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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A poetry slam is a competition at which poets read or recite original work (or, more rarely, that of others). These performances are then judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience.



Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the slam moved to its permanent Chicago home, the Green Mill Jazz Club.[1] In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco, involving a team from Chicago, a team from San Francisco, and an individual poet from New York [2]. As of 2008, the National Poetry Slam has grown and currently features approximately 80 certified teams each year, culminating in five days of competition.[3].

Although American in origin, slams have spread all over the world, with slam scenes in Canada, Germany, Sweden, France, Austria, Ireland, Israel, Switzerland, Nepal, the Netherlands, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Denmark, South Korea, India and Macedonia.


In a poetry slam, members of the audience are chosen by an M.C. or host to act as judges for the event. After each poet performs, each judge awards a score to that poem. Scores generally range between zero and ten. The highest and lowest score are dropped, giving each performance a rating between zero and thirty points. In the standard slam, there are five judges.

Before the competition begins, the host will often bring up a "sacrificial poet," which the judges will score in order to calibrate their judging.

A single round at a slam consists of performances by all eligible poets. Most slams last multiple rounds, and many involve the elimination of lower-scoring poets in successive rounds. A standard elimination rubric might run 8-4-2, with eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. Some slams do not eliminate poets at all.

Props, costumes, and music are generally forbidden in slams. Additionally, most slams enforce a time limit of three minutes (and a grace period of ten seconds), after which a poet's score may be docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit.

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 sign-up list.

In an "Invitational Slam," by contrast, only those invited to do so may compete.

In 1998, slam poet Emanuel Xavier founded The House of Xavier in New York City and introduced what would become a popular annual event called "The Glam Slam" with the 'g' and the 'l' presumably for 'gay' and 'lesbian'. Much like a gay ballroom event, this was a poetry slam event with several theme categories such as Best Erotic Poem In Sexy Underwear or Lingerie and Best Love Poem in Fire Engine Red. The winners would receive trophies and go on to compete for a Grand Prize. These were stylized slam poetry events featuring celebrity judges, fashion shows, and impromptu voguing. The event was held once a year first at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and later at the Bowery Poetry Club before it was passed on in 2008 to the London stage at the Vauxhall Tavern.

A "Theme Slam" is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme, genre, or formal constraint. Themes may include Nerd[4], Erotica, Queer, Improv, or other conceptual limitations. In theme slams, poets can sometimes be allowed to break "traditional" slam rules. For instance, they sometimes allow performance of work by another poet (e.g. the "Dead Poet Slam", in which all work must be by a deceased poet). They can also allow changes on the restrictions on costumes or props (e.g. the Swedish "Triathlon" slams that allow for a poet, musician, and dancer to all take the stage at the same time), changing the judging structure (e.g. having a specific guest judge at the Manchester Creatures of the Night slam), or changing the time limits (e.g. a "1-2-3" slam with three rounds of one minute, two minutes, and three minutes, respectively). In an "Island Style" slam (named after Whidbey Island) the poetry is written on the spot. Each participant is given three words to use in a poem and a short amount of time (20-25 minutes) to write it. The poems are performed and judged as in other competitions.

Although theme slams may seem restricting in nature, slam venues frequently use them to advocate participation by particular and perhaps underrepresented demographics. For example High School age poets only, or Women poets only may be allowed to participate in a particular slam, and thus it might encourage poets from those demographics to feel more confident in participating in a poetry slam for the first time.

Poetry Slam, Inc. holds several National and World Poetry Slams, including the Individual World Poetry Slam, The National Poetry Team Slam and The Women of the World Poetry Slam. The current IWPS champion is Amy Everhart. The current National Poetry Slam Team champions are St. Paul, MN. The current Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion is Rachel McKibbens.


Poetry slams can feature a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions, and approaches to writing and performance. Some poets are closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and draw heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicized genre belonging to black and particularly West Indian culture. Others employ an unrhyming narrative formula. Some use traditional theatric devices including shifting voices and tones, while others may recite an entire poem in ironic monotone. Some poets use nothing but their words to deliver a poem, while others stretch the boundaries of the format, tap-dancing or beatboxing or using highly-choreographed movements.

One of the goals of a poetry slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value. No poet is beyond critique, as everyone is dependent upon the goodwill of the audience. 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 from whom they will hear more poetry. Audience members furthermore 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[5]." In a 2005, Holman was also quoted as saying:

The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation's dialogue that you don't hear on the floor of Congress. I want a floor of Congress to look more like a National Poetry Slam. That would make me happy. [6]

Responses to slam

Slam has not been without its critics.

Non-academic responses to slam have included the Anti-Slam, begun at Collective:Unconscious on New York's Lower East Side. At an Anti-Slam, all forms of expression are given a six-minute set and all participants are given a perfect ten by the judges.[7]

Academic responses to slam have varied. In an interview published in the Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom called the movement "the death of art." In response, poet and critic Victor D. Infante wrote in OC Weekly,

[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.

A number of poets belong to both academia and slam:

Jeffrey McDaniel started as a slammer but has published several books and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College; Bob Holman founded the Nuyorican Poetry Slam has taught for years at the New School, Bard, Columbia and NYU; Craig Arnold won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and has competed at slams; Sam Pierstorff created the ILL LIST Poetry Slam Invitational, is the Poet Laureate of Modesto, CA, and has published poems in various conventional journals; Ragan Fox, a Performance Studies professor at California State University, Long Beach, has been a finalist in the individual competition at the National Poetry Slam; Kip Fulbeck, a professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara competed in slam in the early-90's and initiated the first spoken word course to be taught as part of a college art program's core curriculum; and poet-novelist Douglas A. Martin was a founding member of the Athens, GA slam team, competing at the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Portland, OR in the mid-90s. Poets and academics such as Michael Salinger, Felice Bell, Javon Johnson, Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett, Robbie Q. Telfer, Phil West, Karyna McGlynn and Scott Dillard have devoted much attention to the merging of the poetry slam community and the academic community in their respective scholarly works.

Some renown poets are less successful in slam. Henry Taylor, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, competed in the 1997 National Poetry Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150.

Academics are not the only critics of slam. Poet and lead singer of King Missile, John S. Hall has also long been a vocal opponent, taking issue with such factors as its inherently competitive nature[8] and what he considers its lack of stylistic diversity.[9] In his 2005 interview in Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, he recalls seeing his first slam, at the Nuyorican Poets Café:

...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sport, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in.

Youth poetry slam movement

Slam poetry has found popularity as a form of self-expression among many teenagers. Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in America, offering opportunities for youth ages 13–19 to express their ideas on paper and stage.

Another group offering opportunites in education and performance to teens is URBAN WORD NYC out of New York City, formerly known as Youth Speaks New York. URBAN WORD NYC holds the largest youth slam in NYC annually, with over 500 young people. The non-profit organization provides free workshops for inner-city youth ran by Hip-Hop poet and mentor, Michael Cirelli.

Young Chicago Authors (YCA) provides workshops, mentoring, and competition opportunities to youth in the Chicago area. Every year YCA presents Louder Than A Bomb, the world's largest team-based youth slam and subject of a forthcoming documentary by the same name.

The youth poetry slam movement will be the focus of a documentary film series produced by HBO and released in 2009.[10] It will feature poets from Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Louder than a Bomb and other related youth poetry slam organizations.

In a 2005 interview, one of slam's best known poets Saul Williams praised the youth poetry slam movement, explaining:

[H]ip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up... The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth.[11]


  • Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
  • Gary Mex Glazner, Poetry Slam
  • Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam
  • Big Poppa E, The Wussy Boy Manifesto
  • Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
  • Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, and Why Things Burn
  • Douglas A. Martin, In the Time of Assignments
  • Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
  • Taylor Mali, What Learning Leaves, and Top Secret Slam Strategies
  • Justin Chin, Bite Hard
  • Michael Salinger, Neon and Outspoken
  • Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, and Life According to Motown
  • Ragan Fox, Heterophobia
  • Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
  • Helen Gregory. (2008) The Quiet Revolution of Poetry Slam: The Sustainability of Cultural Capital in the Light of Changing Artistic Conventions. "Ethnography and Education", Vol. 3 (1): 61-71.
  • Emanuel Xavier, Americano, and Bullets & Butterflies: queer spoken word poetry

See also


  1. ^ Marc Smith website: History page
  2. ^ "PSI FAQ: National Poetry Slam".  
  3. ^ 2008 National Poetry Slam website
  4. ^ "History of the Nerd Slam" by J. Bradley
  5. ^ . Algarín, Miguel & Holman, Bob. (1994) Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Holt. ISBN 0805032576.
  6. ^ Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe. (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. Chapter 26: What the Heck Is Going On Here; The Bowery Poetry Club Opens (Kinda) for Business. Soft Skull Press, 288. ISBN 1-933-36882-9.
  7. ^ Aptowicz (2008), P. 291.
  8. ^ Aptowicz (2008), p. 290.
  9. ^ Aptowicz (2008), p. 297.
  10. ^ Press Release Announcing Youth Poetry Slam Documentary
  11. ^ Aptowicz (2008), P. 233.

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