Anyone still unsure of exactly what spoken word poetry is should ask Karen Finneyfrock, the Seattle poet who, in 2006, was honored as a slam “Legend” at the National Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. Finneyfrock, who radiates a kind of punk-rock librarian vibe—with her smart-girl glasses, dark hair slashed with stripes of natural white and razor-sharp wit—gives the short answer thusly: It’s simply “poetry written with the intention of being performed on stage,” rather than read on a page. Slams are the competitive events where such poetry is performed.
“It took a long time to coax my voice out,” Finneyfrock says, but once she did, it emerged loud and clear. Studying English lit at James Madison University in Virginia, she had no particular interest in poetry. But in her senior year, she took a class in interdisciplinary arts and started creating installations and reading text to accompany them. “Basically, I was doing spoken word even though I had never seen it,” she says. Soon after, she earned a place on Washington, D.C.’s slam team and competed in the 1999 nationals. Since moving to Seattle from Maryland in 2000, Finneyfrock, 36, has competed in countless slams, including as a member of Seattle’s slam team at national events, toured nationally as a spoken word poet, ran the Seattle Poetry Slam (a weekly slam event) for four years, released a chapbook of her spoken word poems (When the Squirrels Came for Her, She Was Already Dressed and Waiting, 2008), and last spring had another (yet to be named) poetry collection selected for publication in February by Write Bloody Press.
As a young girl growing up in Maryland, Finneyfrock was a voracious reader and dreamed of being a writer—of books. “I felt like all these great books were like a big conversation,” she says, “and I wanted to be a part of that conversation.” She has certainly joined the conversation, but perhaps in a more audible fashion than she had imagined.
Reciting poems ranging in theme from “damaged” girls to a tarot reader’s advice to historical icons, Finneyfrock forgoes a podium and paper so she can fully express her body language on stage. “Spoken word borders on performance art,” she explains. When she performs “The Newer Colossus,” her poem from the perspective of the (tired and appalled) Statue of Liberty, Finneyfrock physically becomes the Statue of Liberty—not by holding still and mimicking her stance, but by conveying the sense that Lady Liberty has been held back from unleashing all the words she’d like to vent. The audience eats up her theatrical style—unlike the silent crowds at “page poet” readings, slam audiences regularly whoop and holler throughout performances, clapping when moved to do so and emitting all forms of audible agreement (and disagreement, too). “You get a lot of immediate feedback with slam,” says Finneyfrock.
Last month she competed again with the Seattle slam team at the nationals in Florida (check her Web site to see how they placed). She’ll tour in support of her new poetry collection this spring. She continues to spread the spoken word gospel via teaching gigs at Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program and the Richard Hugo House. And on most Wednesday nights, you can find her at Seattle Poetry Slam’s weekly competition. Prepare to whoop.
PHOTO CREDIT: STEVE KORN