes Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. Smith has won numerous awards for her writings. She has won the Carl Sandburg Literary award, the National Poetry Series award, and many others.
Saul Williams is a “rapper, singer-song writer, musician, slam poet, activist, writer, and actor”- partly because people are unsure what to classify him as and partly because his poetry tends to mix mediums and defy genre. Equipped with a BA in acting and philosophy from Morehouse College in 1994 and an MFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1997, Williams’ entered the poetry scene in 1995 and soon became a Grand Slam Champion at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1996. Since then he has released a number of successful poetry collections, received high acclaim for his role in the movie Slam, and most recently released a project called “Martyr Loser King”, which is described by his website as being “Written and recorded between Senegal, Reunion Island, Paris, Haiti, and New Orleans and New York, Martyr Loser King is a multimedia project that engages the digital dialogue between the 1st and 3rd Worlds, and the global street sounds that yoke the two”. Critical both to this piece and Saul Williams’ other works is the idea of fusion- that music, spoken word, acting, and writing are all interconnected to the point where they are inseparable within his poems. He also draws heavily on mythology, hip-hop, rap, and funk while commenting on many major social issues including the brokenness of the prison system, the politics behind the war on drugs, reclaiming African heritage and the current whitewashing of taught history.
Phil Kaye is a poet that was born to a Japanese mother and a Jewish-American father. He was raised in a California beach town and discovered his love of spoken word poetry at the age of seventeen. Phil has performed in hundreds of venues in fifteen countries. From stages, bars, colleges, classrooms, prisons, and online; Phil has shared his poetry in all of these spaces. His first collection of poems, A Light Bulb Symphony, was published in 2011. He is best known as being the co-director for Project VOICE.
Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression) is a national movement that celebrates and inspires youth self-expression through Spoken Word Poetry. This was founded by Phil’s close friend and co-director Sarah Kay. The goal of this organization is to educate and bring spoken word into the classrooms of young adults. Project V.O.I.C.E. also brings together performance, writing, and a supportive environment to inspire youth to recognize that their views are significant, valid, and necessary.
Daniel Johnston was born on January 22nd, 1961 in Sacramento, California but grew up West Virginia. He is a singer songwriter of low-fi music who gained a cult following in the depths of the underground alternative scene. Similarly to artists such as Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd or Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Daniel Johnston suffers from mental illness, specifically schizophrenia and manic depression. He spent much of his life in and out of mental institutions. He has an extensive career of eighteen studio albums and three live albums. He has collaborated with bands such as Yo La Tengo, Okkervil River, Sufjan Stevens, and others.
Due to the very do-it-yourself and low-fi nature of his music, his style is primarily lyrically driven. Critics of Johnston works constantly comment on the simplistic and childlike voice and lyric style. He began to gain notoriety when members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Butthole Surfers, Half Japanese spoke highly of Johnston. Kurt Cobain was often seen wearing a Daniel Johnston album promo shirt, which added to the hype surrounding Johnston. MTV did a short series on the Austin music scene (where Johnston lived throughout his adult life) and Johnston was thrown into the national spotlight. His fame danced a fine line. He felt as if the craze behind the love of his music was mostly due to his mental illness and that companies were taking advantage of him because of his illness. This thought led him to stop taking his medicine and caused two very dangerous episodes for Johnston.
The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America
ENGL4302 Spoken Word Poetry & Pedagogy at LSU