Slam poetry was at its height in the late nineties and early aughts, but just like poetry (in its non-slammed form) it is still relevant. The medium is prime for reinvention, but exactly what cultural shifts can create additional room for slam in people’s lives is difficult to answer. But if there’s an easy way for slam poetry to return to prominence, it’s through establishing a shared connection to the meaningful experiences of its audience. Or, in other words, through material like Amir Safi’s “An Ode To Whataburger,” which he performed over the weekend at the Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival in Bryan-College Station.
The “church of meat, grease, and longer waits,” as Safi puts it, gets a poetic tribute as he explains the joy of Whataburger for an eager live audience. He spreads the gospel of Honey Butter Chicken Biscuits, touts its greatness compared to other chains (“Wendy’s wants to be you when she grows up”), and laments the down side of going through the drive-thru (“You know that feeling you get/when you could have ordered your burger with extra onions/grilled jalapenos/three slices of cheese/but you didn’t and your buddy did?/That’s what we call getting out-Whataburgered”).
It’s all pretty funny, but it does get to some of what slam poetry can accomplish, which is using wordplay to deftly navigate between a funny series of phrases and an actual emotional point. That’s demonstrated as Safi talks about the role Whataburger played in his teenage years: “In high school, you were a place to hang that didn’t involve the words ‘pasture party’/In college, you are our live two a.m. entertainment/You are the only place I’ve ever felt safe sitting next to a cop,” he says before describing the time a Whataburger employee told him she put her heart into his sweet tea—an experience anyone with a little Whatalove can relate to.