Slam poetry is a form of competitive performance poetry in which participants perform works no longer than three minutes and are judged by audience members. The winners then progress to further in the competition and perform a new piece each time. The winner is the poet with the highest score in the finals. The winner usually wins a cash prize.
If you’ve seen spoken word poetry videos or videos of slam poetry competitions floating around Facebook or YouTube but weren’t sure what they were all about, check out our guide to slam poetry.
Find out what makes slam poems different and how they’re used today to highlight social injustices.
Who Started Slam Poetry?
Slam poetry is a spoken-word type of poetry largely influenced by the free verse, musical style of Beat Generation poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
It first took off in the 80’s, when open mic sessions were organised in cafés in cities like New York and San Francisco.
Many people would say that Marc Kelly Smith, a Chicago poet also known as “Slampapi” started the slam poetry movement. He believed that academic poetry was too high-brow and wanted to find a looser, more accessible poetry medium. He founded the first-ever National Poetry Slam in Chicago in 1990 and that annual competition still goes on today.
Another driving force that made slam poetry popular was the television show Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, which ran from 2002 to 2007. The series showcased established poets like Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets and Sonya Sanchez, as well as up-and-coming spoken word poets.
What Makes Slam Poetry Different From Traditional Poetry?
The difference is simple: one is written with the intention of being performed or spoken aloud, while the other is written specifically for the page.
Slam poems are meant to be performed. Words in slam poems are specifically chosen for the way they will sound when read aloud. Traditional poets don’t need to worry about this in the same way.
The rhyme schemes and rhythm of a poem can be performed in a way to give the piece a hip-hop feel. Some slam poets play around with pacing, slowing down and speeding up, pausing to emphasise a point or change the volume of their voices to add dramatic effect. Unlike traditional poetry there are no rules in slam poetry, just that a poem must be performed!
Slam poetry topics tend to be political. Most often you’ll find slam poets broaching heavy subjects in their pieces. Topics like race, gender, class, sexuality, discrimination, religion are commonplace at a poetry slam.
These topics are provocative but that’s the point. Slam poetry is meant to make you think. Don’t forget that they are usually performed in front of a live audience. Poets want to evoke an emotional response from their audiences.
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It is usually the audience that choose the winners so the more the poet can make the audience, laugh, gasp, cry is an advantage for them.
Arguably, slam poetry is more accessible than traditional written poetry. Slam poetry engages its audience more, it elicits emotions from you that you don’t get from traditional poetry. Because it is designed to make you think and is usually based on current affairs it is more relevant to most people and not just the academic elite. It plays with sounds and is often compared to hip-hop, opening it up to so many more people who might not enjoy traditional written poetry.
Slam poets can be anyone. You don’t need to be Oxford-educated or to even have studied English Literature. You just have to have something to say.
Feminist Slam Poetry
Since its beginning Slam poetry has been used by poets to express their feelings and rage at political, economic, social and racial injustices in society.
Feminist slam poetry is particularly powerful at the moment in the time of #metoo and #timesup and is used as a tool by many to articulate the struggles and discriminations that many women still face today.
Here are some of our favourites:
"What Guys Look For In Girls” by Savannah Brown
“You’re worth so much more than your waistline. You’re worth the beautiful thoughts you think, and the daring dreams you dream, undone and drunk off alcohol of being. But sometimes we forget that.”
"Feminism” by Ashia Ajani, Tolu Obiwole, Abby Friesen-Johnson and Alexis Rain Vigil
“Before I am a woman, I am black. [But] women and color should not have to surrender to each other.”
“She Said” by Amir Sulaiman
“I know that being a man is more than being male, and I’m focused on doing it right.”
“I Think She Was A She” by Leyla Josephine
“I would’ve supported her right to choose. To choose a life for herself, a path for herself. I would’ve died for that right like she died for mine. I’m sorry, but you came at the wrong time.”
Create a Slam Poem of Your Own
Follow our tips to make your poem stand out from the crowd.
1 Do your research. To know more about what makes slam poetry effective, you need to watch it being performed. Find a poetry slam at a local coffee shop or bookstore. If you can't find one, head to YouTube, type in "slam poetry videos" and you'll be amazed by the amount that you’ll find. Take notes on which slam poems you like best and why they made an impression on you.
2 Choose a topic. Identify an event, person, or issue that evokes emotion in you, positive or negative. It could be a political issue that you feel particularly passionate about, or maybe you recently fell in love or went through a bad breakup. Or, perhaps you're determined to educate people on a lesser known topic that you think people should know about. Whatever it is, make sure it means something to you. When you're fired up, your words will be full of emotion.
3 Get your feelings down on paper. Write down everything you feel when you think about your topic. If you want to paint a vivid picture through your poem you need to include as many details as you can. Assemble your thoughts into short stanzas that lend themselves to a natural rhythm.
4 Edit. When editing, read your poem out loud. It should flow easily if you find yourself stumbling over certain words then change them or move them round. You can use an online thesaurus if you're looking for synonyms to replace certain words.
5 Remember you’re performing! The goal of slam poetry is to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience. You want them to audibly react to increase your score in the competition. So always think of ways to increase the drama. Play with different techniques like pacing or changing the volume of your voice. Illustrate your story with body movements and facial expressions.
After you’ve got your poem on paper and have practiced performing it, you’re ready for your first slam! Search online for one in your area.
Note: Most slams do not require you to memorise your poem, but you might prefer to. Without a piece of paper in your hand, you’ll be free to use your body as a performance tool and you can look directly at the audience. This will definitely help push up your score! But if this seems like too much then why not try Limericks which are concise poems, Classical Japanese Haiku poems have a long history in Asia, to be expressive try a style of Sonnet, if music inspires you to add some music to a Ballard poem, epic poetry style is like a short story or look at free verse poetry which is pure verbal freedom.