Slam poetry, also known as spoken word poetry, is typically performed at what is known as a “poetry slam”. These events are live and involve an audience and a group of judges. The writer stands on stage, recites their chosen work with a heavy focus on intonation and inflection.
Due to the live nature of these events, the audience often has an important role to play. Poetry slams can be loud and powerful events in which everyone in the room becomes part of the performance. From cheering to yelling and applauding, the world of poetry is brought off the page and into a celebratory environment.
In another step away from the traditional format of written verse, slam poetry can also be performed in pairs or teams. Groups interact on stage, playing off one another’s lines and further the chosen themes or morals of a particular work. The individuals or teams can be judged in a few different ways. There might be a panel of judges selected for a specific event or pulled from the audience by the emcee or host.
Alternatively, the poets might be ranked based on audience participation and the general level of excitement in the room. When judges are selected, they rank the poets on a scale of zero to ten. Most poetry slams have multiple rounds through which contestants are eliminated.
History of Poetry Slams
Poetry slams began in the 1980s in Chicago, Illinois. They grew in popularity as readers, writers and lovers of poetry sought to bring what had typically been an art form with its roots in academia and the upper classes into a more accessible realm. Anyone, no matter their background, could participate in a poetry slam.
Marc Smith, an American poet, is credited as the founder of the party slam. The first event took place at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984. Two years later Green Mill Jazz Club became the permanent home for Chicago slam poetry. Over the next ten years, poetry slams spread out across the country from New York to San Francisco, then all over the world.
As slam poetry gained momentum, one of the most important goals of this style of writing and performance was to challenge literary value. Slam poetry is meant to push back against the historical traditions of classical literature and those deemed capable of writing it. This is furthered through the competition format as no poet is spared criticism and all are at the mercy of the audience. Particularly, spoken word poetry has been important to female writers and writers of colour. These groups, which have been marginalized since the beginning of written history, have found in slam poetry an outlet that wants to challenge the system that more often than not locks them out.
How to Write Slam Poetry
- Watch Live Performances. It is important to understand before writing spoken word poetry that the sound is of the utmost importance. You have to consider what the words are going to sound like when they’re delivered on stage, and how exactly that delivery is going to play out. Phono-aesthetics or the aesthetics of sound should be in front of your mind. If you are truly interested in writing good slam poetry, you should attend slam events, see how other writers perform their own works and use the good and bad as examples for your own style and method of delivery.
- Pick a theme or topic. Most writers have something in mind when they embark on a new poem. That could be something personal that you believe will resonate with the audience at a slam. Or, something of wider cultural, social significance. If you feel passionate about it, so too will the audience.
- Begin writing. Now its time to get some words on paper. Consider your chosen topic, how it makes you feel and how, in turn, you’d like to make the audience feel. Take these emotions however they come to you and use them as a starting point for your first draft. As mentioned previously, the sound is going to be one of the most important elements of your work. Read your words out loud, do they flow? Can you deliver them convincingly? If you’ve used complex vocabulary words or made references to events or topics your audience can’t understand, consider if they are necessary.
- Time to edit. More often than not there is going to be a significant portion of your poem that you don’t need. Take sections out, read it aloud, put them back in, shift lines around. Do whatever you can to find the right order for your lines and words. It is also important to consider your delivery at this point. Where are the most powerful sections of your verse? Which are dramatic and need to be spoken softly? Is there a variety?
- Practice, practice, practice! You want to feel confident when you walk on stage so make sure before you face your very first audience you know have a plan. Plus, that you are capable of carrying it out without getting too nervous or overwhelmed. Enlist friends and family to critic your performance, their input might inspire you to push yourself further or reconsider some of your material.
Examples of Slam Poets and Poetry
Take a look at these examples of some of the best slam poetry sessions the internet has to offer:
If you’re looking for inspiration on the delivery front, this is the performance for you. This sweet and powerful reading conveys the blossoming romance of the characters in Ott’s work.
Another powerful performance, this time with a pair of poets, ‘When Love Arrives’ speaks on similar themes as ‘Falling in Like”. This is also a great example of the way performing in a group can benefit the audience’s reception of a specific work.
A personal and “honest” poem, Francisco speaks on his own life, habits, emotions and everyday concerns. In this performance, a would-be writer of slam poetry can find an example of how to make the personal relatable to a wider audience.
Personal and political, this poem takes the listener into the complexities of stereotypes, racism and the marginalization of not just Asians, but all non-white male groups.