What is slam poetry?
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“I don’t know what Slam Poetry is, but I know it when I hear it.”
This is often a response one hears to the question: “What is Slam Poetry?” Everyone seems to have an innate understanding of what Slam Poetry is without really knowing that much about it. So, let us dive into the nature of Slam Poetry and figure out exactly what is going on here.
Let us look at that response one last time before we leap. The very essence of Slam Poetry appears to be contained in it already: I know it when I hear it. That part is important, because Slam Poetry is meant to be performed. It is meant to be heard, seen, participated in as not only a poet but as an audience member.
You don’t read Slam Poetry alone in your room at midnight by candlelight. You participate in Slam Poetry downtown shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. Slam poetry is poetry snatched from the rich elite and placed on the tongue of the ordinary working class like an acid tab.
A distinguishing feature of Slam Poetry is that it is a social event. It brings together like-minded people in a friendly competition. The aim is to showcase their talents without the drudgery of academia or bringing in the commercialised publishing industry.
The History of Slam Poetry
The concept of the poetry reading is as old as poetry itself. Slam Poetry has strong roots in the African oral tradition which spread throughout the African Diaspora. Slam Poetry has its roots in the Negritude Movement started by Black intellectuals in France. This movement would go on to inspire the poets of Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.
Slam Poetry separates poetry from the page. It is not meant to be read in silence. It is meant to be seen and heard. It has a musical and performative quality to it. As such, Slam Poetry often has a distinctive rhythm, influenced by musical genres like Rap and R&B.
Slam Poetry as we know it today originated in Chicago, during the 1980s, when a construction worker named Marc Kelly Smith felt that poetry readings had become stiff and elitist. No longer was it a place for people to connect to each other and to stories. Instead, poetry readings were only accessible to highly educated neo-liberals who would look down on anything written after the Victorian Era.
Smith wanted an informal space where people could gather to enjoy poetry. So, he combined elements of performance and competition to create a way to engage with poetry that was dynamic and new.
How Slam Poetry works
Slam poetry can work in several different ways. There are no hard and fast rules. However, Marc Kelly Smith organised it like this:
He organised a weekly event where everyone was welcome to participate, highlighting the free, anti-establishment vibe that he wanted. Poets at these events would perform and then be judged by five audience members chosen at random. Out of these five, the top three scores would be added to create an overall score. The poet with the highest score would win.
There are some general rules to organising a Slam Poetry event. Anyone is allowed to perform anything they wish, but it is generally assumed that a poet would be performing their own original work. The performance is expected to be no longer than three minutes long. While poets often perform solo, it is possible to perform with a group. Props are discouraged, but musical accompaniment can take the form of stamping one’s feet or clapping one’s hands.
A major feature of Slam Poetry is audience participation. The audience has the power to praise or condemn a poem. This is where the term Slam came from. This is why Slam Poetry is often shocking and fast-paced. It is designed to keep the audience engaged and invested. It is poetry meant to enlighten and entertain.
This is by no means the only way to do a Slam Poetry event. Sometimes, the score is not determined by a number but by the audience reaction. Clicking fingers is often used instead of the traditional applause because clicking is more musical and less intrusive than clapping. The more people click their fingers when a line of poetry hits their heart, the more likely one is to win, symbolically or officially.
In 2021, Slam Poetry is considered a poetic movement. It is practised worldwide and influenced many areas of our global and national culture. Some have praised Slam Poetry for making poetry more accessible to ordinary people. Others have said that the competitive or performative element is unfair or dilutes the true meaning of poetry.
Love it or hate it, Slam Poetry has changed the way we engage with poetry forever.
Elements of Slam Poetry
While Slam Poetry is known for its anti-establishment aims and dedication to freedom of expression, it does have certain common elements. If you want your Slam Poetry to be recognised as Slam Poetry, it might be worth considering including the following elements in it:
No Strict Rhyme Scheme:
While other poetry may adhere to a strict rhyme structure, the same is not true for Slam Poetry. It is not the case that Slam Poetry is required to rhyme in any way. This free-verse style is based on poetry from the Beat Generation, particularly Allen Ginsberg. It emphasises the innate musicality of words rather than adhering to any strict rhyme scheme. Rhyming might be used at times to emphasise certain sections of the poem over others but is not a necessity as it is in other forms of poetry.
Freedom from Structure:
Other poetic structures like the sonnet, limerick, or haiku have extremely strict rules on how to structure a poem of that kind. Sonnets must be fourteen lines. Limericks must have a very specific rhyme scheme and rhythm. Haiku have a certain strict amount of syllables across three lines. None of this is true for Slam Poetry. Stanzas can be of any length, have any amount of syllables and contain any kind of rhyme scheme or none at all.
However, it is important to acknowledge that Slam Poetry has the physical structure of performance. This means that it might have to fit into a particular time frame or use words that strengthen the spoken voice over the printed page. The only structure your poem needs is the structure of the stage.
Because of Slam Poetry’s roots in the Negritude Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, most Slam Poetry makes some kind of political statement. This can include themes of Racism, Feminism and LGBT+ issues.
Slam Poetry is about making a statement. It is your chance to express your opinion on the issues facing society.
One of the most recognisable elements of Slam Poetry is its highly emotional content. The oral performance aspect of Slam Poetry allows a space for the poet to be highly vulnerable and express their deepest emotions. Emotion can also come from the content, especially if you choose a political issue you are particularly passionate about.
Most Slam Poetry events take place in crowded bars or coffee shops. Some even take place outside in parks. While this does mean poetry is more accessible to the general public, it also means that you will be competing with people ordering drinks, coffee machines brewing and even the elements of nature themselves. For your poem to be heard, to be noticed, over the humdrum of everyday life, you have to make it stand out.
You can do this by painting a vivid picture with your words, employing a unique sounding rhyme scheme or structure. Do the best you can to stand out without descending into the melodrama that Slam poetry is so often accused of.
Slam Poetry is, first and foremost, an act of performance. Slam Poets pay attention to the way the words sound, feel and how they echo in a crowded room. Words are chosen for their weight and emotional impact. Metaphors, similes and all other poetic devices are constructed to both disturb and comfort the audience. Slam poets know that the audience’s encounter with the poem is as fleeting as the spoken word.
How to Write Slam Poetry
It has been a long time since poetry demanded structure and form. In modern times, poetry is about expression. As such, there is no right or wrong way to write Slam Poetry.
But true freedom can be terrifying. If you truly do not know where to start, try right here with these five steps for writing Slam Poetry.
1. Pick a Topic, Choose a Feeling.
It can be useful to focus your poem on only one theme which invokes a single emotion. Pick something that you are passionate about, and then think about how it makes you feel. The emotion will help you frame the issue you are passionate about in a particular way.
For example, if you are interested in Environmental Issues, you might infuse your poem with the anger you feel when people do not take Climate Change seriously, and your poem can be a call to action. Or maybe nature makes you happy, and your poem can talk about the beauty of the natural world, which will inspire people to think about their own relationship with nature.
2. Consider which poetic devices to use.
While Slam Poetry does not require the use of conventional poetic devices, they are still a useful tool to have. Rhyme and meter can help you measure out how your poem will sound when it is recited. Metaphors and similes can help you paint a vivid picture for your audience.
How you use these poetic devices are up to you. There are many more to choose from, cut up and combine however you wish. The only limit is your imagination and the three-minute long time limit that is usually set for performances of Slam Poetry.
3. Remember your poetry is meant to be performed.
Slam poetry completely removes poetry from the prison of the page. This means that it does not matter how the poem looks like on the page. What matters is what it sounds like on stage. This means that while you write it, you should consider how you are going to perform it.
Think about the inflexions you want your voice to take or the rhythm you want to set. Consider how you want to use your body as you perform. Do you want to move your hands a lot? Do you want to pace or standstill? Do you want to tap out a rhythm on your chest or legs?
While it is not always required, it is often encouraged for you to learn your poem from memory. After all, Slam Poetry was meant to free poetry from the page. Holding up a book or even your phone can obstruct your face and dull your voice. It takes something out of the performance. This can be difficult. If you are a beginner or just unsure, consider writing shorter poems that pack a big punch instead of longer poems you might struggle to memorise.
4. Be Original, Be Relatable
This might seem like contradictory advice. What it means is that if you are sincere, if you speak honestly about your own experiences, chances are that there will be people in the audience that will empathise with you. They might even have experienced the same thing as you have.
This is a good way to write poetry and an excellent way to make friends. Slam Poetry is all about community. No poet is an island, and you are never as alone in your experiences as you might think. Speak to your audience honestly, and they will listen.
5. Practice, Perform, Persist
Here’s a hard truth: there is also the chance that your poem might bomb. This can happen to anyone, even people who have been performing Slam Poetry for years. There is always room for improvement and that is a very good thing. Life would be boring if it was stagnant.
This means that the true mark of being a good poet is continuing to improve no matter what. You will never truly be done learning how to do Slam Poetry. So, practice your poem at home, perform it as many times as you want, and above all never ever give up.
What is the difference between Slam Poetry and Spoken Word Poetry?
You might be thinking right now: “Wait, are they not the same thing?” Apparently, no, they are not.
A major difference between Slam Poetry and Spoken Word poetry is the competitive element. Slam Poetry is often performed in front of judges and a winner is chosen at the end of the event. Spoken word does not include competition and is usually just a place where people can showcase their work.
Because spoken word lacks that competitive element, it is often considered more subdued than Slam Poetry. Emotion is a defining characteristic of Slam Poetry and is infused into the performance. Spoken Word poetry tends to be softer and more about delivery than performance. It is more about reciting the poem than performing the poem.
Spoken Word poetry is not as detached from the page as Slam Poetry is. Sometimes, Spoken Word is used to promote the publication of a particular poetry book, with the poet taking centre stage and reciting their own work.
Where can I find Slam Poetry?
Slam Poetry began in Chicago in the 1980s, but can now be found worldwide. It is a global movement. There are likely local poetry events near you that organise Slam Poetry events. They advertise on social media, and a quick google search will likely bring up these group’s websites. The chances are likely that you will find a community of poets that are just waiting to welcome you.
Slam Poetry also takes place online, particularly due to the pandemic, which makes the number of groups that are possible to join even larger.
About The Author
Kylin Lotter is a writer, poet, and artist. She is a postgraduate student at the University of Witswatersrand, studying English Literature and specialising in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her work has been featured in the bi-annual Poetry Potion journal. Her poem “Wolf Girl” will be featured in the upcoming anthology entitled “Yesterdays and Imagined Realities: An Anthology of South African Poetry.” Her work explores themes of gender expression, mental health and what it means to be human.