Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Slam poetry is a form of performance poetry that occurs within a competitive poetry event, called a "slam", at which poets perform their own poems (or, in rare cases, those of others) that are "judged" on a numeric scale by randomly picked members of the audience.
Critics of Slam poetry say that it is the quality of the performance that often wins the day, irrespective of the quality of the poetry. Its defenders say that this is like saying a poem printed in the finest type on the most exquisite paper will win the Pulitzer Prize. Despite the page/stage debate, several slam poets have gone on to publish popular books, including Patricia Smith (four-time National Poetry Slam champion), Regie Gibson, Justin Chin, Jeffrey McDaniel , Daphne Gottlieb, Beau Sia, and Ragan Fox.
In the view of its exponents, the point of Slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who pretends to know absolutely what literary quality is. Additionally, it seems that the poets that embrace Slam poetry wish to give audience members the power to 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, was once quoted as having called the movement "the democratization of verse." 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 chose who they want to hear more from (and conversely, who they think should shut up).
Slam poetry has always had some degree of connection to rap music, with both styles of expression involving rhythmically delivered phrases. Notable slam poet (as well as actor, activist, rapper and author) Saul Williams has contributed to the blurring of the lines between the two art forms, and many underground hip hop MCs have drawn influence from slam poetry (including Mos Def and Sage Francis, both of whom started performing at poetry slams before successful careers as rappers)
Slam and academia
Once Slam Poetry started to gain popularity, it began to come under attack from the academic poetry community. In an interiew in a recent Paris Review, long-time slam enemy and armchair writer Harold Bloom was quoted to have called the movement "the death of art." In response, some slammers have refused to publish their works in a paper format, mirroring the academic poets who rarely perform in competition.
There have been a handful of so-called "crossover poets" whose work is accepted by both the slam and academic communities. Jeffrey McDaniel started as a slammer and wound up publishing several books on major presses. On the other side, Craig Arnold , winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award, took his poems off the page onto the stage. Crossover doesn't always work the other way around, however. Henry Taylor, academic poet and winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, competed in the 1997 National Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150.
Though the true roots of this competitive literary art form are ancient in origin, the modern slam competition is most widely believed to have been started by Marc Smith , at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in the early to mid-1980s. Several years later, in 1990, the first National Slam took place. Now, the National Slam boasts approximately 75 certified teams from all parts of the United States, Canada, and other countries. Although American in origin, Slams have now spread all over the world with strong slam scenes in Germany, Austria, UK, Netherlands and as far as New Zealand and Singapore.
1. Elimination (over the course of two to four rounds) is traditionally practiced so that a greater number of poets can enter the competition, but giving the most amount of time to the poets who are scoring well. A standard design for elimination is 8-4-2, with eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. In invitational slams, elimination is usually not used, so as to give the competing poets a better chance to show off. These may be formatted as 5-5-5, with five poets reading three poems each.
2. Time Penalties are enforced at the National Slam, and at many local slams as well. The standard time limit for a poem is three minutes (including a grace period of around ten seconds), after which a poet's score is docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit.
3. Props and Costumes, except during a special competition (see below), are forbidden during a poet's performance of a poem. This ensures that a poet will not win a slam simply by wearing clothes appropriate to his piece or having brought with him a monkey and an accordion.
4. Scoring is done by members of the audience chosen at random, provided they don't know a slammer or have any other biases. There are usually five judges, who rate each poem on a scale of 0-10, with one decimal point. As the slammasters say, "Zero is the poem that should never have been written. Ten is simultaneous orgasm from everyone in the audience." The highest and the lowest scores are dropped, and the remaining three are averaged for the poem's score.
The Open Slam refers to the most common slam type, in which competition is open to all who wish to compete. In the case that there are more slammers than slots/time available, competitors will often be chosen at random from the signup list. The opposite of this is, predictably, an Invitational Slam.
A Theme Slam is one in which all competitors are required to have written within a certain theme or genre. Thematic slams have included the Goth Slam, the Erotica Slam, the Queer Slam and the Cute Boy Slam.
A Dead Poet Slam allows competitors to read or recite the works of deceased poets. The slam is not restricted to any particular time period, as some poets have chosen to read Lord Byron, while others prefer Dr. Seuss.
The Low-Ball Slam rewards the poets with the worst scores. This is a rarely-seen but largely hilarious event.
"King of the Hill" or "Taos Bout" Style involves a direct face-off between two poets, which in some cases resemble poetry boxing matches but take on the look of tennis tournaments from a distance. The losing poets are eliminated, and the winning poets face each other in subsequent rounds. Bouts have a history that apparrently predates slam and have been running continuously since their inception in Taos, New Mexico.
The "1-2-3" Slam enforces time penalties and begins with a round of one-minute poems, followed by a round of two-minute poems and concluding with a round of three-minute poems, with the number of poets in each subsequent round reduced by elimination. The theory here is that the poet earns the right to do a longer poem by first proving that he can do a shorter one well.
The Team Slam (aka "Grudge Slam") involves two or more slam teams, usually (though not always) from different cities, each usually consisting of four or five poets. The two teams then take turns sending poets to battle it out for the prize, which is usually boasting rights.
The Props Slam allows competing poets to use props and costumes, which are under ordinary circustances against the rules of slam.
Style-Specific Slams include the Limerick Slam and the Haiku Deathmatch.
The National Slam is a week-long event held in a different city each year, where teams of four poets each represent their city for the opportunity to win the national slam championship.
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