A poetry slam is a competitive event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host or another organizer selects the judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (on a zero to 10 or one to 10 scale) based on the poets’ content and performance.
The vast majority of slam series registered by Poetry Slam, Inc. are open to everyone who wishes to sign up and can get into the venue. Though everyone who signs up has the opportunity to read in the first round, the lineup for subsequent rounds is determined by the judges’ scores. In other words, the judges vote for which poets they want to see more work from.
Though rules vary from slam to slam, the basic rules are:
• Each poem must be of the poet’s own construction;
• Each poet gets three minutes (plus a ten-second grace period) to read one poem. If the poet goes over time, points will be deducted from the total score.
• The poet may not use props, costumes or musical instruments;
• Of the scores the poet received from the five judges, the high and low scores are dropped and the middle three are added together, giving the poet a total score of 0-30.
Some slams have slight variations on the rules that Poetry Slam, Inc. has developed, but most adhere to these basic guidelines. The key rule in slam is that judges are selected from the audience, and those scores are used to determine who advances.
Slam is engineered for the audience, whereas a number of open mike readings are engineered as a support network for poets. Slam is designed for the audience to react vocally and openly to all aspects of the show, including the poet’s performance, the judges’ scores, and the host’s banter.
The official MC spiel of Poetry Slam, Inc. encourages the audience to respond to the poets or the judges in any way they see fit, and most slams have adopted that guideline. Audiences can boo or cheer at the conclusion of a poem, or even during a poem.At the Uptown Slam at Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern,where poetry slam was born, the audience is instructed on an established progression of reactions if they don’t like a poet, including finger snapping, foot stomping, and various verbal exhortations. If the audience expresses a certain level of dissatisfaction with the poet, the poet leaves the stage, even if he or she hasn’t finished the performance. Though not every slam is as exacting in its procedure for getting a poet off the stage, the vast majority of slams give their audience the freedom and the permission to express itself.
Depends on the venue, depends on the poets, depends on the slam. One of the best things about poetry slam is the range of poets it attracts. You’ll find a diverse range of work within slam, including heartfelt love poetry, searing social commentary, uproarious comic routines, and bittersweet personal confessional pieces. Poets are free to do work in any style on any subject.
Winning a poetry slam requires some measure of skill and a huge dose of luck. The judges’ tastes, the audience’s reactions, and the poets’ performances all shape a slam event, and what wins one week might not get a poet into the second round the next week. There’s no formula for winning a slam, although you become a stronger poet and performer the same way you get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice.