What is Slam Poetry? Definition, Tips, and Examples

This is a guide covering slam poetry.

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 which is owed to its origins.

In this article, we will learn what slam poetry is and what makes it unique as a poetry style. We will learn about its characteristics and how can you go about starting in slam poetry. So let’s dive in.

What is Slam Poetry (Definition)?

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.

The academicians have a particular problem with slam poetry being termed as 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 observation 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 and 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 are called poetry slams or simply slams. These are highly popular among urban youth and attract thousands of young slam poets and enthusiasts.

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 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 build 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 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.

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 story-telling. Each poem in a slam has a story, a take, an opinion. 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 in 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 face in shame.

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

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 closed and tightly-knit affair of 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 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 whole host of other social and political ills and evils.

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 a slam poetry and how you can write your very own verse slam style.

First of all, you need a good story. Nothing beats a good story, not even good rhyming or the best wording. 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 general disgust at the politicians, anything that sets your blood boiling or your heart racing is a good topic for your slam poem.

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.

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.

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.

Although not a entirely necessary, you will also need to memorize your poem so that you can perform it without the paper in your hand so 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.

Final Remarks

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 conveyed in the spoken word form because humans evolved poetry as a story-telling medium.

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