Unpacking What It Means To Use Performance Poetry In A Public Competition!
In the coming weeks, we’ll be covering a lot of poetry events and poets here at Soliquidas. However, I’ve realised a lot of people have massive misconceptions about what poetry is, who writes it, and what it’s all about. So, as silly as it may seem, I think it’s best to start at the beginning and ask questions like, “What is poetry?” and explore the differences between poetry for the page and poetry for the stage.
The two videos above explain what a poetry slam is from both an American and a British perspective. You can choose to watch the videos (they outline most of what you’ll need to know) or you can continue reading, whichever suits your learning style best!
Put simply, a poetry slam is performance poetry in a public competition. It’s nothing new really. In fact, it’s been happening in some form or other for as long as poetry has existed. However, it was formalised in its current structure in 1984 by poet, and construction worker, Marc Smith at the “Get Me High Lounge” and moved to the now-iconic Green Mill Jazz Club 2 years later. Slams occur regularly at the Green Mill and show no sign of stopping!
A slam can have any number of poets involved but the way the process typically works is a competition with 3 rounds. Every poet gets up to 3 minutes per round to perform their poem; any longer than that and the poet will lose points or potentially get disqualified. Poets can’t use backing tracks, props, costumes, or any other aides.
It’s traditional for poems to be memorised though there have been some changes on that recently in light of it excluding some people for which it is exceptionally difficult or impossible to memorise that much text.
Typically judges are chosen at random though there may be a panel of pre-selected judges instead. When judges are chosen at random it’s standard practice to use 5 judges and to drop both the highest and lowest scores for each poet in case anyone is particularly biased for/against a poet or poem. Depending on how many poets are slamming, a different number will be eliminated each round based on the scores awarded by the judges until, eventually, there will be a single winner. Some slams allow the winner to take a victory lap of sorts with one final encore poem.
It’s important to note that, while poetry slams are competitive in nature, the scene itself tends to be fairly supportive so there’s no need to be intimidated or afraid of how you will be treated by your fellow competitors. An oft-repeated mantra of poetry slams is, “The points are not the point. The point is poetry.” which is a phrase coined by poet Allan Wolf.
Admittedly, it’s odd competing or watching a competition in which it’s very possible for the best poem or performance to not win. However, poets and audience members alike take solace in the fact that though being the best doesn’t guarantee a win, what does win is never bad.
If you’re going to compete in a slam it’s best to check ahead of time what the house rules are so you can make any adjustments to your approach but if you’re just going to watch a poetry slam then no further research is required.
I’ve embedded a couple of very different slam performances below to give you an idea of what sort of performances you might see at your local slam. I hope they will inspire you to not only dip your toes in the water but to dive in headfirst!
And if you’re the sort of person who prefers reading rather than watching, I can recommend the following three books if you want to dive deeper into what slam poetry is: