The National Poetry Slam--or so-called "Superbowl of spoken word"-- took place in Madison, Wisconsin this past week. The event featured more than 75 teams that had won their way through preliminary slams and city championships around the country to reach the final. This year, there was even a team from Paris, France.
In case you aren't familiar with slam poetry, it occupies a middle ground between traditional poetry and rap, and your ability as a performer is at least as important as your ability as a poet. Slam is rhythmic, spirited, and contemporary. It often deals with young, urban themes and it can be very, very funny.
The teams that made nationals competed in a series of "bouts" throughout the week, hoping to advance to Saturday's finals. Here are the basic rules of the bout (though these can vary a little from slam to slam):
• Each poem must be of the poet's own construction;
• Each poet gets three minutes (plus a ten-second grace period) to read one poem. If the poet goes over time, points will be deducted from the total score.
• The poet may not use props, costumes, or musical instruments;
• Of the scores the poet received from the five judges, the high and low scores are dropped and the middle three are added together, giving the poet a total score of 0-30.
The judging for the slam is decidedly unique. Judges are selected from the audience at random. According to organizers, "The randomness of the scoring makes slam both very democratic and very unpredictable." I'm not sure that's exactly democratic, but it's certainly unpredictable. And while this would be a terrible way to select the poet laureate, it actually works well in slam settings. Readings can get pretty raucous, and the crowd's input usually decides the votes of the randomly selected judges, which is what the organizers want. Making things a little more random, according to the official site, poets are judged based on content, presentation, originality, or "whatever else they feel like assigning value to."
As you probably can already tell, the slam scene prides itself on its underground feel and its inclusiveness--organizers want the audience to be involved, nd any aspiring poet can participate. Slam poet Khary Jackson, aka "6 is 9," told Minnesota's Pioneer press "People always respond to the idea of giving poetry back to the people. You can be a nobody, get up, read your poems. It's very empowering."
Of course, to really understand a slam, you've got to watch one. Lucky for us, a few of the preliminary bout performances have already found their way on to YouTube. A clip of Chicago's "Mental Graffiti" performing is available here.
You can immediately see that we aren't talking Carl Sandburg here:
We're from the Midwest
The capital of kegstands
Where cheeseballs were invented
Where casserole is a food group
We're from the Midwest
Where pizza is thicker than a Chicago accent...
And here's "Hips for the Hop." Give them a click. A transcript just doesn't do them justice.
The national slam brings in some of the nation's best slam poets, including Taalam Acey, Anis Mojgani, Kevin Coval, and Big Poppa e. Here's Big Poppa e in action from an earlier appearance. This gives you a sense of how raucous things can get at a slam.
And finally, here's Anis Mojgani--a two-time national poetry slam champion. He's pretty fantastic.
The finals took place Saturday (after this column was submitted), but you can check out the results here.
For more on Slam poetry, take a look at www.poetryslam.com.