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