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A poetry slam is a competition in which oral poets read or recite original work. Poetry slam began in Chicago in 1984 with its first competition designed to move poetry recitals from academia to a popular audience when American poet Marc Smith began experimenting with existing open microphone venues for poetry readings by making them competitive. The performances at a poetry slam are judged by a panel of judges, typically five, and usually selected from the audience, or sometimes judged by audience response. The judges usually give each poem a score on a scale of 0–10 (zero being the worst and ten being the best). The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the middle three are kept. The highest score one can receive is a 30 and the lowest one is a zero.
Susan Somers-Willett asserts that slam poetry began between November 1984 and July 1986, in the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago. Slam poetry is a type of "political complaint" and protest that uses identity and other forms to protest oppression. Slam poets and audiences see slam poetry not only as literary or performative, but also as a political event. Critic Susan Somers-Willett argues that "poems that make an empowered declaration of marginalized identity and individuality are a staple of one's slam repertoire". Race, gender and sexuality are all factors that affect poets and the message of their work. Slam poets work is an embodiment of their identity and it breaks the homogeneity of traditional poetry structure. But a poet is not bound to a certain identity based on their culture, sexuality, or race, although many do use identity. Slam poetry's main goal is to express authenticity of identity to its audience. By this, poets will create a genuine and intimate connection with the audience through their identity based experience. Slam poetry ranges from comical poems to extremely serious work about racism, sexual identity, violence, and personal struggles with life; slam poetry is the outlet a lot of writers use to express themselves. Many poets write from an "I" stand point where in their poems they describe events that have happened to them personally whether it be a positive or negative experience. "Inhabiting the space where the "I" of the page translates quite seamlessly to the "I" of the stage, the author comes to embody declarations about personal experience in performance." example of authors using "I" would be Ragan Fox, who wrote To be Straight: "I want to be straight because sometimes being gay is just too difficult." Authors try to reach out to their audience by relating what they say in their poems to how the audience might have felt but never had the courage to say. There are also different ways to perform poetry. Patricia Smith, an African American poet, performed a poem in the voice of a white male skinhead. This shows the opposing party explaining to the audience the hatred and what is going through their minds. Slam poetry can come in various forms, but is a tool that can get a political argument across in an entertaining way to those who listen.
The Natural Poetry Slam is an identity poem where a poet recites a specific aspect of identity for the audience. Slam poetry emphasizes on identity which also stems from its embodiment by its authors. The practice of slam poetry is important because of its quality of achieving authenticity in the eyes of the audience. Slam poetry is "not just an outright declaration of identity, but the poets also perform their identities at slams through voice, gesture, dress, and physical appearance even when they are not doing it through words". However, majority of slam poetry provokes a little to the kind of thought of identity.
Slam poetry is a type of political complaint and protest that uses identity and other forms to protest oppression. The article starts of with showing some examples of slam poetry regarding identity. Poets talk intimately about themselves and how they are feeling to shift the audience's emotions and understanding. The article compares performativity, which is how something came to be, and the authentic self, which is the originality and uniqueness of how they are trying to express themselves. It also talks about the performance of Racial Identity and continues on to show examples. "Still, slam poets continue to innovate from and improvise on the cliches that are reproduced in the slam genre regarding identity". Identity is one of the main focuses of the article and what is covered in Slam Poetry.
The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett analyzes different poets and their work. Using poems such as Thick by Sonya Renee, Tongue Tactics by Mayda Del Valle, and To Be Straight by Regan Fox. Somers breaks down how each poet's work is an embodiment of themselves and their individual emotions and struggles. Somers also claims, "poems that make an empowered declaration of marginalized identity and individuality are a staple of one's slam repertoire" (69). A poet's work most often aims for authenticity and that in the work itself, the "I" is a reference to the poet. Slam poetry as a literary form and performance originates from Chicago at the Green Mill Jazz Club in 1986 but was first performed less popularly in 1984 around southern U.S. Regardless of its origins in the U.S., slam poetry can be found in many different parts of the world; Somers reinforces the idea that slam poetry differs for each culture, sexuality, and race, each offering a different perspective and worldview.
Slam poetry has a wide variety of subjects and can be viewed in many different ways. Slam poetry is a type of poetry where poets can express themselves openly in front of an audience. Marginalized identities such as gender, sexual, and racial identities are celebrated and get attracted by slam audiences. The poets and their audiences see slam poetry not only as a literary or performative art, but also as a political stance. Consider the expressions of identity in slam poetry and the larger cultural politics of identity that influences slam reception. The Authenticity of marginalized identities is not just affirmed but created through slam performance. Poems touch on multiple aspects of politics and views on the world that relate to each identity of poets. "Proclamations of marginalized identities undoubtedly attract slam audiences, who may see poetry slams not only as literary or performative but ultimately as political events".
The use of slam poetry throughout its popularity and eventual decline, has always been and will continue to be a platform for a poet to express their perspective on the world and the struggles and trials and tribulations each has gone through. In Susan B.A. Somers-Willett's article, "Can Slam Poetry Matter?" she discusses how slam poetry has changed from its origins but still remains the same in matters of content. For example, Willett describes, "Simply put, a poetry slam is a competitive poetry reading in which poets perform their own writing for scores." This change from just sheer open performance to a competitive stage is one of the factors that Willett claims keeps slam poetry alive. But, Willett adds that "Whether for scores, applause, or mere power of persuasion, slam poets actively attempt to engage and elicit a reaction from their audiences". The importance to note is that, each poet has their story to tell from their own experience. It is the difference in history behind each poet that brings out a different and genuine reaction from each audience. Slam poetry, while popularized in the U.S., still has influence from other countries' cultures and races. For example, Denmark has a growing scene in slam poetry that has been growing for over a decade with held championships each year. Again, we see the change in slam poetry in the form of competition, but each poet still has a story to tell. Whether it be about something as serious as their family escaping a war-torn country, to something as minuscule in comparison as a coffee served to them without enough creamer, the poet's cultural background and history will be the difference in showing perspectives from around the world.
American poet Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the original slam moved to its permanent home, the Green Mill Jazz Club. In 1987 the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam was founded by Vince Keuter and eventually made its home at the Heidelberg (moving later 2010, 2013, and 2015 to its new home at Espresso Royale). In August 1988, the first poetry slam held in New York City was hosted by Bob Holman at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place at Fort Mason, San Francisco. This slam included teams from Chicago and San Francisco, and an individual poet from New York. Soon afterward, poetry slam increased popularity allowed some poets to make full-time careers in performance and competition, touring the United States and eventually the world.
In 2001, the grounding of aircraft following the September 11 attacks left a number of performers stranded in cities they had been performing in. After the attacks, a new wave of poetry slam started within New York City with a community focus on poets coming together to speak about the terrorist attacks.
Another notable venue, Da Poetry Lounge, was started in Hollywood, California, in 1998.
Today, there are poetry slam competitions in a number of countries around the globe.
Poetry Slam Inc. sanctions three major annual poetry competitions (for poets 18+) on a national and international scale: the National Poetry Slam (NPS), the individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS), and the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WoWPS).
The French National Poetry Slam hosts a World Cup of Poetry Slam.
Rhetoric is the largest christian slam poetry event in the US. The first event took place in 2011, as a Lyricists lounge in downtown Los Angeles with only 150 participant and it grew to hosting over 3500 people in 2015.
In a poetry slam, members of the audience are chosen by an emcee or host to act as judges for the event. In the national slam, there are five judges, but smaller slams generally have three. 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.
Before the competition begins, the host will often bring up a "sacrificial" poet, whom the judges will score in order to calibrate their judging.
A single round at a standard 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. An elimination rubric might run 8-4-2; eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. Some slams do not eliminate poets at all. The Green Mill usually runs its slams with 6 poets in the first round. At the end of the slam, the poet with the highest number of points earned is the winner.
The Portland Poetry Slam (Portland, OR) takes a different approach; it uses the 8-4-2 three-round rubric, but the poets go head-to-head in separate bouts within the round. Instead of five judges giving points, the audience decides who moves on to the next round by a loud, enthusiastic popular vote.
Props, costumes, and music are forbidden in slams, which differs greatly from its immediate predecessor, performance poetry. Hedwig Gorski, the founder of performance poetry as a distinct genre, saw props, costumes, and music as essential for a complete theatrical experience while also following theorist Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theater by blurring lines between the real person, actor, and speakers in scripted literary art. Other rules for 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. Many youth slams, however, allow the poets up to three and a half minutes on stage.
In an "Open Slam", the most common slam type, competition is open to all who wish to compete, given the number of slots available. In an "Invitational Slam", only those invited to do so may compete.
Poetry Slam, Inc. holds several national and international competitions, including the Individual World Poetry Slam, the National Poetry Slam and The Women of the World Poetry Slam. The current (2013) IWPS champion is Ed Mabrey. Ed Mabrey is the only three-time IWPS champion in the history of the event. The current (2013) National Poetry Slam Team champions are Slam New Orleans (SNO), who have won the competition for the second year in a row. The current (2014) Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion is Dominique Christina.
A "Theme Slam" is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme, genre, or formal constraint. Themes may include Nerd, 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), or changing the time limits (e.g. a "1-2-3" slam with three rounds of one minute, two minutes, and three minutes, respectively).
Although theme slams may seem restricting in nature, slam venues frequently use them to advocate participation by particular and perhaps underrepresented demographics (which vary from slam to slam), like younger poets and women.
Poetry slams can feature a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions, and approaches to writing and performance with the exception being academic and traditional styles since slam poets do not subscribe to the academic literary canon. The techniques used are not studied in higher education and use popular cliches, like rap-styled rhymes, that slam audiences can react to during the "immediacy" of the live performance. The originator of performance poetry, Hedwig Gorski, credits slam poetry for carrying on the poetics of ancient oral poetry designed to grab attention in barrooms and public squares.
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 theatrical 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.
What is a dominant / successful style one year may not be passed to the next. Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, slam poet and author of Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, was quoted in an interview on the Best American Poetry blog as saying:
One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something—a style, a project, a poet—will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.
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". In 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."
I can't bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn't even silly; it is the death of art.
Kip Fulbeck, who teaches spoken word at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "I don't like the idea of competition and art being put together. I think it often distills the quality of work down to a caricature of itself. Seeing poetry slams often reminds me of watching American Idol. You've got a series of judges, an audience that comes in looking for a certain shtick that they want to see and that's what they're going to cheer for."
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 and what he considers its lack of stylistic diversity. 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."
The poet Tim Clare offers a "for and against" account of the phenomenon in Slam: A Poetic Dialogue.
Ironically, slam poetry movement founder Marc Smith has been critical of the commercially successful Def Poetry television and Broadway live stage shows produced by Russell Simmons, decrying it as "an exploitive entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry".
A majority of slam poets are not academically trained and unaware of great literature and historic movements taught in literature courses, which is part of its popular appeal. University English curricula ignore the "amateurish" attempts of untrained slammers who address social and political topics with reactionary "bluntness" instead of the elevated artistry learned from poet masters of the past.
As of 2011, four poets who have competed at National Poetry Slam have won National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Fellowships for Literature:
- Hal Sirowitz (who was on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Poetry Slam team in 1993) won an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 1994
- Jeffrey McDaniel (who was on numerous DC and California slam teams in the mid to late 1990s) won an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 2003
- Adrienne Su (who was on the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Poetry Slam team in 1991) won an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 2007
- Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (who was on the NYC-Urbana Poetry Slam team in 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2010) won an NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 2011
As of 2017, one poet who has competed at National Poetry Slam has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:
A number of poets belong to both academia and slam:
- Jeffrey McDaniel slammed on several poetry slam teams, and has since published several books and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
- Patricia Smith, a four-time national slam champion, went on to win several prestigious literary awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Fellowship, and being inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent in 2006.
- 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.
- Kip Fulbeck, a professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara competed in slam in the early-1990s and initiated the first spoken word course to be taught as part of a college art program's core curriculum.
- Javon Johnson was national slam poetry champion in 2003 and 2004, wrote his dissertation on slam poetry and recently published an article in text and performance quarterly about black masculinity and sexism in the slam community.
- Susan Somers-Willett wrote the book The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, exploring the relationships between slam, identity, and politics.
- Robbie Q. Telfer, Phil West, Ragan Fox writes about his ten years of experience as "a gay slam poet".
- Marie Fleischmann Timbreza, and Karyna McGlynn have devoted much attention to the merging of the poetry slam community and the academic community in their respective works.
Some renowned poets have competed in slams, with less successful results. 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.
While slam poetry has often been ignored in traditional higher learning institutions, it slowly is finding its way into courses and programs of study. For example, at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, slam poetry is now available as a Minor course of study.
Slam poetry has found popularity as a form of self-expression among many teenagers. The World Poetry Bout Association sponsored the earliest slam poetry workshops for teenagers, through its "Poetry Education Project" in Taos, New Mexico, in the early 1990s. The first statewide competition for high school students was held at Taos High School in 1993, with the top teams and individual participants awarded plaques. Members of Taos' competitive teams earned athletic letters annually up until 2008. [cf. The Taos News, Taos, NM, articles, 1993 to present.] Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, patterned the slam competitions at the annual Brave New Voices festival after that seminal Taos event. Youth Speaks 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 opportunities 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 documentary by the same name.
The youth poetry slam movement was the focus of a documentary film series produced by HBO and released in 2009. It featured 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.
In 2012, more than 12,000 young people took part in an England-wide youth slam Shake the Dust, organised by Apples and Snakes as part of the London 2012 Festival. An Open Letter to Honey Singh, a rap video featuring Rene Sharanya Verma performing at Delhi Poetry Slam, went viral on YouTube receiving over 1.5 million hits.
- An Open Letter to Honey Singh
- Canadian Festival of Spoken Word
- Daniel Gallant
- English literature
- Haikai prose
- Hedwig Gorski
- Hip hop
- List of performance poets
- Oral poetry
- Performance poetry
- Postmodern literature
- Prose rhythm
- Purple prose
- Results of the National Poetry Slam
- Rhymed prose
- Short prose
- Spoken word
- Saul Williams
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- J. Bradley. "There Will Be Nerds (History of the Nerd Slam". Archived from the original on December 8, 2008. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
- Gorski, Hedwig. (2010). Poetique: Speak-Songbook for CD Send in the Clown. Introduction. Slough Press. ISBN 978-0982734209.
- Gorski, Hedwig & Cole, Joy. (2006). Intoxication: Heathcliff on Powell Street Slough Press. ISBN 978-1427604750.
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- 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 1-933368-82-9.
- Bloom, Harold (2009) quoted in Somers-Willett, Susan B.A., The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. University of Michigan Press. p. 21.
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- Aptowicz (2008), p. 297.
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- Fox, Ragan (2010). "'Ragan Fox Is A Gay Slam Poet': An Autobiographical Exploration Of Performance Poetry's Performative Implications". Text & Performance Quarterly. 30 (4): 420–429. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.508535.
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- Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
- Marc Smith, Crowdpleaser
- Gary Mex Glazner, Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry
- Hedwig Gorski, Intoxication: Heathcliff on Powell Street
- Susan Somers-Willett, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America
- Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam
- Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
- Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, Why Things Burn, and 15 Ways to Stay Alive
- Douglas A. Martin, In the Time of Assignments
- Glenis Redmond, Backbone, Under the Sun,
- Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
- Jessica Care Moore, The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto, The Words Don't Fit in My Mouth, and God Is Not an American
- Justin Chin, Bite Hard, Harmless Medicine, and Gutted
- M. Ayodele Heath, Otherness
- Michael Salinger, Neon, Outspoken, and Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme (with Sam Henderson)
- Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, Life According to Motown, Teahouse Of The Almighty, and Blood Dazzler
- Rachel McKibbens, Pink Elephant
- Lucy Anderton, the flung you
- Ragan Fox, Heterophobia and Exile in Gayville
- Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
- Shane Koyczan, Visiting Hours
- Tara Betts, Arc and Hue
- Taylor Mali, What Learning Leaves, and Top Secret Slam Strategies
- Helen Gregory, 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.
- Roger Bonair-Agard, Gully and Tarnish and Masquerade
- Saul Williams, The Seventh Octave, she, said the shotgun to the head, and The Dead Emcee Scrolls
- Tyehimba Jess, leadbelly
- Sonya Renee Taylor A Little Truth On Your Shirt
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Poetry slam.|
- International Poetry Slam Portal (european)
- "An Incomplete History of Slam" at e-poets.net
- "Verbs On Asphalt: A History of the Nuyorican Poetry Slam"
- Documentary Film about the National Poetry Slam
- Indiefeed Performance Poetry Channel Nine-Part Podcast Series on the History of the New York City Poetry Slam
- DU Poetry - performance poetry and Slam Poetry showcase
- Prize Poem: an online poetry slam
- First Kolkata Bengali Poetry Slam