It wasn’t too long ago that poetry critics were decrying the decline of American poetry’s public audience. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia declared poetry dead to the average reader (the former in his essay “Who Killed Poetry?” and the latter in “Can Poetry Matter?”). Aided by the rise of MFA programs and the insularity of the academy, poetry, they argued, had been forced into an academic ghetto. Both critics reasoned that if poetry were to be resuscitated from its deathbed, it would have to present a new public face to the general reader.
At the same time critics were lamenting its death, poetry was indeed finding a new kind of public venue. In 1984, in a working-class Chicago barroom called the Get Me High Lounge, an ex-construction worker by the name of Marc Smith was experimenting with poetry and cabaret-style performance art. When he ran out of material to complete a set during an ensemble show, Smith stumbled upon a competitive format that has lasted two decades. He let the audience judge–at first with boos and applause, and later with numeric scores–the poems performed on stage. Two years later, Marc Smith took his poetry competition to The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, one of Al Capone’s favorite haunts. It was there on July 25, 1986, among the clinking of beer bottles and the thick haze of cigarette smoke, that the Uptown Poetry Slam was born.
Simply put, a poetry slam is a competitive poetry reading in which poets perform their own writing for scores. Slams are open and democratic in nature; anyone who wishes to sign up for the competition can. The scores, which range from 0.0 to 10.0, are assigned by volunteer judges (typically five of them) selected from the audience. The highest and the lowest scores for a poem are dropped and the three remaining scores are added together for a maximum total of 30 points. There is also a time limit of three minutes and ten seconds per performance; poets may and do go over this limit, but a time penalty is assessed and figured into their scores. Poets are also restricted in how they perform; no “props, costumes, or animal acts” are allowed. Musical accompaniment, except for that which poets can make with their own body, is also usually excluded. Beyond that, poets are free to use the microphone and any other items on stage to perform their poems. At stake are titles, small cash prizes, and even gag prizes. From the winners of local and regional slams, representative teams from cities across the US and Canada (and some international teams) are certified to compete at the National Poetry Slam, which takes place annually in August.
The slam has grown exponentially since its humble Chicago beginnings. In 1990, the first National Poetry slam was held with two teams of poets from Chicago and San Francisco. Now in its 18th year, the National Poetry Slam has expanded to accommodate 80 teams from the US, Canada, and Europe, and its tournament structure is not unlike a national forensics meet. The slam’s rapid national expansion has inspired a number of competition regulations, governed and enforced by a non-profit organization, Poetry Slam, Inc. It has also spawned other international competitions that vary in structure and membership, including the Individual World Poetry slam, established in 2004, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam, which will hold its first competition in 2007. Still, the poetry slam remains at its core a grassroots practice; the Uptown Poetry Slam, for example, still takes place every Sunday night at the Green Mill, and Poetry Slam, Inc. boasts over 100 certified local slam venues internationally.
Local poetry slams have reached a vast array of audiences. Today, slams attract audiences not only in urban centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but also in areas as distant as Singapore and the UK or as remote as Fargo, North Dakota. They are held in bars, bookstores, coffeehouses, universities, street corners, and theaters. Slams have surfaced in most US states and slam poets have performed their work in feature films, in documentaries, on cable television, and on Broadway stages. Slam poetry has even had the dubious honor of becoming the subject of a book in The Complete Idiot’s Guide series. The Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, the legendary den of poetic activity on New York City’s Lower East Side, is consistently packed for its Friday night slam. And although there may appear to be a consistent tension between the academy and slam, more and more poets are ferrying the divide between the two camps. Former and current slam competitors are now studying or teaching in MFA programs; likewise, winners of academic poetry’s most prestigious honors–the Yale Younger Poets Series, the National Poetry Series, and the Pulitzer Prize to name a few–have performed on the slam stage to acclaim. Still other slam competitors have taken their poetry to larger mainstream audiences, namely through commercial ventures such as the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry or through spoken word albums.
The growing history and influence of the poetry slam, especially on a younger generation of writers, suggests that the practice is not just a passing fad. The serious critic must cease treating the slam as a literary novelty or oddity and recognize it for what it is: a movement which combines (and at times exploits) the literary, the performative, and the social potential of verse, and which does so with the audience as its judge and guide.
The poetry slam was born in a bar. Now, twenty-one years later, it is finally old enough to drink there.
Continue reading at
Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, contributing editor for Rattle #27, is the author of a book of poetry, Roam, selected for the Crab Orchard Award Series in 2006, and a scholarly manuscript, “The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry.” Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Iowa Reviewamong other publications. A poet, scholar, and a member of three national poetry slam teams, she is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is researching the impact of public poetry projects.