Vying for the audience: the relevance of slam

Slam. Is this once agent in changing the way we produce and consume performance poetry still relevant?

For those who are not familiar with slam: Slam is a competition format in which poets are given a set time limit to perform their pieces and are then scored by a total of 5 randomly selected audience members, the scores usually range from 1-10 to the nearest 0.1 with the top and bottom scores being dropped in order to avoid bias, giving each poet a final score out of 30. The poet with the highest score at the end of the night wins. There are many variations on this basic format (which was first introduced by Marc Smith) employed by poetry competitions across the globe.

Slam boasts origins in the idea that the people should have a say in the type of content they are presented with. That is, that those who are the predominant consumers of performance poetry or spoken word; the audience should be the deciding party in the kind of work that is allowed recognition and reward. This has given rise to a style of poetry unofficially termed “slam poetry.”

Slam poetry is a term used to define the type of poetry, both in cadence and content, that is likely to score well at slams. A poet who presents poetry predominantly of this style may be called a slam poet. And while slam, by definition, is a format for competition, the world of slam poets and slam poetry is a rapidly growing one with poets who have attained worldwide recognition for their execution of this style of poetry. However, over time and particularly on our extensive and hugely varied poetry scene, the idea that the poetry presented in slam is of an inferior quality is becoming an increasingly held one.

That is to say, there is a specific school of thought which views slam through a lens that portrays the art that is presented on slam stages as simplistic, repetitive and lacking in any depth beyond the concise point that the artist is trying to make in the allotted time limit. The reasoning presented by this school of thought, however, ignores the concepts on which slam is built.

Slam aims to present poetry that appeals to the layman as much as it does to the highly skilled wordsmith. It does not rely so much on the use of complex linguistic technique as it does on the connection an artist forms with an audience. It therefore takes into consideration the performance aspect of spoken word that had been ignored by elitist poets and poetry judges for decades. It shifts the bar dynamically to change poems from static displays to be admired to interactive experiences that are to be felt; journeys to embark on with the poet.

Does this take away from the skill displayed in the weaving of words? Perhaps.

Does it hinder experimentation? Maybe

Does it box artists in such that a very specific style is favoured over all the others? Not necessarily.

While it is true that there are certain tried and tested methods that will allow a competitor to score higher in slam competitions, these methods are not the only factor that goes into scoring. The scoring is based on feel and while feel is an intangible, abstract concept making the playing field one that is built on randomly structured terrain, this is exactly why slam has a place on our poetry scene.

Slam does not aim to be the frontier of innovation in performance poetry nor does it sell itself as the way forward into new styles and formats of delivery (not to say that it can’t be). Rather, it presents itself as the competition format for the people and that is why slam is so important. It allows the raw, unrefined work of a new artist to stand up against the crafted work of a seasoned one. It allows the audience the opportunity to barrack for the new guy, for the little guy, for the angry screamer, or the singer who writes, the writer who sings, the dancer who choreographs words onto the stage and so many other writers and performers who would otherwise have no space to share their work. It then elevates artists, not based on elitist views of poetry or performance, but on the honesty and authenticity of the work. It strips back the bells and whistles (for the most part) to focus on the connection between audience and artist without the usual biases held in most poetry circles.

For artists who do not conform to the mostly white, elite, experimental poetry circles, it allows us a space to tell our stories and it allows the audience the privilege of sharing in those stories. It lets us voice our views, yell our indignation, cry out our heartbreaks, it allows us to use our words to do whatever it is we need them to. For marginalised populations, it gives us safe spaces where opportunities to excel are presented. It provides us with an almost level playing field with everybody else, something we rarely get outside of the slam space. It gives us a voice, and more often than not, it reminds us that people are listening. In slam, our narratives come to the forefront while technique takes a backseat and in the most basic of instances, it does exactly what it is meant to do, it allows people to hear and be heard and to decide how exactly they feel about that.

That is not to say that “slam poets” are not skilled in their craft and delivery. Rather, that their skill goes unnoticed by those who view poetry through a technical lens as opposed to an emotional one. It takes a talented performer to confine themselves to a set style and to stand out anyway or better, produce art that breaks through to an audience primed to expect a certain style.

When the microphones have been turned off and the spotlights have been turned down for the night, it comes down to this:

Slam may have an air about it, it may have a style that associated itself with it, it may be riddled with spoken word artists who are delivering the same message in the same way over and over again but it is still the spontaneous, random, unexpected competition format it has always been. You do not have to be a “slam poet” to win a slam and you do not have to call yourself a “poet” at all to present on the slam sage. There will always be times where the funny poem about the weather is just as likely to win as the angry vulnerable one about the way in which a woman feels her body was objectified and each has their allotted space on the slam stage.

It is in this way that slam shifts the point from the points to the poetry and it is this that makes it so relevant.

Sharifa Tartoussi
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