What is a Poetry Slam? How is spoken word poetry becoming mainstream? Dr Jack McGowan who is Course Leader for Creative Writing BA (Hons), a performance poet and a verse enthusiast, explores the art of spoken word.

What is spoken word?

Spoken word is a fast moving art form that has received increased attention in the 21st century across the globe. In the UK, artists such as Kate Tempest, George the Poet, and Holly McNish are taking their place among established ‘page poets’, winning prizes and racking up the kind of readership figures that are firmly changing how we think about poetry as a society.

The poet Kate Tempest speaking into a microphone

Internationally, for non-Western audiences, spoken word has a well-established presence in the cultural landscape. In the UAE ‘Million’s Poet’; a reality TV competition featuring spoken word recitations of popular Arabic and Persian Gulf poetry (if you’re thinking ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, but exclusively for poetry readings, you wouldn’t be far off) became one of the region’s most watched television shows of all time. 

The attraction of spoken word is detailed and complex. For one thing, it evokes traditions of oral storytelling, and a time before smartphones and Netflix where stories were told by word of mouth, by the fireside, by grandparents. This idea of spoken word is warm and cosy and probably makes us think of marshmallows. It is also a million miles away from the modern spoken word scene, which often features a different kind of fire entirely. Contemporary spoken word is dynamic, highly charged, and frequently politicised, with poems that are carefully crafted to encourage strong thoughts and strong emotions. It’s this kind of environment that has established a great proving ground for Poetry Slams. 

John Cooper Clarke

 How did slams begin?

Slams are a burgeoning phenomenon that began in the US in the 1980s. Let’s be clear from the outset: if you look up Slam Poetry in the Urban Dictionary you will (unsurprisingly) be misled. If you look up Slam Poetry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will (more surprisingly) be misled. ‘Slam Poetry’ is not in fact a thing. To the majority of people who have never experienced a poetry Slam (and no small number of initiated audience members) Slam is incorrectly deployed as a way to describe a particular style or genre of performance poem. As the veteran spoken word artist Buddy Wakefield explained in his 2012 interview with Used Furniture Review: ‘Slam poetry is a term that seems to have evolved into a generalization, given to a style of delivery culminating in rapid, rhythmic, cathartic voice and presence [...] Poetry Slam is an event. Slam poetry does not exist (not outside of its practical role of being any given poem entered into a Poetry Slam)’. A ‘Slam’ is an event, not a style of poetry.

The first Slam ever held was in Chicago’s ‘Get Me High Lounge’ in 1984. Since then it has transformed itself into a prominent feature of the global spoken word landscape, with national and international competitions such as CUPSI, the European Slampionship, UniSlam, the National Poetry Slam, Women of the World Poetry Slam, and the Individual World Poetry Slam. Slam has its own organisation: ‘Poetry Slam Inc’ founded in 1997 whose mission is ‘to promote the creation and performance of poetry that engages communities and provides a platform for voices to be heard beyond social, cultural, political, and economic barriers.’

Poetry Slams can be run very differently. Poetry Slam Inc provides a helpful online handbook that contains the basic rules of Poetry Slam. The 2017 version of the handbook is 75 pages long. Don’t let that fact put you off though; however complex Slams have become, different approaches tend to be variations on the same basic principles. A select number of poets will compete against each other, performing their own poems in front of a live audience. Typically, these performances will then be evaluated by a panel of judges (sometimes randomly selected from the audience), or judged directly by the whole audience.

Each poem will be given a score, often between 0.0 and 10.0, or simply by show of hands. Poets with the highest scores will proceed to the next round until one poet is determined the winner. Slams can be open (anyone who wishes to perform in the first round may do so) or invitational (only pre-selected poets can perform). Often Slams will not encourage themes so that poets do not feel constricted, but some do. There’s also a number of imaginative takes on the basic Slam structure such as the Anti-Slam; where it’s the poet with the lowest score that wins. 

poetry slam

Problems with Slam?

An Anti-Slam can be a hilarious evening of poetic clangers, but it also highlights the big problem that many critics have with Slams. In a Paris Review Interview in 2000, the notoriously fusty academic Harold Bloom referred to Slams as ‘the death of art’, complaining that poetry did not need an invisible clap-o-meter. For many people ascribing a score to poetry is deeply uncomfortable. Slams can unfairly privilege more enthusiastic performances over denser or more complicated poems. They can also feel like a popularity contest at times.

But to take the Slam at such face value is arguably missing the point. To quote Allan Wolf, slam master of the 1994 National Poetry Slam: ‘The points are not the point; the point is poetry.’ Much like the Anti-Slam, which entices its participants to perform the worst poem they can muster, at the most effective Slams, the competition is paradoxically something of an afterthought. 

literary criticism

Why have Slams at all then? Because they provide something that is different from the conventional identity of poetry, and something that might encourage new audiences. For all the judging and competitiveness, a Slam can also be a powerfully democratic way of experiencing poetry, which has unfortunately been associated with exclusivity and elitism. In print culture, publishers and literary critics have traditionally acted as gatekeepers who control what books are considered worthwhile. This accessibility is changing with the development of internet cultures, and spoken word (which is often experienced online) has a major part to play.

At an open (rather than invitational) Slam, anyone can get up on stage and perform. Nobody is dictating whether your work is good enough to share or not, and everyone is welcome. Slams judged by the audience allow audience members to feel like they are part of the event and to see that their opinions of a poem matter.

Maybe it is no surprise then that fusty old gatekeepers like Harold Bloom are so dismissive of Slams. They’re putting him out of a job.

Jack McGowan is Course Leader for Creative Writing BA (Hons) and a Senior Lecturer in the English, Media and Culture Department at the University of Worcester. This year he coached the University of Worcester's Slam team who competed at UniSlam2019; one of the UK's largest Poetry Slams @UniSlam