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Poetry Slam

Poetry Slam

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Slam poetry is a postmodern form of performance poetry that occurs within a competitive poetry event, called a "slam", at which poets perform their own poems (or, in rare cases, those of others) that are "judged" on a numeric scale by randomly picked members of the audience. Without the event of the poetry slam, the poetry is not slam poetry. It cannot consist of several poets performing without being judged. Without the judging the event is just a poetry performance.

Critics of slam poetry say that it is the quality of the performance that often wins the day, irrespective of the quality of the poetry. It is also often complained that poems are judged more on their subject matter than on their actual content, and that some subjects (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) virtually guarantee a "pity factor" which propels such poems' scores even higher. Despite the page/stage debate, several slam poets have gone on to publish popular books, including Patricia Smith (four-time National Poetry Slam champion), Paul Beatty, Saul Williams, Regie Gibson, Justin Chin, Mighty Mike McGee, Jeffrey McDaniel, Daphne Gottlieb, Michael Salinger, Shane Koyczan, Beau Sia, Ragan Fox, Buddy Wakefield, Big Poppa E, and Taylor Mali.

In the view of its exponents, the point of slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who pretends to know absolutely what literary quality is. The poets that embrace slam poetry seem to wish to give audience members the power to become part of each poem's presence, thus breaking down the barriers between poet/performer, critic and audience. Bob Holman, a poetry activist and former slammaster of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, once called the movement "the democratization of verse." Since only the poets with the best cumulative scores advance to the final round of the night, the structure assures that the audience gets to choose whom they want to hear more from (and conversely, who they think should shut up).

Slam poetry did not rise from Rap and Hip-hop iphone photography and only later had some degree of connection. Beginning in the mid-90s, slam poetry became more and more closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music. Many within and outside the Slam community feel that a "hip-hop style" is required to win Slam, but it should be noted that the 2005 Individual World Slam Champion, Buddy Wakefield, is not considered a "hip-hop poet"; and the 2005 National Poetry Slam individual championship was shared by Anis Mojgani, another poet who doesn't generally use the "hip-hop style". At the 2006 Individual World Poetry Slam, none of the top four finalists (Jared Paul, Andrea Gibson, Joaquin Zihuatanejo, and Mighty Mike McGee) typically engage in the hip-hop lyrical style. The winning team at the 2006 National Poetry Slam, Denver, has often been criticized for being "too white". In short, many poets excel with a hip-hop style and succeed with it, but Slam encompasses a broad range of voices, styles, and approaches to writing and performance.

A notable voice of poetry slam has been a younger generation of writers who use poetry slam as a way to claim the voice they struggle to obtain within larger society. Youthspeaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in the country offering many opportunities for youth ages 13-19 to express their ideas from the paper to stage. Based in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Ann Arbor, Youthspeaks has greatly changed the face of poetry slam.


Slam and academia

Slam Poetry has sometimes been attacked by the academic poetry community. In an interview published in a recent Paris Review, literary critic and long-time slam detractor Harold Bloom called the movement "the death of art." In response, some have levelled serious challenges to Bloom's criticism. In an essay in OC Weekly, poet and critic Victor D. Infante said, "[The death of art] is a big onus to place on anybody, but Bloom has always had a propensity for (reactionary) generalizations and burying his bigotries beneath 'aesthetics,' insisting — as he did in his prologue to the anthology Best of the Best of American Poetry — that the 'art' of poetry is being debased by politics."

However, the relationship between the two seemingly clean circles is muddied by those who straddle the fences of both communities. The academic community has seen a number of slam poets enter into its midst, and with much success. Likewise, the slam community has seen quite a number of academicians enter into its fields. Both realms have certainly influenced each other's thinking, as slam poetry is peppered with the thought and theories distributed by the academy, and fields such as performance studies have devoted much critical attention to the competition of spoken word. Moreover, a number of poets are paid by college campuses across the nation to perform.

There have been a handful of "crossover poets" whose work is accepted by both the slam and academic communities. Jeffrey McDaniel started as a slammer and wound up publishing several books on major presses. Craig Arnold, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, took his poems off the page onto the stage. A less successful attempt at crossover was that of Henry Taylor, an academic poet and winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, who competed in the 1997 National Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150. Poets such as Michael Salinger, Felice Bell, Javon Johnson, Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett, Robbie Q. Telfer, Phil West, Karyna McGlynn and Scott Dillard have devoted much attention to the merger in their respective scholarly works.


The modern slam competition is most widely believed to have been started by Marc Smith, at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the slam moved to its permanent Chicago home, the Green Mill Jazz Club, where it began to grow. In 1990, the first National Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco. Now, the National Slam boasts approximately 75 certified slam teams from all parts of the United States, Canada, and other countries. Although American in origin, slams have spread all over the world. Today there are strong slam scenes in Germany, Austria, Nepal, the Netherlands, and as far as New Zealand and Singapore, and even in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where it is usually hosted by the editor-in-chief of a Sarajevo-based "hard-core literary magazine" called "Album". French slam is nowadays impersonated by Grand Corps Malade : the only mainstream slam artist in the country for the time being released his album "Midi 20" in march 2006.


1. Elimination (over the course of two to four rounds) is traditionally practiced so that a greater number of poets can enter the competition, but giving the most amount of time to the poets who are scoring well. A standard design for elimination is 8-4-2, with eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. In invitational slams, elimination is usually not used, so as to give the competing poets a better chance to show off. These may be formatted as 5-5-5, with five poets reading three poems each.

2. Time Penalties are enforced at the National Slam, and at many local slams as well. The standard time limit for a poem is three minutes (including a grace period of around ten seconds), after which a poet's score is docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit.

3. Props and Costumes, except during a special competition (see below), are forbidden during a poet's performance of a poem. This ensures that a poet will not win a slam simply by wearing clothes appropriate to his piece or having brought with him a monkey and an accordion. (This rule is somewhat loosely enforced, however, especially at the National level, where poets often put as much thought into their style of dress as to their poems. During the 2000 Nationals in Providence, RI, a poet performed while smoking a cigarette. The team which protested this "prop" was chastised, while the poem's score remained unaltered by the rule violation.) Nevertheless, when enforced, even wearing sunglasses can be seen as a costume, and, if taken off or put on during the performance, can be seen as a prop.

4. Scoring is done by members of the audience chosen at random, provided they don't know a slammer or have any other biases. This tends to be loosely enforced at the local level, as sometimes slams are so small, or slammers so notorious, that there is nobody in the audience that doesn't know them. There are usually five judges, who rate each poem on a scale of 0-10, with one decimal point. As the slammasters say, "Zero is the poem that should never have been written. Ten is simultaneous orgasm from everyone in the audience; five is neither good nor bad, it just is." Of the scores the poem receives from the five judges, the highest and the lowest scores are dropped (to avoid personal vendettas and overzealous judging), and the remaining three are added together, giving the poem a total score of 0-30. In practical terms, however, scores of lower than 7 are somewhat rare, and exceptionally so in the championship rounds.

Competition types

In an Open Slam, also known as an Open Mic, the most common slam type, competition is open to all who wish to compete. If there are more slammers than available time slots, competitors will often be chosen at random from the signup list. In an Invitational Slam, by contrast, only those invited to do so may compete.

A Theme Slam is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme or genre. Thematic slams have included the Goth Slam, the Erotica Slam, the Queer Slam and the Cute Boy Slam.

A Dead Poet Slam allows competitors to read or recite the works of deceased poets. The slam is not restricted to any particular time period. Some poets have chosen to read Lord Byron, while others prefer Dr. Seuss.

The Low-Ball Slam or Bad Poetry Slam rewards the poets with the worst scores. This is a rarely-seen but hilarious event.

"King of the Hill" or "Taos Bout" Style involves a direct face-off between two poets, which in some cases resemble poetry boxing matches but take on the look of tennis tournaments from a distance. The losing poets are eliminated, and the winning poets face each other in subsequent rounds. Bouts have a history that apparently predates slam and have been running continuously since their inception in Taos, New Mexico.

The "1-2-3" Slam enforces time penalties and begins with a round of one-minute poems, followed by a round of two-minute poems and concluding with a round of three-minute poems, with the number of poets in each subsequent round reduced by elimination. The theory here is that the poet earns the right to do a longer poem by first proving that he can do a shorter one well.

The Team Slam (aka "Grudge Slam") involves two or more slam teams, usually (though not always) from different cities, each usually consisting of four or five poets. The two teams then take turns sending poets to battle it out for the prize, which is usually boasting rights. Also, in past NPS's Individual poets or Storm poets can compete in a team slam.

The Props Slam allows competing poets to use props and costumes, which are --under ordinary circumstances--against the rules of slam.

Style-Specific Slams include the Limerick Slam and the Haiku Deathmatch.

The Spring Break Slam. A non-stop party.

The Anarchy Slam. This is a removal of all rules, from the ban on props to the scoring methodology. In one such event, a poet performed his piece to a man dressed as The Bible, who murmured angrily throughout; the scoring was done by the entire audience, who wrote their scores on tiny pieces of purple paper, to which the poet had approximately twenty seconds to collect.

The National Poetry Slam is a week-long event held in a different city each year, where teams of 3-5 poets each represent their city for the opportunity to win the National Poetry Slam Championship.

The Individual World Poetry Slam is another week long event held in a different city each year, where individual poets compete for the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship.

High School Slams are refereed by teachers, and held much in the fashion of an Open Slam. Schools come together at either a public venue or a hosting school, and usually perform individually (unless the slam is specified by the hosting school as a Team Slam). Commonly, two rounds and a final round are held. Depending on the school, slams may be conducted as field trips for a specific class, or as an official "team."

Cineslam is a competition between self-produced short films, which are not necessarily poetry-based.



  • Algarin & Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
  • Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
  • Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, and Why Things Burn
  • Gary Glazner, Poetry Slam
  • Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
  • Justin Chin, Bite Hard
  • Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, and Life According to Motown
  • Ragan Fox, Heterophobia
  • Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
  • Big Poppa E, The Wussy Boy Manifesto

See also

External links

de:Poetry Slam fr:Slam (poésie) sv:Poetry slam

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