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Poetry Guide: Slam Poetry

Slam poetry is a 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.

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), Saul Williams, Regie Gibson, Justin Chin, Mighty Mike McGee, Jeffrey McDaniel, Daphne Gottlieb, Shane Koyzcan, Beau Sia, Ragan Fox, 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).

Beginning in the mid-90s, slam poetry has been more and more closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music, to the point that currently (2005) it is almost unheard-of for the winner of a slam to not use said style.

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 slammers have called Bloom childish names. He has yet to formally respond to the charge that he is an "old fuddy-duddy dunder-head."

Others have levelled more 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.

"The irony, of course, is that denying politics a place in the poetry canon is itself a political position, one undeniably born of class and privilege, specifically a class and privilege with which Bloom is familiar."

However, the relationship between the two seemingly clean circles are muddied by those who straddle the fences of both communities. The academic community has seen a number of slam poets enter into their midst, and so with much success, as well as the slam community have seen quite a number of academicians enter into their fields. Both realms have certainly influenced each others thinking, as slam poetry is peppered with the thought and theories of those 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 all across the nation to perform.

On the other hand, 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 Felice Bell, once slam master of the famous Nuyorican, has published scholarly works; moreover, slam poets like Susan B. Anthony Sommers-Willet and Scott Dillard have devoted much attention to the merger in their respective scholarly works.


Marc Smith at the Green Mill. Marc Smith at the Green Mill.

The modern slam competition is most widely believed to have been started by Marc Smith, at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, Illinois 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 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, UK, Netherlands and as far as New Zealand and Singapore.


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.)

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." Of the scores the poem receives from the five judges, the highest and the lowest scores are dropped, 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 exceptionally rare.

Competition types

In an Open Slam, 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.

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



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