So, you want to win a poetry slam? Listen closely, and I’ll tell you exactly what you need to do.
For those uninitiated into the ancient art form of spoken word, ‘Slam’ is a competition invented by Marc Smith (So What?) in 1985 at this joint called the Get Me High Lounge. Poetry at the time was pretty crazy—people were bellowing elongated vowels atop bar stools and generally doing whatever they pleased. The conceit of the poetry slam was to get more people into seats to experience poetry, which is the main problem that poetry confronts—its serious public image problem.
Conjure the poet, the black-turtle-necked, finger-snappin’ intellectual speaking as if in a trance words describing their daily bowel movements and the fresco-palette of the setting sun. Slam poetry has in recent decades sucker-punched poetry back into the public spotlight, made it spectacle to see, not just a hobby for snooty would-be-rebels. Poetry slam is energetic. Scoop up the love of words and the search for truth, slap that together with theatrical Umph! and you get Slam Poetry. Almost like reciting monologues, almost like delivering a Pentecostal sermon, almost like political protest, but not exactly like any of that, the art of Spoken Word has grown into an international phenomenon.
Almost every major city holds a regular poetry slam. I happen to co-host the Holy City Slam right in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. Beyond that, there are also regional slams—these often offer more money to get the best in the surrounding states to come out to compete. From there one sees larger and larger slams, including the National Poetry Slam and International Poetry Slam. Got no idea what I’m talking about? Here are some videos from recent slams that have taken place in the United States including the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, the Southern Fried Poetry Slam (which the Holy City Slammers took part in), and CUPSI.
But you didn’t come here to hear me sing the praises of poetry slams, did you? You don’t care about the history or the atmosphere. You just want to win. So the ULTIMATE secret to winning a poetry slam is…
Go to a poetry slam. There really ain’t much of a secret. Because judges are randomly chosen from the audience and because those judges’ tastes vary so much, there is no one style of poetry that will appeal to everyone. I know, it’s disappointing for me to lead you on like this, to hype up this great secret and then drop your expectations off a sheer cliff. But I will share an even better secret with you.
The Poetry Slam is a trick. It’s a game. We just people to come out and read and experience poetry. I mean, poetry is awesome, but it has a serious image problem. People think poetry is boring. Until individuals take the plunge and experience the magic and healing of spoken word for themselves, they can’t know what they’re missing until they take that first plunge. So we dress poetry up like a sport, give it a competitive edge so that poets will bring their best and most polished work to the stage. This forces the poet to memorize and practice and hone their skills until they can stand on stage and deliver the best damn poem the world’s ever been. And the audience is inspired, and they will give the poets incredible scores, HURRAH!
But we don’t hold the poetry slam so we can hoist the winner on our shoulders and praise them for their literary efforts. Of course, the winner is usually an awesome poet who kicks verbal ass, but that’s not the point of the poetry slam, nope. The secret is, poetry slams are about YOU. We want YOU to have a great experience, to leave the venue feeling inspired. Maybe you might even pick up your pen, find that old notebook you’ve so long neglected, and start writing. Then comes the healing, the gush, the plunge, the heart-explosions, the gut-spillage, the brain splatter, and the love of poetry.
We want poetry to grow in our communities, to touch lives. We want to give poets the opportunity to grow in their careers and be paid handsomely for their work (one problem poets confront is that the public generally believes that art should be a public service and the artist a financial martyr). But it remains difficult to convince venues and parties to pay poets unless the audience and public believes poetry is a viable form of entertainment.
Hence, poetry slams.
Oh, what could it be? A baseball game? A boxing match? A NASCAR race? Not exactly.
But it can just as entertaining, imbued also with a consciousness you won’t find in any other type of competitive sport. Our strongest muscles are our lightning-fast tongues and at the end of the day, we want to make you cry or smile or laugh or feel SOMETHING. So that’s the real Ultimate secret of the Poetry Slam, that, as Allan Wolf said…
“The points are not the point. The point is the poetry.”