The Gift of Slam Poetry

The Gift of Slam Poetry

A short history of a misunderstood literary genre and the world it created.


the greatest Americans
have not been born yet
they are waiting patiently
for the past to die.

—Saul Williams

Harold Bloom once stated in an interview with The Paris Review that poetry slam is “the death of art.” I like that. The gravity of the statement feels like its own commendation. But I would like to offer here that poetry slam is more accurately described as the art of death—the art of dying to oneself. You can hear the resonances of this approach in some of the descriptive terms of the slam, nowhere more vividly than in the role of the sacrificial poet: the first writer to touch stage during a slam.

The work of the sacrificial poet is to perform just before the first competing poet of the first round to “calibrate” the slam’s five judges. These judges are chosen at random and have no prior relationship to the poets involved, or even to one another. Each judge is asked to score participants’ poems on a scale of zero to 10. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the average of the three remaining scores is announced as a poet’s score for a given round. Thus, the highest score one can achieve is a 30. The order in which poets perform is determined by choosing numbers or letters from a hat, or bowl, or whatever other receptacle is on hand. Audience members show their approval of a performance by applauding (or snapping, or shouting the occasional “Amen”) and their disapproval through booing, hissing, or even, in certain venues, jangling keys.

Poetry slam is one of the few examples we have of a “language game” (to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous term, but not exactly the way he means it) that is explicitly named as such. One that is carried out in public, constantly, all around the globe. For Wittgenstein, a language game is implicit in our communication, and sometimes serves an explicitly pedagogical function: for example, simple operations, “by which children learn their native language.”

Slam, of course, is a language game in a different, though related, sense. It is a place to play with words, and that is the entire point of the gathering: to think aloud under pressure and work out arguments in ensemble. It is a space where we craft a new order of symbols together: time penalty (points deducted for a poet going over three minutes), indie (a solo performance by a poet), group piece (a collaborative performance by two or more poets), anchor (the last poet you send up in a bout involving multiple slam teams), leadoff (the first poet you send up in a bout), blocking (the choreography behind a given poem)—an order that consists of words that sometimes have a related meaning in another context, but once transferred to the world of slam take on new life, undeniable vibrance.

Like most games, it can sometimes get out of hand in the high heat of competition. Like any game worth its salt, it is first and foremost a place to make friends. The language game of poetry slam, then, of the poetry slam scene, is one in which we are educating each other in another way that the social world all around us can sound, look, and feel. Collectively, the members of a scene are building their own world, pillar by pillar, stone by stone, where public acts of passionate utterance are not strange and unexpected, but a natural part of the fabric of one’s life.

I competed in my first poetry slam in 1999. I was 11 years old at the time. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was with my mother in the Yonkers Public Library over by Getty Square, which I had only been to a few times, and knew best from the distant remove of my yellow school bus zooming past the building each day. The library was located just across from the Hudson River. It was not too far from a small museum that bore its name (the Hudson River Museum), as well as a middle school named after the museum (the Museum Middle School), which has since been closed and is now named for its proximity to the river (Riverside High School). The passage of years is strange that way. The carousel of names calls to mind one of my favorite lines from Susan Stewart: “Everyone knows that time is water / and, deeper, knows that water / erodes away all stone.” The flow of time is undefeated. The names on the buildings change, but the natural world wins out. The river stays the same.

I don’t remember what my mother was reading. But she helped me whenever I had questions, even if only in the form of telling me to look something up on my own, or think about it, a classic refrain of hers that grated on my nerves for years (“I’m asking because the thinking isn’t working!” I would say, visibly exasperated by the limits of my childhood cognition). After two or three hours at the table, we closed our books and headed downstairs to the lobby floor. I saw the stage with a microphone stand and flyer asking passersby to sign up for a “poetry slam” and thought little of it. I loved poetry, and had already been writing it for years, but had no idea what a slam was. Plus, I was ready to go home. The late morning and early afternoon spent studying had taken its toll. True to form, my mother had different plans. “Let’s sign you up, Joshua.”

There were already three rows of people seated in chairs across the library lobby for the competition. The sign-up list was full except for the last two or three slots. The lone microphone stand stood like a silver specter at center stage. I was frozen in place. “I know you can do it,” Mom said. “I cannot,” I clarified. “Gifts are meant to be shared,” she said, in pretty much exactly those words, because that’s how she talks. I had no retort ready for this unexpected gem of moral philosophy.

The slam was hosted by a librarian, which made sense to me, even though none of the librarians I knew back then would ever let anyone be this loud in a library. By contrast, this host—let’s call him Rob—encouraged the most unrestrained atmosphere possible: cheers of approval, applause, stomping and snaps, the entire gamut of effervescent praise. Then he explained the rules. This slam, unlike the standard I would grow accustomed to in the coming years, would have only two rounds. Eight of us had signed up in total. Four poets from that first group would move on to the second round, where they would recite another poem. The top three winners would be chosen from that second round of competition. My stress redoubled. The two-round structure meant that I couldn’t perform the same poem twice. I whispered news of this unforeseen conflict to my mother, hoping we could leave the library on a technicality. Maybe stop by Carvel for ice cream on the way home. Pistachio for her, Rocky Road for me, as was our way.

But instead of patting me on the head and ushering me outside, my mother assured me that I was mistaken—that I had overlooked something important. In one of the notebooks I brought to the library that day was a handful of poems I had scribbled in the margins during school. Whether she had somehow noticed this over the course of the day, or simply knew that my penchant for daydreaming and love of poems intersected in those middle-school spiral notebooks, I’m still unsure. But I went onstage with renewed confidence.

The host called my name. I walked up to the stage in the polo shirt and corduroys that back then were my daily uniform. “Hope and Love” was my first poem. It scored well, and I made it to the second round, where I competed against a man named Marcus—who had on a black durag, black pants, and black sweater; I remember his name because Marcus is also my brother-in-law’s name, and 1999 was the year I met him, too—and an older gentleman who read poems off a single piece of paper, freshly torn from his legal pad. For the second round, I went to the notebook and read with as much energy as I could muster. The crowd applauded, and the second poem scored about as high as the first. At slam’s end, I took second place, and was awarded a small gold-plated trophy of a man with a torch in one hand and a scroll in the other. I carried my trophy to the car and into the house later that afternoon, before placing it into the china closet: our family place of honor.

I now realize, for what feels like the first time but probably isn’t, that I was the only child in the slam that day. My mother had signed me up to compete against adults, in a game I knew nothing about, simply because she knew how much I cared about the craft. Or perhaps, in stark contrast to the well-worn adage in slam that “the point isn’t the points, the point is the poetry,” my mother’s aim in enlisting me for the competition that day had little to do with poems.

What I see now, much more clearly from the vantage of the future, is that getting me to read my poems—like getting me to act in plays, or recite Bible verses from memory in front of the sanctuary of our church—was about helping me practice not being afraid to speak all of the time. The “gift to be shared” my mother insisted upon was not only literary. There was something that’s harder to pin down she wanted me to believe in and develop: the sense that I was someone with a voice, with a vision and a critical worldview, and that these were not things to be kept to oneself forever. I could be unafraid to be known. I could practice vulnerability in public and be met with something other than fear or malice. I could take that risk and come out on the other end alive.

Years later, this would be the essence of the pitch I made, as an arts educator, to parents unsure of how something like poetry slam could be of any benefit to their child: “Slam is a vehicle,” I would tell them. The thing in and of itself has value, of course. But my sense has always been that the core competencies slam teaches—to memorize, to read text at the speed of everyday language, to speak with conviction and clarity in a brief window of time—are universally useful, no matter your field of endeavor or professional dreams. On that stage, for three minutes at a time, you can be whoever, whatever you want. That practice of everyday metamorphosis through embodied performance is a beautiful, necessary thing.

There are many historical precursors to poetry slam that helpfully contextualize its influence and impact. But even in the 20th century, in Chicago, the birthplace of slam—the scoring, the judges chosen from the audience, the three rounds, the cash prize—there was already an ongoing series of competitions sponsored by a man named Al Simmons, who created the World Poetry Association in the early 1980s. The WPA put on “poetry boxing matches” which took place in actual boxing rings, with timed rounds and the like. These Chicago bouts would eventually travel to New Mexico and be held at the Taos Poetry Circus, under the mantle of the Heavyweight Poetry Championships. Famous winners of the competition included everyone from Ntozake Shange to Quincy Troupe (who won it twice), alongside any number of poets who blurred the boundary between stage and page and, what’s more, showed great skill as improvisers (there’s a round in the Heavyweight Championships that requires this) that is worthy of admiration all on its own.

Which brings us to the period when poetry slam as we know it now was born: 1984–86, the years during which a construction worker and avant-garde experimentalist named Marc Smith would get together on Monday nights with a group of friends, colleagues, and strangers at the Get Me High Lounge on Chicago’s West Side, for a performance competition that inaugurated—but in some ways bears little resemblance to—what is now known across the world as poetry slam. Those nights at the Get Me High, for one, featured costumes and music and props, all of which are now explicitly banned for the most part in organized slam competitions across the country. There is little mention in the early annals of slam of anything like time penalties, for instance, which are now a crucial component of every level of slam, and regularly make the difference between who does and does not take home a win in an individual bout, even at the highest levels of competition.

The Get Me High Lounge was the first space that allowed Smith, a white, working-class writer in his late 30s, to consistently book whatever sort of performance work he wanted, including vaudeville, comedy, and more traditional poetry readings. Eventually he happened upon a format that seemed to resonate deeply with the crowd, which was a kind of mock poetry battle, where poets would have their work judged by strangers in the audience, first by jeering and applause, and then by scores. This early format stuck.

For those first two years, Monday nights at the Get Me High were a wild success. So much so that Smith was eventually able to create a cabaret show called the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on the North Side, where he would debut the format that we are most familiar with. The Green Mill was eventually purchased by a club owner named Dave Jemilo, who was familiar with the ensemble through their performances at another venue he owned in the city, the Deja Vu. When he bought the bar in 1986, he thought they would be an ideal fit for Sunday nights, where the ensemble could host, on a weekly basis, the experimental new poetry show they had been working on. The Green Mill was where the term “poetry slam” was coined and its rules first devised, though the famous “So what!” response to Marc Smith introducing himself as host was a holdover from the Get Me High.

In Smith’s own words, this practice began because “it was important to remind everybody taking the stage, including myself, that we were on equal footing with everyone else.” But there’s an important irony here. By opening each slam this way, Smith also guaranteed his place in the lore and practice of the form. No matter where you are, every time there is a slam, there is a chance that he will be mentioned. He has, in this way, guaranteed that his name, his contribution to an ancient practice of storytelling, lives on in his creation. Even when he is not present. In this sense, “So what!” cuts in multiple directions from the very start. It is both a refusal and a reminder. A monument in the form of embodied practice.

Though competition was eventually the primary draw for local audiences, the Green Mill also featured plays, dance performances, and live music. It was a haven for all of the performing arts, not just poetry. In the beginning, in fact, the slam was simply added on as a kind of afterthought as the final set of the evening. It was the closing event of the night, and offered two distinct prizes: either 10 dollars in cash, or several Twinkies (the Twinkies came first, and the money was viewed as a later upgrade).

Over the next four years, poetry slam spread its wings across the country, finding one of its most secure footholds at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where Miguel Algarín and its other founders collaborated with the poet, curator, and eventual record label executive Bob Holman to create a slam of their own in the early 1990s, adding a new wrinkle to the format. As a result of a combination of slam victories on Wednesday and Friday nights throughout a given season, a poet would eventually be named the Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion (in those days, the title even came with a crown and purple cape). The first of these poets was chosen in 1990: Paul Beatty.

Poetry no longer needed to be treated like a museum piece or school lesson. It was as dynamic and exciting as any of the other performing arts. And so it was: The National Poetry Slam was born, and the planning began immediately for the following year.

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