What is a slam?
The basic (National!) rules are as follows:
Slams must be open to all.
Poets may perform one original poem under 3 minutes.
Team pieces (two or more poets) are not only allowed, but encouraged.
Five Judges are selected from the audience at random. Judges score the poems from 0-10 (some slams allow NEGATIVE scores!), using the general criteria of five points for performance, five for content. High and low scores are dropped, the middle three added to give each poet a possible score of 30.
Audiences are expected to be vocal, heckling is part of the fun, and the ideal “Slammaster” is funny but unbiased.
The goal of a slam is not just to entertain. It is to cause controversy, to get audiences emotionally involved in the poems and ideas presented. When a terrific poem does not score well, audiences may boo the judges and leave the show emotionally invested in the poem, enthusiastically defending its strengths and questioning the competition.
Some folks inevitably get upset that the import of the issues presented get confused with the quality of the poem, further opening the debate. In other words, if you have heard someone complaining publicly about how slams cheapen poetry, now you know they are already part of the process!
How often does one pass a group of people in a heated discussion on the relative merits of closing metaphors and their context, even if they don’t know the names of those devices? This is the true goal of poetry slams. The slam as we know it today coalesced in Chicago in the late 80′s, most specifically under the creative guidance of a construction worker named Marc Smith.
The form spread to other major urban centers, evolving along the way. In 1990 the first-ever National Slam was held in San Francisco, beginning a process of establishing “National
Rules” and a network of communication that has made it possible for poets to tour the nation like one-person punk rock bands.
There are well over 100 regular slams across the US, Britain, Australia, Germany, Israel, Denmark and Sweden. Last summer, at the 10th anniversary Nationals in Chicago, 3,000 people witnessed Bay Area teams take an unprecedented three of the top four slots, with SF and San Jose sharing the title. We are privileged to live in the most exciting performance poetry scene in the English speaking world!
What I think a Poetry Slam is… by Charles Ellik
The poetry slam is a gimmick. Slams are a device used to draw in an audience of ‘normal folk,’ (meaning you, me, and the cabby that drove us here) and encourage them to actively participate in the performance of poetry. Either as a vocal audience member, or actually sharing their heart and mind on stage. Slams have the useful benefit of rewarding poets who connect with their audience by performing energetically, speaking clearly, and writing brief, potent, easy to grasp poems. Slams help give creative people incentive to find and hone the voice needed to express their ideas forcefully in front of a live audience.
How to run a slam
You’ve just begun on a journey into the most important poetic movement of the century. Slam is a gimmick. It’s a device used to break down the barrier between audiences and poets, a form used to push poets to new levels they never thought they’d achieve, a transparent contrivance that’s incredibly entertaining. It is the reverse of every art movement that sought to remove artists from the “bourgeoisie,” normal, average everyday people. Rather, it seeks to get everyone involved and is based on a profoundly humanistic theory that anyone and everyone recognizes great art when they see it. Oh, and healthy sense of humor helps.
I guess the most important thing to remember while hosting a slam is not to take the competitive aspect too seriously. It’s inherently absurd to give scores to poems and everyone knows it. There are a couple of useful sayings in the slam community: “The best poet never wins” and “The points are not the point, the point is poetry.”
The basic form is as follows:
1. Judges are picked randomly from the audience. At nationals, they pick five judges from the audience and drop the high and low scores. In Berkeley, we hand out numbered programs at the oor and hold a lottery.
2. Poems are scored 1-10. Tenths are used to help break ties, and some slammasters accept negative scores! Usually poems are scored half on performance, half on content. So a lyrical acrobat with no soul gets only a 5.
3. Poets get to perform one original poem. Often “themed” slams are held, including Dead Poet slams and Cover slams and Haiku slams, which bend the rules. These slams are fun but do not count as team qualifiers.
4. Poems should be under 3 minutes. At nationals, poets are given ten seconds grace period, then half a point is taken off their score for every other ten seconds over the time limit.
0:00 – 3:10 no deduction
3:11 – 3:20 loses 0.5
3:21 – 3:30 loses 1.0
3:31 – 3:40 loses 1.5
…and so on.
So a poet who gets a 27.6 and goes 3:42 loses two points for a final score of 25.6.-
In Berkeley, we wanted a tougher penalty, so we take off .1 for every tenth of a second over 3:10. That way, poets are well-trained in timing before the National competition!
5. No props, music, or costumes. (Singing is OK.)
6. Audience participation is one of the goals of a slam, and heckling is encouraged. Theory is, if the poet can’t handle a couple cat-calls, they oughta go back to the library.
7. Slams are usually started with a “sacrificial goat” or “calibration poet” to help the judges get a feel for their new job. This poet is not
part of the competition. Judges should be instructed to keep this first score in mind for the rest of the night. Any poet they like better, score higher. Any poet they like less, score lower. This way we avoid “score creep” which is the result of timid judges who don’t want to hurt people’s feelings and keep giving higher scores. This isn’t fair to the poets who have to go first.
8. The host should not bias the judges by giving special introductions to their friends or celebrities.
9. It’s fairest to the poets if more than one round is held, though time constraints often limit this. If a second round is held, it should be in reverse order, so as to make up for any “score creep”. Most slams cut down the number of poets each round to add drama.
–The slam as we know it today coalesced in Chicago in the late 80′s, under the creative guidance of a construction worker named Marc Smith. The idea spread across the country, evolving along the way. Every slam has its own traditions and aesthetic. In 1990, the first-ever National Slam was held in San Francisco, beginning a process of establishing “National Rules” and a network of communication that has made it possible for poets to tour the continent like one-person punk rock bands.
At this year’s Nationals in Providence, 56 teams competed. 2001, the Nationals will be in Seattle 2002, the Nationals will be in Minneapolis.
There are well over 100 regular slams in the US, Britain, Australia, Germany, Israel, Denmark, and Sweden. For more info on Slam history, use your browser to find “The Incomplete History Of Slam.”
–A slam team is made up of four poets, and usually a “fifth wheel” or
Alternate, and a Coach. To send a team to Nationals, you must hold at least 6 open qualifying slams. Those slams must be open to anyone, and be held with rules similar to national rules. You must certify your slam through Poetry Slam, Inc. The easiest way to contact them is through their website: http://www.poetryslam.com. They will send you their certification criteria. It costs $360 to certify and register a team for Nationals.
–For more info about slams in Northern
California, visit: http://www.norcalslam.org
–For photos of slams, visit: http://www.poeticdream.com
–If you wish, you can attend the National Slammaster’s meeting. It is held every March in Chicago. You can find out the details by e-mailing Poetry Slam, Inc through their website, or the info is posted on the Slam Listserve. I suggest you subscribe to the Slam Listserve. It’s an open forum for slammers everywhere, and besides all the gossip and bickering, most upcoming events are posted there, including when and where the
Slammasters’ meeting is. Just send a letter to:
Break a leg!
Tips for poets who are thinking about slamming
General Performance Tips:
1. Have Fun.
2. Stay true to your muse and yourself.
3. Know the rules. Both the actual competition rules, and the unspoken
rules of the venue.
4. Break the rules. Rules are meant to be broken. It is the rules you
break that make you uniquely you. Often, its the poets who invent
exceptions to the rules who win.
5. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If you were a professional musician,
you’d be at it for several hours every day. At least put 15 mins into your
performance every day, especially before an important gig. Consider it
exercise, just like lifting weights. It doesn’t have to be brilliant or
meaningful every time. Just keep rehearsing.
6. Don’t rehearse “wrong.” Don’t learn your mistakes or bad habits.
Practice just like you’re performing. Pretend a crowd is responding. Keep track of your time.
7. If you try to out-do someone, there will always be somebody bigger and stronger. If you simply be yourself, nobody can do it better. I believe that the poet who is MOST themselves will get the greatest points based on character alone.
8. Wear clothes that emphasize your strengths. This IS a performance, after all! Don’t be afraid of overdressing. Dark or bold colors are often best. Avoid pure white unless you need to make a point it washes out in the spot lights and overloads cameras. But do not be contrived or untrue to yourself. Emphasize your uniqueness without alienating the audience.
9. Observe, observe, observe. Find new ways of approaching your work and interacting with the audience. Ask questions.
10. Find a “master” and study them. Read their work and take what you like from it. Observe their movements on stage and emulate what works for you. Listen to their vocalizations and the “music” of their speech. Try reciting your work in their “voice,” as if you were an actor. Find new a new master as soon as you’ve exhausted the last.
11. Cherish criticism, but consider the source. “The best a person’s
advice can get you is where it has gotten them.” Find friends whom you respect and will be honest with you, then ask them about your performances. Don’t be surprised when a big visiting poet was too busy selling chapbooks to pay any attention to the details of your performance.
12. Tape yourself.
13. Perform in front of a mirror.
1. Stand up straight. You look more confident, the light hits you better, you get better breath, sound better, and it gets your face and voice up over the heads of audience members.
2. Take several deep breaths before speaking.
3. Breathe deeply while speaking!
4. Lift your chin. You look more confident. You will breathe and speak more clearly. Gives you more volume and range. Helps in projecting your voice.
5. Move your mouth. Open your mouth wide. Over-extend your mouth movements. BIG “O’s” Wide “Ah’s”
6. Speak from your diaphragm, from deep down. Avoid speaking with your mouth, throat, or nose. You sound more confident, project better, vocalize more smoothly, and can speak much much longer.
7. Try to minimize “popping” on the mic. Soften your “P’s”. Try pronouncing them almost as “B’s” The crowd won’t notice.
8. Try to minimize “hissing” on the mic. Soften your “S’s”. Try pronouncing them almost as “Z’s” The crowd won’t notice.
9. Know your mic. It is a musical instrument. Learn how to “play” it.
Test every mic before using, especially if the venue does not have a sound person to adjust the levels for you. Get a sense of the best distance to stand from the mic. Move in close to whisper, move away to shout. Practice using a mic both on a mic stand and and hand-held.
10. Avoid drinking alcohol before your set, especially if you have a long set or more than one set. It dries out the vocal chords QUICKLY and will cause your voice to break. Even one beer or shot will do plenty of damage.
11. Bring a water bottle with you to gigs. Keep you vocal chords wet. If you’ve been drinking alcohol, wash with warm water. Avoid cold water. It shocks the system.
At A Slam:
1. Arrive early.
2. Get yourself a glass of room-temp water, or bring a water bottle (in a non-bar venue).
3. Introduce yourself to the MC. Ask them if there is anything you should know for the show. Get on their good side if possible. They can unconsciously help in many ways.
4. Test the mic, learn how to adjust it.
5. Go onstage and find the “Sweet Spot.” Where the spotlight will hit your face, where the audience can best see you. Whereyou want to be when you perform. Where the acoustics are best, especially if there is no sound system. If you are reading off the page, make sure you have enough light.
6. Familiarize yourself with the rules, how many rounds, etc.
7. Know when you will perform.
8. Plan your route up to the stage, especially if the room is packed and difficult to move through. Often, the judges have made up their mind before you’ve even started your poem, so be conscious of your non-verbal behavior.
9. Know who the judges are, perhaps their biases.
10. Get a feeling for the audience, what they want. What you want to say to them.
11. Take a walk, stretch, get your blood pumping. Rehearse your piece. Don’t perform “cold.”
12. Be ready near the stage when your name is called.
13. Adjust the mic to suit your height.
14. Pause and breathe before beginning.
15. Make eye contact, stand up straight.
16. Don’t pander to the judges, but don’t ignore them, either.
17. Be energetic, even if your energy is directed toward calm or blues.
18. Be prepared for interruptions.
19. Be PRESENT. Often, the greatest challenge of a performance is making a well-rehearsed poem fresh all over again.
20. Vary the intensity of delivery.
21. Leave stage quickly and smoothly.
22. Do not be overly concerned with scores, especially in the first round.
1. Have fun. Have fun before taking the stage, on the stage, and off the stage. People will notice and reward you.
2. Be a good sport. Better to let some asshole win on a technicality this time and leave with the audience on your side.
3. Be confident. Audiences respect humility, but love confidence.
4. Know the rules, when you’ll be reading, and who you follow.
5. If you break a rule, do it with STYLE.
6. Be friendly with the organizers, bring friends to be in the audience. Consider that the prize may be $20, but the people you meet can often hook you up with paying gigs, even if (or maybe because) you lost a slam.
7. Watch the judges and consider what they are scoring high. Consider what their biases may be.
8. Do your best work FIRST. If you don’t advance to the next round, it won’t matter what you still have left in reserve.
9. Consider who you are following, and what style of poem they are most likely to do. Pick a couple likely responses.
10. Consider who follows you, and if you have a poem which “shuts them down” before they even speak.
11. Know who you are, or at least what “character” type you are most likely to be perceived as. Be aware that a poet before you or after you may use a character that “trumps” yours. I liken this to a deck of cards; a King trumps a Jack, an Ace (or team piece) can trump a King.
12. The audience will always struggle to “peg” you as a person or archetype before they listen to the poem. Time they spend trying to figure out what makes YOU tick is time taken from your poem. Consider ways of dressing and non-verbal behaviors which will help them to recognize who you are or wish to be perceived AS QUICKLY as possible.
13. Lead the audience, do not Boss the audience.
14. Show, not Tell.
15. Audiences want to be told what they already know. They want theirexpectations to be filled, especially regarding acting out your archetype.
How you choose to remain true to yourself is what makes you an individual. If you can convince an audience what they really want to know is something only you have, something unexpected, then you’ve got it in the bag.
16. You can only continue to “One Up” a particular subject/style/poem twice before scores begin to drop.
17. After a topic has been overdone, or three poets in a row have attempted to “One Up” each other, then this is the perfect time to “Flip” the energy and do something completely different. Like a comedic piece after three heavy political pieces.
18. If the poet ahead of you bombed, then avoid doing the same kind of poem, even if your version is much better.
19. Vary the level of intensity of delivery during your performance.
20. Honesty beats artifice, sincerity beats sarcasm, drama beats comedy, team beats individual, emotion beats reason, politics beat sex. Most of the time. Again, if you can make yourself the exception, your reward will be that much greater.
21. Most slams are popularity contests. Some slams are about choosing the competitor most worthy to be called “Poet.” Some slams will only let you win if you are an embodiment of what the audiences itself wishes to be. Other slams are unspoken auditions for gigs. Tryto figure out what the TRUE prize of a slam is, and proceed accordingly. Dismissing the unspoken prize can set you apart from the crowd- for better or worse.
22. You can never lose if you learn something.
What i think Slam is by Dani Eurynome
I have been involved with poetry slams since Charles hosted an SF slam at the Café du Nord (umm… 1997, I think?). I have had a lot of time to see slam and how it affects poets, poetry, and their work. In short, I think it is an amazingly positive way for any performance poet to improves her/his craft.
Charles thinks of slam as a gimmick. Sure, slam is a poetry competition that allows people in the audience to judge. Slam gets the audience numbers there (and gets them participating- not sitting like lumps!), and that could be construed as a gimmick. But from the poets’ angle, it’s more of a tool.
A slam hones the fine art of performance poetry more than any other poetry event (this is my opinion here folks- agree to disagree if you like) I’ve ever encountered.
Unlike an open mic, there are rules in slam about length. This makes the fine art of editing really keen in a slammer. How many poets have you seen that really have a few great ideas floating around in a mire of mediocre prose? Did you think to yourself- “agh! Learn to edit!” Slam does that for a poet.
Unlike an open mic, there are rules in slam against about props and background music. This rule makes a poet rely only on the strength and impact of their words, not a toy, a rhythm, or backbeat. They have to give of themselves. They have to work! It makes for a truly personal presentation that I feel connects the poet to the audience in a way that I have seen very few other poetry events do.
Unlike an open mic, they are being judged and are “competing” against other poets. A poet can learn a lot from their score. The longer and more often you slam, the easier it is to decipher what the difference between a 6.8 and a 9.5 for the same poem is. Oddly enough, while there are judging blips, the scores often do weed out the best poets- both for content and for performance. I myself have been disappointed when some of the most amazing poets don’t make the cut. But most of the amazing ones do, leaving the mediocre & the newbies to work on thei craft.
Moreover, slams are a nationwide phenomenon. Slams occur regularly in most towns and cities across the US. It gets an eager audience there for the poet, no matter where they are. This means once you are a great slammer, you can “Slam your way across the USA” (see links) and meet great poets. Most are paying gigs! Be a poetry rock star! Do the Slam!