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What is a Poetry Slam?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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While many genres of poetry employ the use of the spoken word to convey meaning, no genre relies as heavily upon vocal delivery as slam poetry. A relatively recent movement within the poetry world, slam poetry revolves around a strong and distinct vocal presentation, thereby lending itself to a more rhythmic, almost musical creation. The forum in which these poets present their work is a competitive performance called a poetry slam.

The format of a poetry slam can vary by competition, but the general elements typically stay the same: poets are allotted a certain amount of time in which to present their pieces and then they are judged on a set scale based on content, style, originality, rhythm, and other artistic criteria. Because the competition stresses vocal delivery and thematic presentation over visual flash, props are generally banned from competition — this includes costumes, specific stage shows and lights, and music or video. The judges are typically chosen at random from the slam audience, and the only way to advance to a subsequent round is to appeal to the tastes of the audience. Therefore, the poetry slam can morph its identity based on the audience taking in the performance.

In many cases, there may be a theme to a poetry slam, while in other instances slams may be thematically open to the poet’s discretion. Regardless of the format, slams may be conducted in either ‘open’ format, in which any poet in the audience may participate as long as time allows, or as an invite-only affair with previously determined poets squaring off.

The poetry slam differs from other poetry readings in several distinct ways. For example, poetry slams are by nature competitive, while normal poetry readings exist simply to allow the audience to take in the art form. This difference has lead to significant criticism from the poetry community at large, citing the slam’s more raucous atmosphere that some critics have bemoaned for stressing entertainment over art or literary content. However, this difference provides the distinction that most slammers applaud: slam poetry can be political, cultural, free verse, structured, musical, monotone, lyrical, ironic, and so on, thereby allowing the poet free rein to create a form transcendent of label. Indeed, many slam poets relate to the genre because a poem’s worth gets judged based on the audience’s reaction to it, rather than to a strict set of rules set out by hundreds of years of poetic standards.

A controversial facet of the poetry community, the poetry slam offers a vibrant presentation and a hands-on audience approach to enjoying poetics and poetry performance.

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Discussion Comments

By FirstBase — On May 26, 2011

A poetry slam is a live-wire event. It hosts real artistry, fine lines crossed forever, and poetic standards tossed into the wind. What does that mean?

Take risks, break the rules, don't listen to your friends.

Who wants to write poetry and follow rules?

By ninetydegree — On May 23, 2011

In a national poetry slam the poem's value is decided through the response of the audience rather than the poet's standards.

The value of this judgment is obvious; what do people care about, love hearing, want to read? Free rein is still free.

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