Poetry slam

A poetry slam is a competition at which poets read or recite original work. These performances are usually judged by selected members of the audience or by a panel of judges. Typically, the judges score on a scale of 0–10 (zero being the worst, ten being the best). The highest and lowest scores are dropped and the middle three are kept. The highest score one can receive is a 30 and the lowest is a zero.


American poet Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the slam moved to its permanent home, the Green Mill Jazz Club.[1] In 1987 the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam was founded by Vince Keuter and found its home at the Heidelberg (moving later 2010, 2013, and 2015 to its new home at Espresso Royale. In August 1988, the first poetry slam was held in New York City at the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe and hosted by Bob Holman.[2] In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco, involving a team from Chicago, a team from San Francisco, and an individual poet from New York.[3] Soon afterward, poetry slam had become so popular that poets were able to make full-time careers in performance and competition, touring around the country and eventually the world.[2]

In 2001, the September 11 attacks had an interesting impact on poetry slam. Many performers were stuck in cities they had been performing in before the attack, and could not get home because flights were down.[2] After the attacks, a new wave of poetry slam started within New York City with the focus on the community of poets coming together to speak about and try to understand the terrorist attacks.[2]

As of 2014, the National Poetry Slam featured 72 certified teams, culminating in five days of competition.[4]

Another notable venue, Da Poetry Lounge, was started in Hollywood, CA in 1998.[5]

Today, there are poetry slam competitions in an ever expanding array of nations around the globe.

Poetry Slam Inc. sanctions three major annual poetry competitions (for poets 18+) on a national and international scale: the National Poetry Slam (NPS), the individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS), and the Women of the World Poetry Slam (WoWPS).

The French National Poetry Slam hosts a World Cup of Poetry Slam.

The First Kolkata Bengali Poetry Slam was held under the rains at College Square, Kolkata on 4 September 2016 organized by Sayani Sinha Roy, Dipriya Bhattacharya, Abhijit, Rima and Kanchan. It was judged by Kriti Ghosh and Megh Shantanu. Prizes were awarded to Sagarika, Ananya, Soumyajit and Samya. Since it was the First Kolkata Bengali Poetry slam, a memento was given to all fifty participants.


In a poetry slam, members of the audience are chosen by an emcee or host to act as judges for the event. In the national slam, there are five judges, but smaller slams generally have three. After each poet performs, each judge awards a score to that poem. Scores generally range between zero and ten. The highest and lowest score are dropped, giving each performance a rating between zero and thirty points.

Before the competition begins, the host will often bring up a "sacrificial" poet, whom the judges will score in order to calibrate their judging.

A single round at a standard slam consists of performances by all eligible poets. Most slams last multiple rounds, and many involve the elimination of lower-scoring poets in successive rounds. An elimination rubric might run 8-4-2; eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. Some slams do not eliminate poets at all. The Green Mill usually runs its slams with 6 poets in the first round. At the end of the slam, the poet with the highest number of points earned is the winner.

The Portland Poetry Slam (Portland, OR) takes a different approach; it uses the 8-4-2 three-round rubric, but the poets go head-to-head in separate bouts within the round. Instead of five judges giving points, the audience decides who moves on to the next round by a loud, enthusiastic popular vote.

Props, costumes, and music are in slams,[6] similar to its immediate predecessor, performance poetry. Additionally, most slams enforce a time limit of three minutes (and a grace period of ten seconds), after which a poet's score may be docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit. Many youth slams, however, allow the poets up to three and a half minutes on stage.

Competition types

Poetry slam in Paide, Estonia

In an "Open Slam", the most common slam type, competition is open to all who wish to compete, given the number of slots available. In an "Invitational Slam", only those invited to do so may compete.

Poetry Slam, Inc. holds several national and international competitions, including the Individual World Poetry Slam, the National Poetry Slam and The Women of the World Poetry Slam. The current (2013) IWPS champion is Ed Mabrey.[7] Ed Mabrey is the only three-time IWPS champion in the history of the event.[8] The current (2013) National Poetry Slam Team champions are Slam New Orleans (SNO), who have won the competition for the second year in a row.[9] The current (2014) Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion is Dominique Christina.[10]

A "Theme Slam" is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme, genre, or formal constraint. Themes may include Nerd,[11] Erotica, Queer, Improv, or other conceptual limitations. In theme slams, poets can sometimes be allowed to break "traditional" slam rules. For instance, they sometimes allow performance of work by another poet (e.g. the "Dead Poet Slam", in which all work must be by a deceased poet). They can also allow changes on the restrictions on costumes or props (e.g. the Swedish "Triathlon" slams that allow for a poet, musician, and dancer to all take the stage at the same time), changing the judging structure (e.g. having a specific guest judge), or changing the time limits (e.g. a "1-2-3" slam with three rounds of one minute, two minutes, and three minutes, respectively).

Although theme slams may seem restricting in nature, slam venues frequently use them to advocate participation by particular and perhaps underrepresented demographics (which vary from slam to slam), like younger poets and women.


Poetry slams can feature a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions, and approaches to writing and performance.

Some poets are closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and draw heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicized genre belonging to black and particularly West Indian culture. Others employ an unrhyming narrative formula. Some use traditional theatric devices including shifting voices and tones, while others may recite an entire poem in ironic monotone. Some poets use nothing but their words to deliver a poem, while others stretch the boundaries of the format, tap-dancing or beatboxing or using highly choreographed movements.

What is a dominant / successful style one year may be passe the next. Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, slam poet and author of Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, was quoted in an interview on the Best American Poetry blog as saying:

One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something—a style, a project, a poet—will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.[12]

One of the goals of a poetry slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value. No poet is beyond critique, as everyone is dependent upon the goodwill of the audience. Since only the poets with the best cumulative scores advance to the final round of the night, the structure assures that the audience gets to choose from whom they will hear more poetry. Audience members furthermore become part of each poem's presence, thus breaking down the barriers between poet/performer, critic, and audience.

Bob Holman, a poetry activist and former slammaster of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, once called the movement "the democratization of verse".[13] In 2005, Holman was also quoted as saying: "The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation's dialogue that you don't hear on the floor of Congress. I want a floor of Congress to look more like a National Poetry Slam. That would make me happy."[14]


In an interview in the Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom said about slamming:

I can't bear these accounts I read in the Times and elsewhere of these poetry slams, in which various young men and women in various late-spots are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other. The whole thing is judged by an applause meter which is actually not there, but might as well be. This isn't even silly; it is the death of art.[15]

Kip Fulbeck, who teaches spoken word at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "I don't like the idea of competition and art being put together. I think it often distills the quality of work down to a caricature of itself. Seeing poetry slams often reminds me of watching American Idol. You've got a series of judges, an audience that comes in looking for a certain shtick that they want to see and that's what they're going to cheer for."[16]

Poet and lead singer of King Missile, John S. Hall has also long been a vocal opponent, taking issue with such factors as its inherently competitive nature[17] and what he considers its lack of stylistic diversity.[18] In his 2005 interview in Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, he recalls seeing his first slam, at the Nuyorican Poets Café: "...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sport, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in."

The poet Tim Clare offers a "for and against" account of the phenomenon in Slam: A Poetic Dialogue.[19]

Ironically, slam poetry movement founder Marc Smith has been critical of the commercially successful Def Poetry television and Broadway live stage shows produced by Russell Simmons, decrying it as "an exploitive entertainment [program that] diminished the value and aesthetic of performance poetry".[20]


As of 2011, four poets who have competed at National Poetry Slam have won National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Fellowships for Literature:

A number of poets belong to both academia and slam:

Some renowned poets have competed in slams, with less successful results. Henry Taylor, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, competed in the 1997 National Poetry Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150.

While slam poetry has often been ignored in traditional higher learning institutions, it slowly is finding its way into courses and programs of study. For example, at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, slam poetry is now available as a Minor course of study.[27]

Youth movement

Slam poetry has found popularity as a form of self-expression among many teenagers. The World Poetry Bout Association sponsored the earliest slam poetry workshops for teenagers, through its "Poetry Education Project" in Taos, New Mexico, in the early 1990s. The first statewide competition for high school students was held at Taos High School in 1993, with the top teams and individual participants awarded plaques. Members of Taos' competitive teams earned athletic letters annually up until 2008. [cf. The Taos News, Taos, NM, articles, 1993 to present.] Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, patterned the slam competitions at the annual Brave New Voices festival after that seminal Taos event. Youth Speaks serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in America, offering opportunities for youth ages 13–19 to express their ideas on paper and stage.

Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in America, offering opportunities for youth ages 13–19 to express their ideas on paper and stage.

Another group offering opportunities in education and performance to teens is URBAN WORD NYC out of New York City, formerly known as Youth Speaks New York. URBAN WORD NYC holds the largest youth slam in NYC annually, with over 500 young people. The non-profit organization provides free workshops for inner-city youth ran by Hip-Hop poet and mentor, Michael Cirelli.

Young Chicago Authors (YCA) provides workshops, mentoring, and competition opportunities to youth in the Chicago area. Every year YCA presents Louder Than A Bomb, the world's largest team-based youth slam and subject of a documentary by the same name.

The youth poetry slam movement was the focus of a documentary film series produced by HBO and released in 2009.[28] It featured poets from Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Louder than a Bomb and other related youth poetry slam organizations.

In a 2005 interview, one of slam's best known poets Saul Williams praised the youth poetry slam movement, explaining:

[H]ip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up... The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth.[29]

In 2012, more than 12,000 young people took part in an England-wide youth slam Shake the Dust, organised by Apples and Snakes as part of the London 2012 Festival.[30] An Open Letter to Honey Singh a rap video featuring Rene Sharanya Verma, performing at Delhi Poetry Slam,[31] went viral on YouTube receiving over 1.5 million hits.[32]

See also


  • Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
  • Marc Smith, Crowdpleaser
  • Gary Mex Glazner, Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry
  • Susan Somers-Willett, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America
  • Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam
  • Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
  • Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, Why Things Burn, and 15 Ways to Stay Alive
  • Douglas A. Martin, In the Time of Assignments
  • Glenis Redmond, Backbone, Under the Sun,
  • Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
  • Jessica Care Moore, The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto, The Words Don't Fit in My Mouth, and God Is Not an American
  • Justin Chin, Bite Hard, Harmless Medicine, and Gutted
  • M. Ayodele Heath, Otherness
  • Michael Salinger, Neon, Outspoken, and Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme (with Sam Henderson)
  • Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, Life According to Motown, Teahouse Of The Almighty, and Blood Dazzler
  • Rachel McKibbens, Pink Elephant
  • Lucy Anderton, the flung you
  • Ragan Fox, Heterophobia and Exile in Gayville
  • Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
  • Shane Koyczan, Visiting Hours
  • Tara Betts, Arc and Hue
  • Taylor Mali, What Learning Leaves, and Top Secret Slam Strategies
  • Helen Gregory, The Quiet Revolution of Poetry Slam: The Sustainability of Cultural Capital in the Light of Changing Artistic Conventions. "Ethnography and Education", Vol. 3 (1): 61-71.
  • Roger Bonair-Agard, Gully and Tarnish and Masquerade
  • Saul Williams, The Seventh Octave, she, said the shotgun to the head, and The Dead Emcee Scrolls
  • Tyehimba Jess, leadbelly
  • Sonya Renee Taylor A Little Truth On Your Shirt


  1. Marc Smith website: History page Archived February 16, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. New York: Soft Skull Press.
  3. "PSI FAQ: National Poetry Slam".
  4. Sadie Dingfelder (August 15, 2014). "D.C.'s Beltway Poetry Slam triumphs at the National Poetry Slam". Washington Post. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  5. 1 2 Johnson, Javon (2010). "Manning Up: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Los Angeles' Slam and Spoken Word Poetry Communities". Text and Performance Quarterly. 30 (4): 396–419. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.511252.
  6. "The Rules of the National Poetry Slam". my.poetryslam.com [beta]. Poetry Slam, Inc. 2008-02-17. Archived from the original on February 7, 2012. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  7. Individual World Poetry Slam
  8. Workshop: The Three Lives of a Poem
  9. National Poetry Slam Championship winners
  10. Poetry Slam Inc.
  11. J. Bradley. "There Will Be Nerds (History of the Nerd Slam". Archived from the original on December 8, 2008. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  12. Janice Erlbaum (April 3, 2008). "The Life Story of the Death of Art". Best American Poetry Blog.
  13. . Algarín, Miguel & Holman, Bob. (1994) Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Holt. ISBN 0-8050-3257-6.
  14. Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe. (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. Chapter 26: What the Heck Is Going On Here; The Bowery Poetry Club Opens (Kinda) for Business. Soft Skull Press, 288. ISBN 1-933368-82-9.
  15. Bloom, Harold (2009) quoted in Somers-Willett, Susan B.A., The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. University of Michigan Press. p. 21.
  16. 1 2 Gripenstraw, Kelsey (August 30, 2012). "Up Close with Kip Fulbeck". The Independent. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  17. Aptowicz (2008), p. 290.
  18. Aptowicz (2008), p. 297.
  19. Chivers, Tom, ed. (2010). "Slam: A Poetic Dialogue". Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry. London: Penned in the Margins Press. ISBN 978-0-9565-4671-5. OCLC 680282058.
  20. "The Fall of Slam". Vocalo. June 3, 2008. Archived from the original on October 11, 2008. Retrieved June 4, 2016.
  21. 1 2 Aptowicz, Cristin O'Keefe. (2008). Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. New York City: Soft Skull Press. "Chapter 14: First and Always; Graduates from the NYC Poetry Slam's First Wave" p. 122. ISBN 1-933368-82-9.
  22. 1 2 "National Endowment of the Arts List of Literature Fellows: 1967–2007" (PDF). March 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 11, 2006.
  23. National Endowment of the Arts Writer's Corner
  24. National Endowment of the Arts 2011 Poetry Fellows
  25. Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. (2009). The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America. Ann Arbor: U of MI P.
  26. Fox, Ragan (2010). "'Ragan Fox Is A Gay Slam Poet': An Autobiographical Exploration Of Performance Poetry's Performative Implications". Text & Performance Quarterly. 30 (4): 420–429. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.508535.
  27. English Minor
  28. Press Release Announcing Youth Poetry Slam Documentary
  29. Aptowicz (2008), P. 233.
  30. "30 years of spoken word with Apples and Snakes". Apples and Snakes. Retrieved 22 November 2014.
  31. Lakhani, Somya (2015-02-04). "Don't Mess with Her". The Indian Express. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  32. Yadav, Shalu (2015-02-02). "Yo Yo Honey Singh: The Indian student who took on 'misogynist' rapper". British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
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