Last Saturday I had the pleasure of doing a presentation on slam poetry to teens attending the Talk Book to Me 2020 event. It was only for 45 minutes and I felt like the topic was barely scratched in that amount of time… and my PowerPoint wouldn’t work with Zoom and the internet connection… but I still had fun. I think the teens in attendance did too. As promised last week, here’s that presentation. PowerPoint at the end.
What is slam poetry and why is it important?
Slam poetry is simply a type of literary competition. Slams were started in Chicago by an American poet named Marc Smith in November 1984 because he felt poetry had become “too structured and stuffy.”
Organizing a slam is pretty simple, and performers are judged as much on enthusiasm and presentation as they are for literary merit. Poets can compete as individuals or as teams. Judges are usually just people picked from the audience. You usually have five judges or three but you never want an even number or you won’t have a tie breaker. Sometimes the performances are just judged by audience response, whoever gets the most noise wins.
It’s important to know the difference between slam poetry, performance poetry, open mics and readings.
A poetry slam is a competition arts event, in which poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience and a panel of judges. Culturally, poetry slams are a break with the past image of poetry as an elitist or rigid art form. While formats can vary, slams are often loud and lively, with audience participation, cheering and dramatic delivery. Hip-hop music and urban culture are strong influences, and backgrounds of participants tend to be diverse.
Performance poetry is poetry that is specifically composed for or during a performance before an audience. During the 1980s, the term came into popular usage to describe poetry written or composed for performance rather than print distribution, mostly open to improvisation.
An open mic (or open mike) is a live show at a coffeehouse, nightclub, comedy club, institution or pub at which audience members who are amateur or professional may perform on stage, often for the first time, or to promote an upcoming performance. Typically, as the name suggests, the performer is provided with a microphone which is plugged into a PA system, to make the individual’s performance loud enough for the audience to hear.
A poetry reading is a public oral recitation or performance of poetry, often by a poet that has had some renown. People are coming to hear that poets read their own work.
At this point I shared a poem I’d written for performance, Family of Broken Pieces along with one that doesn’t perform well which was Space Heater. Both are included in my latest chapbook Altars and Oubliettes, available here.
Be original in your poem.
Write for performance. Not only will you be reciting your work, but you will need to be able to communicate your message to a rowdy crowd. Avoid complicated language that may not come across in delivery.
There are many gorgeous poems that would fall flat in a slam. Simple and raw is good. Use alliteration, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia to drive home your meaning. It’s called a slam because your delivery should smack the audience and make them pay attention.
Not every poem makes a good performance. In some of my poetry I’ll use repeating lines as a sort of chorus. They’ve done well in print, but I learned the hard way not to perform something just because I like it. When you are up on that stage, you are acutely aware of the people watching you. I find repeating lines like those in a pantoum are death to my performance and my mood. They steal my fire.
Pay attention to time and delivery.
Practice your piece until you have an internal sense of your poetic timing. Most slams give you a limit of three minutes. Write your poem to fit that limit. If you try to crush too much your words will be so fast no one will understand. If you drag it out too slow you lose your audience. Keep your voice clear and relaxed, saving the higher pitches and emotion for when you want to make a point. Variation in pitch and pace make for a more interesting performance. Think of it as texture.
Mind your body as well. Too stiff and you communicate discomfort to the audience. Too much movement is distracting and also communicates nervousness. I like to think of performing in a bubble. I want to move freely in my space, but not pop it. I reserve fast movements to drive home an idea. I like to use my upper body, rolling shoulders, twisting neck with fewer hand movements. Your body communicates as much as your language. Looking at the audience and looking away both say something different. Be bold and face away from them for a few seconds. Whatever you do, you are trying to hold the attention… so be interesting.
Don’t force movement where there isn’t any. Be sure to annunciate. Use resting position.
Perform like an actor.
Prepare your piece. Print it off and attack it with highlighters while you learn it. Highlight places to be calm in blue. I think of those as the parts where you are coiling a spring, creating tension and then you can pop it loose. Highlight your parts in a different color. Underline where you want to slow it down or speed it up. It doesn’t matter how you mark it.