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Introduction to Poetry Slams

Introduction to Poetry Slams: Meaning, History, and Much More

You may have heard the term "poetry slam" before and wondered what it's all about. Poetry slams are a new, alternative way to look at poetry unlike anything you've seen in English class.
Buzzle Staff
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
Do you remember sitting in your English class, reading poems by Shakespeare, and trying to make sense of it all? You're not the only one. Poetry slam founder, Marc Smith, decided to take poetry back to its roots as an oral tradition rather than a written one and jazz it up with a little hip hop culture and friendly competition. In short, poetry slams are like nothing you've ever seen in your English class.
What is a Poetry Slam?
A poetry slam is an event during which several poets perform original poetry to an audience. These slam poets compete against each other for points, though there isn't usually much of a prize to be won, and the judges are randomly selected audience members. In this way, slam poets need to be really good at crowd appeal. They can't just get up to the stage and read a poem; rather, they must include a performance aspect to catch the audience's attention. Props are not allowed in poetry slams, however, so the performance must be about the poet and the poem.
Poems are sometimes sung, rapped, shouted, or whispered depending on the poet's style and the tone of the poem. During a poetry slam, poets compete in three rounds. The first round is usually all-inclusive with as many as eight poets performing. The second round has four participants, and the final round has two. There are usually five randomly selected judges, and they score the poets between zero and ten. The lowest and highest score are dropped to give the poets each a score out of thirty. The highest scoring poets advance to the next round, in which they perform different poems than their first rounds.
How Poetry Slams Started?
In Chicago in 1984, Marc Smith started an open mic at the Get Me High lounge where poets started performing poems rather than just reading them. Despite the poetry community scoffing at the idea of poets performing rather than reading, this method gained popularity. Two years later, in 1986, the poetry slams moved to their current home at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Chicago.
It didn't take long for poetry slams to gain national attention; the first national poetry slam was held in 1990 - just four years later - in San Francisco. Since then, poetry slams have taken place across the country and around the world, and slam poets have been featured on HBO, in films and books, and in some English classrooms.
Responses to Poetry Slams
Academic poets and poetry teachers have had mixed responses to poetry slams. Some of them look down on the idea of performing poetry because, they believe, poems were meant to be written or simply read. Incorporating pop culture and hip-hop reduces the integrity of the poems, some say. Others truly enjoy this revitalization of the poetry community and are excited about the opportunity to use slam poetry to get young students interested in poetry when they might otherwise be unmotivated to study it.
Young Slam Poets
Youth poetry slams are becoming increasingly popular in urban areas. Writing and performing poetry can give young students an outlet for anger and frustration they may be experiencing. As the home of poetry slams, Chicago has several youth poetry slam groups that compete nationally and provide workshops and mentors for young poets. The youth poetry slam movement was even featured on an HBO documentary in 2009, bringing it to the forefront of the poetry community and ensuring new generations of slam poets for years to come.