Poetry slam - Lauren La Melle

Voice is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Historically, people have used their capacity to emit sound as a primary means of communication, ultimately evolving as a socially organizational norm. Given the omnipotence of banal speech, elements of a voice that are dissimilar to what our ears are used to and comfortable hearing have the ability to captivate a listener. In the most basic sense, eccentricities from the norm can grasp a person’s attention. A conventional idea of captivating voices often references music. In addition to its sonic deviation from speech, the sung voice regularly proffers a resonant message and context, along with enriching paralinguistic features like tone, pitch quality, timbre and rhythm. Not only is such a voice capable of captivating an individual, but it can also influence large-scale sociality by connecting empathizing members of the listening group. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the vocal arts and sociality, each influencing the other, as exemplified in South African revolutionary music, which evolved from and influenced larger social issues. While the sung voice is, indeed, an excellent example of a captivating voice, so too are other forms of vocal art, like spoken word poetry.

Spoken poetry is a unique blend of speech and clear elements of musicality, both contributing to its uniqueness as perceived by the listener. At the 3rd Annual Intercollegiate Poetry Slam at Duke University’s White Lecture Hall, Lauren La Melle of The College Hill Writers at UNC-Greensboro recited a particularly captivating poem (https://soundcloud.com/tanner-johnson-55/lauren-la-melle-slam-poetry). The audible characteristics of her poem provide a platform for optimal delivery of message to audience. Primarily significant is the actual content of La Melle’s poem, or the referentiality of language. However, the myriad paralinguistic features that shape the reception of the voice are what truly enhance this voice’s ability to captivate. Whether intentional or not, such a combination of connection-conducive features embodies a voice that elicits more affect than others.

There are some key elements that speak to this voice’s capacity to captivate. In the recording, the listener experiences a sense of paradoxical spatiality. The clear reverberations suggest this voice is distant and has been amplified. However, the recording process, along with the use of amplifying techniques, enhances the prevalence of sibilance, a sonic quality typically discernable only in close proximities. Thus, the listener becomes aware that this is a performance intended for a larger audience, but there is still a sense of intimacy established through superficial closeness. This intimacy contributes to a feeling of emotional connection between La Melle and her audience. Her poem revolves around very personal, yet widely applicable, experiences with the callous realities of the traditional college education system. The combination of intimacy, content and context (talking about college in a college setting) contributes to the poet’s perceived authenticity and, further, an emotional connection with an empathetic audience. Equally essential is La Melle’s delivery. Though she recites a poem, her voice could be described as musical. She adjusts the speed and rhythm of the poem and varies pitch throughout (e.g., in more emphasized portions of the poem, she raises her pitch and actually emits a crying voice).

La Melle establishes a setting that is unmistakably resonant with the audience. The very nature of spoken word poetry as a genre comes with unique norms for audience response and participation, and in this case, people like what they hear. The following tracks explore aspects of this voice, and the setting that accompanies it, which contribute to its ability to captivate. At the root of it all, slam poetry is generally a vulnerable space for poets--something extraordinarily striking to those who listen. 

By Tanner Johnson.