German spoken word artist Annika Blanke used to have to explain what slam poetry was.
That’s changed in the last few years, as audiences have increased both in-person and online. Some poetry slam videos have racked up millions of views and the competitive art form, where artists perform a piece in front of a panel of judges, has become more popular in Germany and elsewhere.
On Thursday, March 25, Blanke, who is also a teacher in northern Germany, will speak about the slam poetry medium, especially how it empowers young people, at a virtual presentation organized by the Schenectady Rotary Club.
Growing up, Blanke said she loved writing stories and developed a passion for theater early on. Yet, she wanted to write her own script, not play a role written by someone else. When she discovered slam poetry in her late teens, it seemed like the perfect medium for her.
“At that time I came across slam poetry and then I was kind of lost in that whole universe,” Blanke said.
She went to her first poetry slam when she was studying at the University of Osnabrueck. She was so nervous that she got there more than an hour before it started to put her name down on the list of performing poets.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I would have been there 15 minutes later because then people started coming in and in the end, the place was packed with about 300 people,” Blanke said.
Yet, over the years performing has actually made her more confident.
“I really developed some self-confidence doing poetry slam because I used to be very shy,” Blanke said.
Throughout her career, Blanke has performed and competed not only in Germany but Austria, Switzerland and even at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City. She’s noticed there are some distinct differences between German poetry slams and those in the United States.
“You really [distinguish] between the comedy stand-up and poetry,” Blanke said. In Germany, there’s not as much of a distinction between the two and Blanke’s performances are often comedic, with societal commentary mixed in.
Another major difference between poetry slams here and abroad Blanke said is the time limit. Locally, performers are often given three-minutes to perform, whereas abroad, they’re given more time.
Beyond competing in slams for the past seven or so years, Blanke has worked with students in a program in Germany dedicated to teaching slam poetry. Through the program, she’s watched many students grow both intellectually and emotionally and some of the veteran students even have started to show the beginners the ropes.
“When you have that group of people, you really have to trust each other because at some point it gets personal and you have to feel comfortable to open up to other people and that means also allowing others to make mistakes allowing yourself to make mistakes knowing that you’re going to be alright. That’s a really nice place to try out new roles and I think that’s really important for young people to be able to try out different roles and see which ones you’re comfortable with,” Blanke said.
In the classroom, she sometimes uses reading competitions, inspired by slam poetry techniques, to engage her students with literature. During Thursday’s presentation, she’ll talk about how poetry slams can empower students and the difference she’s seen it make in the lives of the teens she works with.
“Words are very powerful and they can be very powerful in good and negative ways. And when you emphasize on the good things that language and literature can do, that can really impact them,” Blanke said.
To tune into the presentation at noon Thursday, which will be held via Zoom, visit schenectadyrotary.org/calendar.