All About Slam Poetry

Poetry slams bring the words off the page... or the refrigerator.  (Photo by Gary DuVall)
Poetry slams bring the words off the page... or the refrigerator. (Photo by Gary DuVall)

It seems hip, fresh, edgy, exciting, and it is. Slam poetry is a new genre of literature that has taken the performing arts world by storm. Official "Slam" competitions have only been around since the mid-'80s, but already they're an international phenomenon.

Every age and economic group seems to have embraced Slam in various ways, but they all come together to compete on the same stage, and battles can get pretty heated.

Let's step into the world of a new kind of art, a world where regular poetry rules are thrown out the window and new rules step in, a world that feels underground but has fans from across the globe. It's the world of Slam Poetry.

What Is It?

Slam Poetry not just performance poetry. It is the poetry performed at a Slam competition (that sounds a bit redundant, doesn't it?); poets take the microphone and have a certain amount of time to perform their work (usually three minutes), and they're then judged by members of the audience chosen at random.

In Slam Poetry, the poets seek to challenge "literary authority" while getting their points across. Since the judges are random audience members and not Experts, the poets have to please the audience as a whole, instead of catering to some lofty authority.

Slam covers a complete range of topics, from love and relationships to politics and war, anything that evokes passion or radical opinion.

Because of the passion involved, it has taken hold of the imagination of youth culture, as teens find it an excellent way to express themselves constructively and to meet other like-minded artists.

The Origins

The first National Poetry Slam happened in 1990, but Slam has its credited origins six years previous to that in Chicago.

Marc Smith started it at the infamous Get Me High Lounge. Since then, the National Poetry Slam has become quite a big deal, with more than seventy teams competing for the title each year.

It may have originated in the United States, but Slam is all over the world now. There is a huge Slam Poetry scene in Germany and France, and according to the Wikipedia article, there are also active scenes in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Nepal, Australia, the Netherlands, Austria, Bosnia, Macedonia, Singapore, New Zealand, and Sarajevo.

2005 Urban Word Teen Slam

Types of Slam

The rules are almost always the same. Each poet gets his shot (usually everyone who wants to participate is allowed, if there's time) with three minutes, and then the chosen judges will award a point value to the performance. A poet is scored on his content, his poetry, and his performance.

Usually Slams are open to anyone who wants to compete, but some of them are invitation-only. Other times a particular competition will require a certain theme or type of person (Queer, Erotica, etc or Women, High School, etc).

A Hilarious Team Performance

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Critics of Slam

While it has opened many people's unlikely eyes to poetry, Slam has also been called the "death of art." And while I find it hard to believe that anything to beautifully expressive could be the death of anything, apparently Slam Poetry has numerous detractors.

The most notable of these is Anti-Slam, which Rev. Jen Miller started in New York as a response to Slam. While the Anti-Slam movement wasn't outright hateful towards Slam, it certainly cast a snarky glance every once in a while. While at a Slam, poets receive a score of 1-10, everyone who participates in an Anti-Slam (which is basically just an open mic) receives a 10.

The academic community has had varying responses, ranging from positively lauding Slam's success and accomplishments to outright denying it as an artform. To each his own, I suppose.

The Future of Slam

It looks bright to me. I mean, as people seek more of their art on the internet through MySpace, YouTube, and similar venues, Slam Poetry can only continue to grow as more people learn about it.

I'm especially optimistic about it growing in teens. There are already tens of organizations bringing Slam Poetry into schools across the United States, and more of them will spring up as they see the inspiration that it brings to kids who otherwise might not have an outlet for their creativity.

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Comments 3 comments

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maven101 7 years ago from Northern Arizona

Slam poetry is not new....We did much the same in the 50's, only then we were called Beatniks...much yelling, candle burning, sophomoric wisdom spilled out in places like The Spaghetti Factory and The Purple Onion in San Francisco. We also used to do a thing called " playing the dozens " which was an interplay between two antagonists trying to " slam " the otherĀ  ( aka one upmanship ). God, I am older than dirt....

Nice Hub, very well written...look forward to reading more from you...Larry


Yecheilyah 7 years ago

Oh I just love it! I love poetry spoken word poetry (And I do partake), great hub; if you get word of any slam competitions in the Shreveport la or Chicago IL, area, let me know, :) LOL Peace.


Multiman 5 years ago

One slam poet to another, great article.

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