Poetry Slam

What if poetry could be interactive? Poetry and storytelling have unifying elements. Since the 17th century, poetry and literature have been composed primarily to be read in print; however, the performance of poetry has been around since the times of Homer's epic poems. Recently, the performance of poetry has seen a revival in the form of poetry slams. A poetry slam takes poetry, originally cloistered to the written word, and brings it to life through performance. Originating in Chicago in the 1980s, poetry slams were a means to reawaken poetry and return it to the general masses. Poetry slams make the beauty of the verse accessible to the crowds and more relatable by creating a relaxed medium in which to enjoy the poetic form. 

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Table of contents

    Poetry Slam Meaning

    A poetry slam is a competition for performance poetry. Combining the skills of the written word, performance, vocal delivery, and audience interaction, poetry slams are a dynamic way to express ideas. Conducted in rounds, a poetry slam eliminates participants in each round until a final winner emerges. The competitions are usually before a live audience and consist of a panel of judges that evaluate each participant based on predetermined criteria.

    The laid-back and competitive nature of poetry slams introduces a different audience to poetry, traditionally reserved for enjoyment in an academic setting. Poetry slams breathe life into an occasionally staid genre by creating an environment where different individuals can express themselves freely. Poetry slams provide a safe place for individuals to express themselves, communicate about social and political issues, and find support for creative self-expression.

    Marc Kelly Smith (b. 1949) is a Chicago-born poet, credited as the founder of the American poetry slam movement. Marc Smith, a construction worker by trade, created a weekly poetry event where anyone could participate.

    Poetry Slam a group of individuals on state at a poetry recitation competition StudySmarterPoetry performed brings together people from different backgrounds and unites them based on common interests. Wikimedia.

    As slam poetry became more and more popular, several competitions were created to celebrate this new medium and give performers a voice and platform. The Individual World Poetry Slam is a yearly competition in which performance poets from around the world compete in four different rounds to earn the recognition of the top poet for the year.

    Poetry Slam Structure

    Although the structure of a poetry slam can vary by competition and venue, there is a generally accepted structure to the competition. The poetry slam structure is versatile and can be adjusted to meet the demands of the specific contest.

    Typically, each performer is given three minutes to perform an originally written poem they created. The poems are often politically or socially charged, but there are also slams and performances that gear their subject towards traditional poetic topics such as love and death. A good poetry slam incorporates audience interaction, with members sometimes cheering, laughing, reacting to, and interacting with the performers. There is an overall atmosphere of acceptance where the creative process is valued and respected, and performers are appreciated.

    Rules in Slam Poetry

    Rules vary for each poetry slam and are typically explicitly stated for performers before they participate. In general, each participant is given a set amount of time, usually three minutes, in which to deliver their original piece of poetry to the audience while on a stage. The poets sharing their work may not use props, costumes, or musical instruments to supplement their production. The poem and the delivery must stand alone.

    A total of five judges are present in the audience who rate each poetry performance on a scale of one to ten. These judges can be picked ahead of time, but they are often merely audience members who volunteered for the job. The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the three remaining scores are added together to produce the performer's overall score. The score will range from 0-30, and the performer with the highest average score wins the slam. 2

    Poetry Slam a microphone StudySmarterPerformance poetry during poetry slams is not accompanied by music and is typically timed. Pexels.

    Poetry Slam Traits

    Poetry slams welcome a variety of poems and do not adhere to a specific structure of poetry. However, there are some typical characteristics of slam poetry, the poems performed for poetry slams.

    Slam poetry is a genre that is written with the specific intention of performance. Diction in slam poems is chosen for its meaning, but also for the way it sounds phonetically when spoken. Rhyme schemes, alliteration, and meter, traits found in traditional poetry, are often utilized in slam poems because of their musicality. However, slam poetry is unique because it is an intensely personal medium that places value on the individual experience and puts raw emotion on display. Performers recite, but also fill their language with emotions that can't be communicated in written form. When performed, slam poems frequently use a variety of different volumes where the poet or speaker moves from a whisper to a yell, using pacing to speed up the verbiage or pauses for dramatic effect.

    Slam poetry can also be a collaborative display where two or more speakers perform together, work off of one another, practice a call-and-response exercise, or even speak simultaneously to create a more dynamic and immersed atmosphere. While there are elements of traditional poetic features, as mentioned above, spoken word poetry tends to favor daily vernacular and even uses slang and idiomatic phrases to connect with audience members.

    Poetry Slam contestants get their scores StudySmarterPoetry slam contestants receiving their scores. Flickr.

    Although the performance and performer are at the center of the experience, being an audience member during poetry slams is a dynamic and inclusive experience. Members are invited, and expected to, interact with the performer, respond verbally to what they are saying, and have an open and honest reaction to the performance. Slam poetry is often gritty, an expression of emotional experience, life's pains, and daily struggles. It joins people through commonality and expresses the beauty in the raw and unfiltered human experience while shedding light on the wrongs in society.

    Russell Simmons (1957 - present), business entrepreneur, was instrumental in popularizing slam poetry. Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry (2002-2007) was a spoken word poetry television series that featured many talented poets and pop-culture figures. Hosted by singer, actor, songwriter, and poet Mos Def (1973-present), or Yassin Bey, the series started in 2002 and ran for roughly five years. Poetry was on television, it was popular, and it became mainstream. Backed by some of the biggest names in music, pop culture, and contemporary poets, the performances created a culture where self-expression using poetry was not only accepted but celebrated. Although it is no longer around, it paved the way for other shows like it, including Brave New Voices (2009), a slam poetry competition aired by HBO.

    Mos Def performed his original work as a host of Def Poetry. The series also featured celebrated poets like Nikki Giovanni (1943- present), Saul Williams (1972-present), and Amiri Baraka (1943-2014).

    Slam poetry performed at poetry slams also tend to focus on political and social issues. Although not a requirement, these pieces are laden with social commentary as the poets use the public platform to address social issues of race, violence, gender, class, discrimination, war, and religion. Slam poems are intended to provoke the audience and elicit an emotional and verbal reaction such as jeering, cheering, and tearing. Although poets can't use props or music to enhance the performance, they are regularly encouraged to act, using bodily movement, hand gestures, and facial expressions to enhance their performance and add value to the words. This style, often referred to as "slam voice," describes the way slam poetry is delivered vocally. Typical characteristics of slam voice are:

    • vocal intensity
    • mournful tone
    • stilted language
    • pacing with extra pauses for dramatic effect
    • crescendos

    Poetry Slam Examples

    The following examples illustrate key traits of slam poetry.

    You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,I make them question.I make them criticize.I make them apologize and mean it.I make them write.I make them read, read, read.I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautifulover and over and over again until they will never misspelleither one of those words again.I make them show all their work in mathand hide it on their final drafts in English.I make them understand that if you've got this,then you follow this,and if someone ever tries to judge youby what you make, you give them this.

    Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

    (Lines 38-54) from "What Teachers Make" (2002) by Taylor Mali (1965 - present)

    Here, Mali uses common poetic techniques such as repetition for emphasis but also incorporates more conversational language and pacing to relate to the audience and help in delivery. In addition, there are clear vocal cues for physical movement: for example, when he says, "if you've got this / then you follow this," he would point to his head and then his heart, respectively, during performances.

    Poetry Slam America literary movements image of a classroom StudySmarterImage of a traditional classroom. Flickr.

    She--shows brittle nicotine teeth with spaces between each one. Her fingers are bony, there's no rings on'm, and she'd love to get'er nails done someday. One time she had'er hair fixed. They took out the grease, made it real big on top, and feathered it. She likes it like that. She'll never be fully informed on some things just like I will never understandwho really buys Moon Pies, or those rolling, wrinkled, dried-up sausages.But then again, she's been here a lot longer than me.She's seen everythingfrom men who grow dread locks out of their top lipsto children who look like cigarettes.

    (lines 13-24) from "Convenience Stores" (2009) by Buddy Wakefield (1974-present)

    In this excerpt, Wakefield uses pauses, such as the one after "She" in line 13 to emphasize topics. He uses references to common convenience store items, such as the rolling sausages on the heater and pre-packaged pastries. Irregular contractions which mimic dialect and daily conversation such as "on'm" and "get'er" in line 14 add an element of authenticity and rawness to the words.

    American literary movements poetry slam image of a convenience storeThe inside of a convenience store. Flickr.

    Notice how many spoken word poems don't necessarily rhyme but rather get their cadence from the delivery of the words and their organization. The topics are reflective and stem from personal experiences.

    Another powerful example of the strength behind slam poetry is "The Hill We Climb" (2021), written by American activist and poet Amanda Gorman (1998 - present) and recited by her at President Joe Biden's inauguration in 2021. Her performance of the spoken-word poem garnered national attention and gained her international recognition for her message of resilience.

    Some other examples of slam poetry include:

    • "Mama" (2015) by Emi Mahmoud
    • "Hair" (2020) by Elizabeth Acevedo
    • "What Kind of Asian Are You" (2017) by Alex Dang
    • "Adrenaline Rush" (2015) by Rudy Francisco
    • "Pretty" (2002) by Katie Makkai

    Diction is the specific words an author or poet chooses to include in their pieces to add meaning and establish tone. The diction can be emotionally charged, positive, negative, or neutral.

    Rhyme scheme is the pattern of words with the same vowel or consonant sounds.

    Alliteration is when writers use words that begin with the same consonant sounds within the same line of poetry or prose. Alliteration can add rhythm to the words.

    Meter is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line or lines of poetry.

    Fun fact: A poetry and political music group called The Last Poets was formed during the 1960s. Stemming from the Civil Rights Movement, this group was instrumental in increasing the popularity of spoken-word poetry in African-American culture. 1

    Difference Between Poetry and Slam Poetry

    The primary difference between traditional forms of poetry and slam poetry is that slam poetry is performance poetry written with the specific intent of being delivered live to an audience. As society shifts into the age of technology, the value of certain types of poetic verse and literature changes as well. A memorized poem, like slam poetry, represents a shift within a culture that was primarily expressed in print. Poetry performed is a merging of the written and print economies of communication, showing an emphasis on orality.4

    While previous forms of poetry were understood to be absorbed from the page and in print, the modes of communication are developing and the literature that represents society is consequently evolving. Still as cerebral as before, but more accessible, performance poetry is representative of the current culture and values.

    Some tips to consider when learning how to write slam poetry include creating an original piece that represents or expresses an important issue. Slam poetry is intensely personal and relatable. In addition, consider the actual delivery of the poem and the sounds each word makes. Although spelling and message are essential, slam poetry focuses a lot on the sound of words because it is verbally expressed and delivered to a live audience rather than being read from a printed source.

    Certain words are emphasized through strategic pauses, whispers, and various intonations. Timing is critical, as most poetry slams limit performances to three minutes each. Pacing is a crucial aspect of presentation when working on performance poetry. Connecting with the audience is another feature to be considered when creating a piece. Practicing eye contact, scanning audience members, and body language are all primary ways to communicate a message when performing spoken-word poetry.

    Poetry Slam - Key takeaways

    • A poetry slam is a competitive version of spoken-word poetry, or slam poetry, where poets/performers present their originally written poem dramatically, on a stage for a live audience.
    • Slam poetry is poetry written for the specific purpose of performance, also known as performance poetry.
    • A prime example of performance poetry or spoken word poetry is "The Hill We Climb" by Amanda Gorman, presented at President Joe Biden's inauguration.
    • The subject matter in slam poetry is diverse, but is often politically and socially charged.
    • Poetry slams and slam poetry bring poetry to the masses by making the genre accessible to a wider audience.

    1. Hoffman, Tyler. "Treacherous Laughter: The Poetry Slam, Slam Poetry, and the Politics of Resistance." Studies in American Humor. 2001.

    2. Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. "Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity." The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association. Spring 2005. 3.

    3. Chaser, Mike. "Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem." Poetry. Vol. 205. January 2015.

    4. Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge. 2002.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Poetry Slam

    What is slam poetry? 

    Slam poetry is a genre that is written with the specific intention of performance.

    What is a good poetry slam? 

     A good poetry slam incorporates audience interaction, with members sometimes booing, laughing, reacting to, and interacting with the performers.

    What are the characteristics of slam poetry? 

    Slam poetry is a genre that is written with the specific intention of performance. Diction in slam poems is chosen for its meaning, but also for the way it sounds phonetically when spoken. Rhyme schemes, alliteration, and meter, traits found in traditional poetry, are often utilized in slam poems because of their musicality. When performed, slam poems often use a variety of different volumes where the poet or speaker moves from a whisper to a yell, using pacing to speed up the verbiage or pauses for dramatic effect. 

    What are some examples of slam poetry? 

    Examples of slam poetry include: 

    • "Mama" (2015) by Emi Mahmoud
    • "Hair" (2020) by Elizabeth Acevedo
    • "What Kind of Asian Are You" (2017) by Alex Dang
    • "Adrenaline Rush" (2015) by Rudy Francisco
    • "Pretty" (2002) by Katie Makkai

    What are tips for how to write slam poetry? 

    Tips for how to write slam poetry include creating an original piece that is personal and relatable, focusing on the sounds of words including, paying attention to timing and delivery, and using pauses and pacing to help create suspense or relate to the audience. 

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