What is Poetry Slam?

What Slam Is

Poetry Slam is competitive spoken word performance poetry.

It puts a dual emphasis on both writing and performance.

Though rules vary from slam to slam, the basic rules are:

Competing poets have 3 minutes (plus a 10 second grace period) to perform one poem of their own construction.

They may not use props, costumes or musical accompaniment.

Each poem/performance is then given a score (on a scale of 0.0 to 10.0) by five “judges” who are audience members randomly selected by the emcee at the beginning of the Slam.

The high and low scores are dropped, giving the poet a score ranging between 0 and 30.

Most Slams have two or three elimination rounds. The highest scoring poets at the end of the Slam win prizes.

What Slam is Not

Slam is not a serious academic critique on literary skill. It is a game, a show, and a means for poets to share their work with an engaged audience.

Slam is not an insult filled hip hop battle. Slam is not rap. Though some poets use elements of hip hop in their writing, Slam is a literary art form, not music.

Slam is not poets making things up as they go along. Weeks, and sometimes months, are spent writing, memorizing and even choreographing a performance.

Slam is not a bunch of angry performers yelling about social issues. Slams bring an incredibly diverse array of demographics, voices, styles, topics and points of view.

Slam Etiquette

Cell Phones
Evil – turn that sucker off or you’ll make a lot of folks angry. Even if you just have it on vibrate and it goes off, don’t you dare answer it. If your phone goes off and/or you answer it, you will likely be escorted out the door. This is terribly distracting for performing poets and audience members alike.

Talking and moving during a poem
It is considered very improper and impolite to speak during a poem, unless it is a reaction to that poem. It is also very bad form to get up during a poem. Slam poems last 3 minutes, you can wait. Once the poem is over, you can get up and go to the bar/bathroom/out for a smoke, whatever. When you come back, wait until the next poem is finished before sitting down again.

Noise/Audience reaction
Poetry Slam is all about the audience. The audience is encouraged to respond to every element of the Slam – from the poetry to the score it receives. This is one of the things that makes Slam so great. There’s nothing stuffy about it. This is high culture, a show, and a sport – all in one.

The audience may hiss, stomp, snap, clap, yell, buckle over in their chair and fall to the floor, stand up and/or jump up and down. Whether these reactions are praising or blasting the poem, it’s all ok – so long as it doesn’t blatantly affect the audience’s ability to hear and enjoy the poem.
When a poet says a zinger of a line, you’ll know it. The crowd will gasp or give a huge collective “Oooooo” or “OOOH!!!” or some similar response.
If they don’t like what a poet is saying they may hiss or boo.
The same applies to the scores. High scores are cheered, low scores are booed.

Swaying the judges
In the official emcee spiels across the country, one thing is fairly consistent. The emcee will say something along the lines of. “Judges, stay consistent with your scores, do not be swayed by the audience. Audience, sway the judges.” Basically, the louder an audience is in regards to a particular poem (during or after) the higher its score will be. What can be more democratic than that?

“So what!”
You may hear everyone in the room yell this at the same time. Why?
Poetry Slam was created by a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith. He is a humble and down to earth kinda guy. There are no rock stars in Slam. So in order to prevent the Slam creator (and his name) from becoming too important, anytime someone says his name, everyone around is supposed to say, “So what.” This is most often heard during the Emcee spiel at the beginning of a Slam.

Approaching the poets?
Is it considered appropriate to talk to the poets? Yes, it is – so long as they have already performed their poem that night.
If they haven’t performed, they will likely be nervous and focused. This is no time to ask for an autograph or to buy a CD. (Actually, poets aren’t allowed to sell merch before a Slam)
If the poet has performed, and the bout is over, by all means, go speak to him/her. Poets love this. Tell them how their poem moved you, ask to buy merch – most will have something to sell.
But, remember that Slam has no rock stars. Slam poets don’t often take too much praise well. It is far better to approach a Slam poet as a friend, not as a fan.