A poet all her life, Jill Lance was awake at 1 a.m. one Saturday morning eight years ago when she stumbled across an episode of the now defunct TV series "Def Poetry" on HBO.
"I was very interested. So I watched it, this poetry thing. I thought, 'Oh, this is really good, and I'm enjoying it,' and then, as the next poet comes on, I'm thinking to myself, 'I could do this,' and then, a few minutes later, it was, 'I could do better than this,' so by the time the program was over, I started thinking about things I would like to say,'" said Lance, 59, of Villas.
Lance was inspired so much by watching the episode she wrote what she thinks is the best poem of her life, titled "Oil Drop Hip Hop." She used it to win the first poetry slam she ever participated in.
Poetry may not be as prominent now in the national consciousness as it was during the 1950s, when Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others were first making a name for themselves. But hip-hop, the Internet and the digital age have prevented poetry from becoming even more marginalized in American life.
Freestyle rappers have done poetry slams, and people involved with hip-hop also have energized the spoken word poetry form. While this has been happening for the past 20 years, the Internet has made more poetry available to more people than anytime in history.
Lance has been fortunate in her participation in four years worth of poetry slams.
An insurance coordinator, Lance won the 2010 and last year's Cape May poetry grand slam, the former with a work titled "Eating Chinese," about anti-semitism, and the latter with a composition titled "Baby Boomer Rhapsody."
Lance attended the first meeting of the season for the Shore Slams spoken word series held earlier this month in Cape May. She performed, but failed to win the poetry competition that night.
The event, taking place in a back room of Lucky Bones restaurant, focused on first-person storytelling, poetry and bull competition - which is telling a story and having the assembled group figure out whether it is real or imagined.
During the Nov. 14 gathering, the participants were either middle-aged or older adults, but Bernadette Matthews, the co-founder of the slam and executive director for the Center of Community Arts in Cape May, invites a college creative writing class at least once per year to share their poems and short stories and to listen to other performers.
Bringing in younger poets also brings in different styles of rhyming.
When the college students read their poems at the slams, Matthews said she hears more of a hip-hop influence in their work.
"I recall the very first time we received a poem from a college student there. It just rang of hip-hop. Initially, some of the seniors, because it's such a mixed group, I could see them leaning forward in their chairs thinking, 'Oh, my goodness, where are they going to go with this?'" Matthews said.
Elinor Mattern, an assistant professor of English at Atlantic Cape Community College, has had her classes attend the Shore Slams.
Mattern covers poetry when she teaches the creative writing elective at the college. In January, she will teach a special poetry workshop, where the entire semester is just writing poetry.
"I do think that with the combination of rap and performance poetry, we do have a lot going on with people of all ages, including young people, wanting to figure out what is poetry," Mattern said. "There is a human impulse to tell stories. That impulse expresses itself in many different ways. For some people, it's doing something special with language that happens to encompass rap and poetry."
There are so many young people interested in some kind of creative writing, Mattern said.
"I have students who come to my creative writing class, and some of them want to be fiction writers, and some of them want to be screenwriters. A few of them want to be literary poets. Some of them want to rap," Mattern said.
Emari DiGiorgio, associate professor of writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, teaches the "Why Poetry Matters" class.
"Most of those students have not read a full poetry book ever, but they do, very often, listen to hip-hop, or they may have heard spoken-word artists. They have watched them on YouTube, even if they have never seen them live," DiGiorgio said.
DiGiorgio's class discusses what makes poetry actually poetry. DiGiorgio defines poetry as doing more with language than simply communicating. Poetry is using rhythms, word choice and image to communicate an experience and not just a transferral of information, which would be just rhetoric or a soapbox speech, DiGiorgio said.
"Spoken word and hip-hop, they capture a different kind type of poetry than what is often classified as the book poets, the academic poets, the podium poets. I'm someone who appreciates both," DiGiorgio said.
Hip-hop's impact on poetry has been tremendous because there are so many multiple connections between music in general and poetry, said Heidi Sheridan, an English professor at Ocean County College. Poetry has meter and rhyme and so does music, but especially with rap and hip-hop because poetry was originally an aural format, Sheridan said.
The Internet or digital age also has had a positive impact on poetry because it has opened up so many way for poets to participate, Sheridan said. The National Recitation Contest can be found at the website poetryoutloud.org, Sheridan said.
"If people just want to look up various types of poets, they can use the Internet. Maybe in the past, they had to travel to a country and go to a specific library to find certain things. Now, they can find so much of that on the Internet," Sheridan said. "Whether it's research, posting their own poems or participating in these contests, I think the Internet has really promoted poetry."
"These gave me more information. I especially like the one with the podcasts because you can hear the poets actually reading their own works," said Ottto, a former English teacher, who has been writing poetry since childhood. "Two poets come to mind right away, (that he discovered on the Internet), Ted Kooser, a former poet laureate, and Robert Hayden."
Otto has read his poetry at the Collingswood Book Festival and the Hopkins House Gallery, both in Camden County. He made his first appearance at the Shore Slam on Nov. 14. His two main creative outlets are writing freelance magazine articles and poetry.
"Whatever hits your senses that day, that minute, you can usually get some kind of verbiage going to create a poem," Otto said.
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