What is Slam Poetry?
Slam Poetry refers to poems written to be performed in Slams, or in the style of that poetry.
Poetry Slams first originated in Chicago at Get Me High Lounge in 1984, when poet Marc Smith began running them in an effort to shake up conventional poetry open mics, shifting the audience from academia to the general public. To this end, Smith conceived the event to be competitive, with poets judged by a panel from the audience, as well as strict time limits.
The competitive element added an exciting dynamic and invited the audience to be part of the show. Audience participation is as judge primarily, but also through heckling and cheering. The format encouraged poets to consider the audience as well as their poetic vision. By July 1986, the show had attracted a large enough audience that it moved to the Green Mill Jazz Club, its permanent home and former haunt of Al Capone, running on the slow Sunday nights.
The Ann Arbor Poetry Slam was founded in 1987 by Vince Keuter, with the first New York City poetry Slam following in August 1988, hosted by was hosted by Bob Holman at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe.
By 1990, Slam as a movement had spread around the country and a National Poetry Slam was held, featuring a team from host city San Francisco, a team from Chicago and a single individual from New York. Chicago won the team slam, with Patricia Smith—also of Chicago—winning the individual slam.
1997 saw the founding of Poetry Slam Inc., a non-profit intended to promote Slam and make it more accessible. In 1998, the first documentary focusing on the National Poetry Slam, SlamNation, was released. Intended to be shown on a limited theatrical run, the film received a glowing review by noted film critic Roger Ebert. The film followed the Nuyorican Poetry Slam team, including Saul Williams, as they prepared for the 1996 National Poetry Slam.
Slam experienced another revolution in 2001, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US. With many performers left stranded in the cities they were performing, impromptu Slams were set up to lift spirits. This is also became a powerful moment in writing, with numerous anthologies coming together based off the experience, much in the same way as poetry changed after the World Wars.
Poetry Slam Inc. currently operates three competitions, the National Poetry Slam,the Women of the World Poetry Slam, and the Individual World Poetry Slam, which previously operated as part of the National Poetry Slam until 2007. Since 2008, the National Poetry Slam has also hosted a Group Piece Competition, featuring works performed by multiple voices.
Poetry is by no means an entirely American activity, with a number of important figures, organisations and projects emerging from the UK.
Since 2001, SLAMbassadors has been a youth Slam project run by the Poetry Society and led by Joelle Taylor. Originally called Rise Slam Championship, it had to battle the preconception that Slam was intrinsically American. In part thanks to its partnership with the Poetry Society, Slam has become accepted in the UK; so much so that the term ‘Slam’ has been accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary.
Any poem performed within that context of a Slam can be considered a Slam Poem, though within a Slam there are a few rules in place.
Firstly, a Slam Poem should be under three minutes in length when read or performed aloud. Though there are a few Slams with five minute time limits, the three-minute rule is generally and widely accepted.
Secondly, the poem should not require the use of props or music. This is a key difference in distinguishing Performance Poetry from Slam Poetry.
Thirdly, the sounds made are arguably as important as the words generating them. Slam Poetry can be considered to be more rhythmic in nature than page poetry, as it is primarily designed to be heard, though a great Slam Poem will often be comfortable on the page as a form of Free Verse.
It’s worth considering that what we call Slam Poetry is an amalgamation of three distinct regional genres of Performance Poetry, and endless infusions of culture, subculture and experience. To expand on this, Chicago Slam tended to be focused on pure poetry and less on theatrics, New York Slam was packed social commentary and hard political edges, and West Coast and Texas Slam leans more towards comedy and passionate rants. All of these inform the way Modern Slam is written.
Slam Poetry is often used to discuss political or social points, or individual opinions on or reactions to issues relating to identity. Because of the focus on connection, Slam Poetry is a fantastic form for discussing matters of a personal nature.
Hedwig Gorski, the poet credited with inventing the term ‘Performance Poetry,’ considers that Slam has continued the politics of ancient oral poetry, designed to attract attention in public spaces.
Some have been critical of Slam for a variety of reasons. Some dislike the competitive element, claiming it forces a “lowest common denominator” approach to poetry, and that its focus on gut reaction and viscerality removes much of the editorial quality. Indeed, there is something to the notion that Slam poetry lacks diversity, but a well-written Slam poem should focus on the craft of writing as well as the performance, and should hold its own without resorting to cheap tricks and basic audience manipulation, but instead stand out on its own merit.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.