Writing Glossary

What is Slam Poetry?

September 15, 2023 by

You walk into a dimly lit room. The air is charged with excitement as you take a seat among the other audience members.

Suddenly, a voice booms from the stage, commanding your attention. It’s a poet, but unlike any, you’ve ever seen before.

They’re not reciting words from a page, but rather delivering a performance filled with passion, rhythm, and emotion. This, my friend, is the power of slam poetry.

Slam poetry is a unique and dynamic form of spoken word art that has been growing in popularity over the past few decades.

It originated in Chicago in the 1980s as a way for poets to break away from traditional forms of poetry and connect with audiences on a more personal level.

Since then, slam poetry has spread all over the world and has become a platform for individuals to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through a powerful combination of words and performance.

But what exactly is slam poetry, and what sets it apart from other forms of poetry? In this article, we’ll explore five key characteristics of slam poetry that you should know, so that the next time you find yourself in a dimly lit room, you’ll have a better understanding of the powerful art form unfolding before you.

We’ll be covering the following topics:

Table of Contents

What is Slam Poetry?

Slam poetry is performance-based art where the artist gives voice to the poem in a manner that brings words to life, with animated emotions, and equally emotional enunciation.

The poetic art of delivery through speech and performance instead of conveying it as the written word (which is how it is normally read and enjoyed) is slam poetry.

Slam poetry is thought of as a rebellious way of expressing opinions and thoughts on social injustices, inequality, and gender biases, inherent in our culture, but at the same time, it can also be called the most basic and original form of poetry — as poetry evolved first and foremost as a storytelling medium.

People often confuse slam poetry with rapping; nothing could be further from the truth. Slam poetry is performance art done without the aid of props or music.

It is usually associated with social activism because the topics covered by slam artists are mostly related to social and political issues, a theme that is owed to its origins.

The academicians have a particular problem with slam poetry being termed poetry. The reason, according to them, is the obvious lack of structure, formality, rhyme, and other technical problems with lineation that slam poetry apparently lacks.

One of the obvious observations one can make about slam poetry upon hearing it for the first time is that it doesn’t even rely on rhyme, which might be considered as blasphemy by any official standards of poetry.

So the slam poets, instead of focusing solely on the strength of content, rely on many other factors for which they are scored — usually on a scale from 1–10 — at slam competitions.

These are performance, writing, audience participation, et cetera, elements that don’t relate to the actual wording or content of the poetry.

The competitions that slam poets enter into and compete in are called poetry slams or simply slams. These are highly popular among urban youth and attract thousands of young slam poets and enthusiasts.

slam poetry example
slam poet

What is the Origin of Slam Poetry?

Technically, the story of slam poetry is as long and ancient as the spoken language. Poetry was always a storytelling medium first and foremost before anything else.

Ancient cultures were built around storytelling traditions long before the printing presses came along and poetry for mass consumption was produced and poets became celebrities, and their works became works of art that no mere mortal could replicate.

The modern inspiration for slam poetry lies in the Harlem Renaissance and the Négritude movement of the 1930s.

Black French intellectuals moving from the French colonies and the Caribbean brought with them the oral tradition of poetry that was to be developed later on into slam poetry.

The concept of slam poetry, as it is understood in its modern context, was birthed by Marc Kelly Smith, a poet and a construction worker, who reimagined poetry for the common man and that was the beginning of the slam poetry competitions that later surfaced all over the US and Europe.

Why is Slam Poetry Important?

According to the website, Edutopia slam poetry not only helps “teachers teach writing but also builds confidence.”

Slam poetry is a medium of expression that seeks to give voice to, in the tradition of its oral origins, latent anger, passion, frustration, or any other mix of complex human emotions about social issues.

The mixture of content with the passionate gesturing and performing makes it a great conduit for expressing a whole gamut of human emotions and debate on social issues.

What are the Characteristics of Slam Poetry?

Slam poetry can easily be distinguished by identifying the following characteristics that are the defining traits of any poetry slam:

1. Slam poetry is performed without props or music

This is the most defining characteristic of slam poetry.

If you are confused about the difference between rap battles and slam poetry (because both can sound and feel like the same thing) then this is what sets slam apart from rap.

slam poetry no music
no props or music

In the absence of any props and music, the performer has to convince the crowd of his/her message with the strength of the words, tone of voice, and actual performance.

Unlike rap, where the goal is to diss opponents, ridicule them, and boast and brag in the most crude manner possible along with ambient hip-hop beats.

2. Performed individually or in a group

Slam poetry can be performed individually or in a group of fellow poets.

It depends on the sort of content you have at hand and the type of message that needs to be conveyed that determines the number of people performing.

3. Each poem is a story

Slam poetry is a reclaiming of the oral tradition of poetry and storytelling.

Each poem in a slam has a story, a take, and an opinion.

slam poetry story
each poem is a story

The performer’s connection to the story told in the poem is what makes the slam poem so intense and emotional.

4. Slam inclusivity

Slams are extremely inclusive events where everyone is invited to participate.

Among the rules of slam poetry is that at the beginning of each slam 5 judges are randomly selected from the crowd. The judges can also be non-poets.

5. “Slam voice”

Many beginning slam artists have yet to develop their voice, which means that during their formative years, they are guilty of using the same old tired, and cliched voice that has come to be known as the slam voice.

It is the kind of voice that makes new listeners cringe and experts hide their faces in shame.

According to slam artist Lindsay Alley in an interview with Vice,“…when you’re starting out, you don’t always have an ear for how things should be applied…

Slam Poetry Examples

Here are some examples of slam poetry pieces to give you a sense of the genre:

1. “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beaty

In this poem, Beaty explores the impact of absent fathers on the lives of young men. He uses the metaphor of a knock on the door to convey the emotional turmoil of a young boy longing for his father’s presence.

2. “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan

This poem addresses the lasting effects of bullying and the scars it leaves on its victims. It’s a moving and empowering piece that encourages resilience and self-acceptance.

3. “B” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay’s “B” is a heartfelt exploration of self-identity and the struggle to fit into societal norms. She shares her experiences growing up and learning to accept herself.

4. “Dear Straight People” by Denice Frohman

This powerful poem is an open letter to straight individuals, asking them to acknowledge the privileges they have and to support the LGBTQ+ community.

5. “Pretty” by Katie Makkai

In “Pretty,” Katie Makkai challenges society’s obsession with physical appearance and the pressure it places on individuals, especially women, to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty.

6. “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” by Sabrina Benaim

Sabrina Benaim’s poem is a poignant and honest conversation with her mother about her struggles with depression. It highlights the difficulty of communicating such feelings to loved ones.

7. “Lost Voices” by Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley

This collaborative poem features two voices—one male and one female—speaking in unison to highlight the disparities in how society views their experiences and emotions.

8. “When Love Arrives” by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye

In this piece, Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye explore the complexities of love and the various forms it can take throughout life.

9. “Shrinking Women” by Lily Myers

Lily Myers’ poem discusses the way women often shrink themselves both physically and metaphorically to make room for others, especially men, and how this can be a learned behavior passed down through generations.

What is the Difference Between Poetry and Slam Poetry?

The key defining difference between slam poetry and traditional poetry is how accessible slam poetry is to the general masses.

Traditional poetry has become a closed and tightly-knit affair of a select few intellectuals and artists that define what is and isn’t poetry.

Slam poetry decries these segregations and hard and fast rules and focuses on the emotional content of poetry and how well it is performed in conformity to its content.

Consequently, the other key differentiator is the performative aspect of slam poetry. Instead of being read or enjoyed on a cozy fireside winter evening with a cup of hot tea, slam poetry is a performance that is evocative and meant to bring the audience into the emotional fold of the story.

Finally, slam poetry focuses solely on the social and political. Slam poetry originated under the heavy and dark clouds of colonization and the social and economic injustices of the colonialist tradition.

Modern-day slam artists have retained that defining trait and never stray from issues of race, gender, class, discrimination, harassment, anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other social and political ills and evils.

slam poetry on stage
slam poet

How Do You Do Slam Poetry?

If you have had a dose of inspiration after witnessing a slam event in your neighborhood, and you are excited and want to know how to evoke the same emotional reactions from the crowd then you must learn the ropes of slam poetry and how you can write your very own verse slam style.

1. Craft Your Story

First of all, you need a good story. Nothing beats a good story, not even good rhyming or the best wording. The story is king.

If you have a story to tell, whatever that may be, you are golden.

Think of your recent breakup, your first love, your indignation at the state of things in your city, and your general disgust at the politicians, anything that sets your blood boiling or your heart racing is a good topic for your slam poem.

2. Word Choice

As mentioned before, rhyme is not necessary if you want to slam, but you need to think of the words you are putting in your poem.

A poet has to master her word choice. A thesaurus can be a very handy tool here.

3. Write a Draft

Write your first draft guided by your thoughts, feelings, and emotions on the event or story you have decided to highlight.

This draft is to let you see words on paper so you can adjust it later on.

Keep on revising the edit with better phrasing, wording, or even rhyming if you want a nice ring to it.

4. Perform

Lastly, perform. Performance is more than half the battle in slam poetry. Perform your poem out loud to yourself.

Perfect the tone, the voice, the gestures, and the overall performative aspects that would go along with your words.

5. Memorize

Although not entirely necessary, you will also need to memorize your poem so that you can perform it without the paper in your hand and that you can make a better connection with the audience because, at the end of the day, slam poetry is as much a competition as it is an art and your goal is to win the crowd over by making them feel something.

To further explore tips to start poetry slamming, we also recommend this video by Pen Clique:

Slam poetry is a performance art that seeks to highlight social issues through the use of poetry. Although critics might say otherwise and refuse to accept it as true poetry, slam poetry is truer to the origins of poetry of itself because it is conveyed in the spoken word form because humans evolved poetry as a story-telling medium.

What is the difference between slam poetry and poetry?

The main difference between slam poetry and traditional poetry is in their presentation. While traditional poetry is often written to be read on the page, slam poetry is performed live in front of an audience, and its delivery is just as important as the words themselves. Additionally, slam poetry often incorporates elements of hip-hop and spoken word, and can be more confrontational and political in nature.

Do slam poems have to rhyme?

No, slam poems do not have to rhyme. In fact, many slam poets intentionally avoid rhyme schemes in favor of other poetic devices, such as repetition, alliteration, and metaphor, to create a more powerful and emotional impact on their audience.