The Four Types of Poetry Events

A discussion of the four types of poetry event: open mics, slams, showcases, and one-person shows.

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You’ve decided you’re definitely going to run a poetry event, but then you’re faced with a decision: What kind of event do you want to run? It seems like there’s an endless range of possibilities; different models you can use to run your event. However, events typically tend to follow one of four formulas, with variations on the theme giving individual events their own flair.

1. Open Mic

This is the origin of every performer, where most us will cut our teeth onstage for the first time.

It’s a super simple model at its heart. Performers get up onstage and do their thing; anyone can sign up. There might be restrictions on time or the number of poems or topics, but that’s the producer’s decision. Sometimes the night will culminate in a headline or feature act, however that again is variable. If a poet is booked as a headliner, they will be given a different length of set to the open mic preceding them.

Some open mics might be sign-up-on-the-night, while others may require you to put your name down beforehand, and others are a total free-for-all with no set running order. If you’re unsure what the policy for sign up is, just ask the host. Most open mic hosts love getting new talent onstage. Some open mics are completely open, accepting stand-ups, musicians, and other artists besides poets.

A popular variation of the open mic in the worlds of stand-up and music is the bringer show, where performers must bring a certain number of audience members along to receive their place.

2. Slam

This is a live contest between poets, and there are a number of variations to this form.

A traditional-style slam, as pioneered by Marc Smith, features a group of poets who perform for a panel of judges, often picked from the audience. These judges will assign a score from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Usually, the highest and lowest scores are dropped to avoid personal bias amongst the judges. The poet at the end with the highest score is crowned the winner. Individual slams may use different scoring formulas, while some will institute heats or even one-on-one face-offs.

Instead of using audience members, some slams have assigned judges of respected poets or publishers. Others may have a theme or specific prompt. Guest hosts or featured poets can crop up, or a headliner can perform before, during, or after the slam to give extra value. Variations subvert the form further, such as ‘Dead Poets’ where the poets perform work by deceased poets instead of original work, or where poets intentionally try to bring their worst poetry possible, or poetry that has been written immediately before performance.

Slams were designed to bring people to poetry events who otherwise wouldn’t come. The competitive atmosphere and even the name slam are designed to appeal to people outside the world of poetry. The use of judges was pioneered to breakdown the idea of the poet as a venerated figure, a levelling of the field. However, slams remain contentious as many people feel that poetry cannot accurately be assessed in the heat of the moment and requires time to digest.

3. Showcase

This is booked talent. Everyone on the bill will be promoted as a reason to come. Typically this will feature fewer poets than an open mic, but everyone will have longer to perform. Each of the poets on the bill would be an established artist, known for their high quality of work. They may be arranged in an order of top-billing and support, or listed equally, depending on the type of showcase.

Typically (though not always), these are shows that poets get paid for, as the performers are capable of moving tickets and generating sales.

4. One-Person Show

Some poets develop shows around a theme or narrative. These can feature multiple characters; however, many will be just the poet delivering their work.

Some shows will utilise musical accompaniment to underscore emotional moments or to direct the flow of the show. These shows will tour around the country, while the biggest will even cross the world.

Occasionally, these shows take the form of ‘An Evening With…’ enabling the poet to share a selection of work in a more relaxed setting.

 

Whilst these four are the typical types of live events, there are others that don’t fit into these moulds. Arguably, the most recent major development in delivering poetry is slams, beginning in 1984, so there is an audience waiting for something new. Poetry has become an experimental art-form and that should apply to events as well as writing.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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