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[Back to Essays]

To a Friend Who Asked What is Slam Poetry

Slam poetry is whatever poetry is likely to win over an audience when read/performed in competition with other poets, where the audience tends to be people in a bar or people at a poetry-reading venue, but in any case, usually NOT the audience for academic poetry (more populist, more activist).

What has worked best at slams is poetry that is highly politically correct (e.g., in-your-face feminism, gay, Black, radical, raunchy, explicit), performance poetry (not READ to the audience, but memorized and performed, often with some striking dramatics, walking into the audience, bits of singing, etc.), poetry with a heavy beat, strong stresses, poetry that doesn't concentrate much on an extended line of thought, but delivers little bangs (grotesque, non-sequitor imagery) in each line.

Typically, slam poets try to fill their time-slots, but not exceed them, so that slam poems are usually just under 3 minutes long. It's not a venue for haiku. That is, there are "haiku slams", where haiku compete with haiku, but in a regular slam, the lingering impression of a haiku will be drowned out by the next passionate rant ala "Howl." Humor - especially extravagant hyperbole - does well, as does terror, despair, etc.

It's not a reading where you try out your poetry written to be READ (on the page) on an audience. It's mostly poetry WRITTEN to be performed, with the speaking voice and audience interaction in view from the start. Some use rhyme and meter, some not. Those who do will tend towards a heavy, obvious beat and rhyme (ala Poe), in the doggerel direction, not subtle formalist enjambment and modulation.

Walt Whitman might do well at a slam. So might Poe, Robert Service, Ginsberg, Buchowski, Plath, Dylan Thomas, etc. Contemplative Wordsworth would probably not; it would be hard for Dickinson to get attention. Merwin, Ashbery, etc., would have trouble. Some of the academics would do well with some of their work. Poems must be accessible and performable. Hitler, alas, would do well in a slam, but so would Churchill.

Copyright c. 2004 by Dean Blehert. All rights reserved.

Last updated: December 13, 2004