Tuesday, December 13, 2011

SLAM! The Poetry Olympics

I went to my first true poetry slam this weekend and the words and rhythms of it are still echoing in my mind, along with some questions that it raised. It wasn’t my first time at a spoken poetry event, but those other times were formal MFA final portfolio readings or a solitary poet mixed in with singer-songwriters at open mic night. Not quite the same thing. 

For those of you who are also unfamiliar with poetry slams and are imagining something like this:
Oh Beatnik
I’ll have you know that I saw absolutely no drums or berets… Though to be fair there were several bearded guys in all black clothing with hats that were almost berets. Seriously though, it was an excellent variety of poets and poems: the uplifting and the heartbreaking, the political and the universal, the sexy and the serious. I was completely blown away by the talent and the atmosphere.

The poetry slam itself was many different things:

A variety show
The featured poets not in the competition (more on that in a bit) incorporated musical accompaniment really well, and the host who came on between poems was a crazy show all in herself. Even cooler: an artist spent the slam painting the scene – including the winner reading on stage – and finished it in time to give it to the winner as part of his prize.

A gathering of friends
It was clear that many of the people knew each other from past events, which led to both a strong support system and some entertaining heckling. They also yelled “That’s What She Said” more often than Micheal Scott and collection of high school boys combined.

A spirited congregation
When some people were especially struck by a line, they would let out an “oh” or “mmm” or “yes.” It was never a loud interruption; it was a quiet affirmation, a participation in the moment and the community. When it felt like everyone reacted at once to some well-spoken truth, it gave me chills. 

A true competition
This part surprised and excited me the most, and I would love to hear what people think of it. Each poem in the slam was publicly scored semi-Olympic-style. More specifically for those who are interested: after each poet finished reading, five judges (volunteers from the audience) would hold up flip boards with a decimal score between 0 and 10 (though all the scores that night fell between 6.5 and 9.8). Then the host would read all five scores aloud and use the middle three to calculate the official score. The top five poets then read (in reverse order) another poem in a final round, which was judged in the same way to determine the winner.  

It was absolutely fascinating to watch… and terrifying, if I put myself in the poets’ shoes as they listened to their poem judged out loud, though the host and the audience helped soften any potential blows. (The lowest score given to a poem was always cheerfully booed, for example.) It’s always tricky when something creative and subjective becomes competitive and quantified. It definitely made the experience more exciting as an audience member, but I haven’t decided how I feel about it as a concept. 

Would I want to be up there on the stage, being judged? I love competition, and I even love being assessed (why yes, I am that nerd who loves taking standardized tests). So part of me can imagine myself (or a version of myself that writes poetry instead of prose) going to these slams and working towards breaking 9.0…or finishing in the top three…or even winning… But at the same time I don’t think I would/should ever do it. I’m competitive and often overly concerned with other people’s opinions, so the slams could kill my confidence and creativity or just make me focused on the wrong thing. Just reading a personal poem can feel like standing naked in front of an audience; imagine having them then call out scores for your nude self!

Of course, the writing business itself is competitive and potentially ego-crushing. It could be argued that these slams are a worse version of it, or a more transparent version of it, or great practice for it... You do learn to work with immediate and measurable feedback, after all. In the end I'm still undecided about the set-up as a writer, but I'll admit I'm in favor as an audience member -- you better believe I will be attending future slams to cheer on those braver souls!

So, questions for YOU:

Have you ever been to a scored poetry slam like this one? Maybe I’m just out of the loop and this is how poetry slams work the world over.

Do you think public scoring of poems a horrible idea or a cool innovation? 

Would you ever read at such a slam?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


  1. Sounds like a fun evening - if you're brave or if you're sitting in the audience! Not for me. I have enough trouble reading my work aloud just sitting around a table with a small group of writers. :)

  2. I don't write poetry but I would love to go to one of these. Definitely takes confidence to do something like that.

    The whole judging thing is interesting because it is nice to get feedback, but if it's not helpful or constructive it can get damaging very fast.