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Poetry slam in Berlin, 2010. Photo by Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Flickr.

A poetry slam is a competition at which poets read or recite original work (or, more rarely, that of others). These performances are then judged on a numeric scale by previously selected members of the audience.

Alternative poetry

Oral tradition
Oral interpretation
Oral literature
Oral poetry • Ethnopoetics
Poetry reading
How to read poetry out loud
Performance poetry
How to perform poetry
Sound poetry • Slam poetry
Spoken word • Rap • Dub

Found poetry

Cento  • Erasure poetry
Cut-up technique
Flarf • Spoetry

Visual poetry

Pattern poetry
Carmen figuratum
Diamante • Calligram
Concrete poetry
How to write a concrete poem
Haptic poetry
Concrete and visual poets

Digital poetry

Hypertext poetry
Interactive poetry

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Marc Kelly Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the slam moved to its permanent home, the Green Mill Jazz Club.[1] In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco, involving a team from Chicago, a team from San Francisco, and an individual poet from New York.[2] As of 2010, the National Poetry Slam has grown and currently features approximately 80 certified teams each year, culminating in five days of competition.[3]

Slams have spread all over the world, with slam scenes in Canada, Germany, Sweden, France, Austria, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Switzerland, Nepal, the Netherlands, Portugal, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bosnia, Denmark, South Korea, Japan, India and Greece.


Performing arts
Major forms

Dance | Music | Opera | Theatre | Circus

Minor forms

Magic | Puppetry | Poetry reading
Performance poetry | Slam


Drama | Tragedy | Comedy
Tragicomedy | Romance
Satire | Epic | Lyric

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In a poetry slam, members of the audience are chosen by an M.C. or host to act as judges for the event. In the standard slam, there are five judges. After each poet performs, each judge awards a score to that poem. Scores generally range between zero and ten. The highest and lowest score are dropped, giving each performance a rating between zero and thirty points.

Before the competition begins, the host will often bring up a "sacrificial poet," which the judges will score in order to calibrate their judging.

A single round at a slam consists of performances by all eligible poets. Most slams last multiple rounds, and many involve the elimination of lower-scoring poets in successive rounds. A standard elimination rubric might run 8-4-2, with eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. Some slams do not eliminate poets at all.

Props, costumes, and music are generally forbidden in slams distinguishing this category from its immediate predecessor, performance poetry. The founder of performance poetry, Hedwig Gorski, does not believe in systems for the arts that include rules and restrictions since avant-gardists are also experimentalists.[4] Additionally, most slams enforce a time limit of three minutes (and a grace period of ten seconds), after which a poet's score may be docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit.

Competition typesEdit

In an "Open Slam," the most common slam type, competition is open to all who wish to compete. In an "Invitational Slam," by contrast, only those invited to do so may compete.

Poetry Slam, Inc. holds several National and World Poetry Slams, including the Individual World Poetry Slam, The National Poetry Team Slam and The Women of the World Poetry Slam. The current (2010) IWPS champion is Rudy Francisco. The current (2010) National Poetry Slam Team champions are St. Paul, MN. The current (2011) Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion is Theresa Davis.

A "Theme Slam" is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme, genre, or formal constraint. Themes may include Nerd,[5] Erotica, Queer, Improv, or other conceptual limitations. In theme slams, poets can sometimes be allowed to break "traditional" slam rules. For instance, they sometimes allow performance of work by another poet (e.g. the "Dead Poet Slam", in which all work must be by a deceased poet). They can also allow changes on the restrictions on costumes or props (e.g. the Swedish "Triathlon" slams that allow for a poet, musician, and dancer to all take the stage at the same time), changing the judging structure (e.g. having a specific guest judge), or changing the time limits (e.g. a "1-2-3" slam with three rounds of one minute, two minutes, and three minutes, respectively).

Although theme slams may seem restricting in nature, slam venues frequently use them to advocate participation by particular and perhaps underrepresented demographics. For example High School age poets only, or Women poets only may be allowed to participate in a particular slam, and thus it might encourage poets from those demographics to feel more confident in participating in a poetry slam for the first time.


Poetry slams can feature a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions, and approaches to writing and performance.

Some poets are closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and draw heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicized genre belonging to black and particularly West Indian culture. Others employ an unrhyming narrative formula. Some use traditional theatric devices including shifting voices and tones, while others may recite an entire poem in ironic monotone. Some poets use nothing but their words to deliver a poem, while others stretch the boundaries of the format, tap-dancing or beatboxing or using highly-choreographed movements.

What is a dominant / successful style one year may be passe the next. Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, slam poet and author of Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, was quoted in an interview on the Best American Poetry blog as saying:

One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something -- a style, a project, a poet -- will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.[6]
One of the goals of a poetry slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value. No poet is beyond critique, as everyone is dependent upon the goodwill of the audience. Since only the poets with the best cumulative scores advance to the final round of the night, the structure assures that the audience gets to choose from whom they will hear more poetry. Audience members furthermore become part of each poem's presence, thus breaking down the barriers between poet/performer, critic, and audience. Bob Holman, a poetry activist and former slammaster of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, once called the movement "the democratization of verse.[7]" In 2005, Holman was also quoted as saying:
The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation's dialogue that you don't hear on the floor of Congress. I want a floor of Congress to look more like a National Poetry Slam. That would make me happy.[8]

Responses to slamEdit

Slam has not been without its critics.

Non-academic responses to slam have included the Anti-Slam, begun at Collective:Unconscious on New York's Lower East Side. At an Anti-Slam, all forms of expression are given a six-minute set and all participants are given a perfect ten by the judges.[9]

Academic responses to slam have varied. In an interview published in the Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom called the movement "the death of art."

Academics are not the only critics of slam. Poet and lead singer of King Missile, John S. Hall has also long been a vocal opponent, taking issue with such factors as its inherently competitive nature[10] and what he considers its lack of stylistic diversity.[11] In his 2005 interview in Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, he recalls seeing his first slam, at the Nuyorican Poets Café:

...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sport, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in.

One of the most recent appraisals of slam comes from the poet Tim Clare. He offers a 'for and against' account of the phenomenon in 'Slam: A Poetic Diaialogue.'[12]

Conversely, Slam poetry movement founder Marc Smith has been critical of the commercially successful Def Poetry television and Broadway live stage shows produced by Russell Simmons, decrying it as "an exploitive entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry."[13]

Academia and slamEdit

As of 2011, four poets who have competed at National Poetry Slam have won National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Fellowships for Literature:

A number of poets belong to both academia and slam: as noted above Jeffrey McDaniel slammed on several poetry slam teams, and has since published several books and currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College; Patricia Smith, a four-time national slam champion, went on to win several prestigious literary awards, including being nominated for the 2008 National Book Award, and being inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent in 2006; Bob Holman founded the Nuyorican Poetry Slam has taught for years at the New School, Bard, Columbia and NYU; Craig Arnold won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and has competed at slams; Kip Fulbeck, a professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara competed in slam in the early-90's and initiated the first spoken word course to be taught as part of a college art program's core curriculum; and poet/academics such as Michael Salinger, Felice Belle, Javon Johnson, Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett, Robbie Q. Telfer, Phil West, Ragan Fox, and Karyna McGlynn have devoted much attention to the merging of the poetry slam community and the academic community in their respective works.

Some renowned poets have competed in slams, with less successful results. Henry Taylor, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, competed in the 1997 National Poetry Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150.

While slam poetry has often been ignored in traditional higher learning institutions, it slowly is finding its way into courses and programs of study. For example, at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Slam Poetry is now available as a Minor course of study.[18]

Youth poetry slam movementEdit

Slam poetry has found popularity as a form of self-expression among many teenagers. Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in America, offering opportunities for youth ages 13–19 to express their ideas on paper and stage.

Another group offering opportunites in education and performance to teens is URBAN WORD NYC out of New York City, formerly known as Youth Speaks New York. URBAN WORD NYC holds the largest youth slam in NYC annually, with over 500 young people. The non-profit organization provides free workshops for inner-city youth ran by Hip-Hop poet and mentor, Michael Cirelli.

Young Chicago Authors (YCA) provides workshops, mentoring, and competition opportunities to youth in the Chicago area. Every year YCA presents Louder Than A Bomb, the world's largest team-based youth slam and subject of a forthcoming documentary by the same name.

The youth poetry slam movement will be the focus of a documentary film series produced by HBO and released in 2009.[19] It will feature poets from Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Louder than a Bomb and other related youth poetry slam organizations.

In a 2005 interview, one of slam's best known poets Saul Williams praised the youth poetry slam movement, explaining:

[H]ip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up... The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth.[20]


  • Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
  • Gary Mex Glazner, Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry
  • Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam
  • Big Poppa E, The Wussy Boy Manifesto
  • Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
  • Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, Why Things Burn, and 15 Ways to Stay Alive
  • Douglas A. Martin, In the Time of Assignments
  • Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
  • Taylor Mali, What Learning Leaves, and Top Secret Slam Strategies
  • Justin Chin, Bite Hard, Harmless Medicine, and Gutted
  • Michael Salinger, Neon, Outspoken, and Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme (with Sam Henderson
  • Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, Life According to Motown, Teahouse Of The Almighty, and Blood Dazzler
  • Ragan Fox, Heterophobia and Exile in Gayville
  • Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
  • Helen Gregory, The Quiet Revolution of Poetry Slam: The Sustainability of Cultural Capital in the Light of Changing Artistic Conventions. "Ethnography and Education", Vol. 3 (1): 61-71.
  • Roger Bonair-Agard, Gully and Tarnish and Masquerade
  • Saul Williams, The Seventh Octave, she, said the shotgun to the head, and The Dead Emcee Scrolls
  • Emanuel Xavier, Americano and Bullets & Butterflies: queer spoken word poetry

See alsoEdit


  1. Marc Smith website: History page
  2. "PSI FAQ: National Poetry Slam". 
  3. 2010 National Poetry Slam website
  4. | Immediate predecessor to slam: Performance poetry founder
  5. "History of the Nerd Slam" by J. Bradley
  6. Best American Poetry Blog: The Life Story of the Death of Art by Janice Erlbaum
  7. . Algarín, Miguel & Holman, Bob. (1994) Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Holt. ISBN 0805032576.
  8. Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe. (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. Chapter 26: What the Heck Is Going On Here; The Bowery Poetry Club Opens (Kinda) for Business. Soft Skull Press, 288. ISBN 1-933-36882-9.
  9. Aptowicz (2008), P. 291.
  10. Aptowicz (2008), p. 290.
  11. Aptowicz (2008), p. 297.
  12. 'Slam: A Poetic Diaialogue. 'Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry. Tom Chivers (ed.). Penned in the Margins Press, 2010.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe. (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. New York City: Soft Skull Press. "Chapter 14: First and Always; Graduates from the NYC Poetry Slam's First Wave" Page 122. ISBN 1-933-36882-9.
  15. 15.0 15.1 | National Endowment of the Arts List of Literature Fellows: 1967 - 2007
  16. | National Endowment of the Arts Writer's Corner
  17. National Endowment of the Arts 2011 Poetry Fellows
  19. Press Release Announcing Youth Poetry Slam Documentary
  20. Aptowicz (2008), P. 233.

External linksEdit


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