Poetry slams began some twenty years ago or so and so this site says: http://www.slampapi.com/new_site/background/what_is_poetry_slam.htm they were intended to increase the public’s awareness of poetry and involve the audience.
In Vancouver, I was doing poetry slams in the late 80s I guess. However, now reading what the slams were supposed to be like I can say I probably only did one. The one slam was called something like Poetry Faceoff, and was, I think put on by one of the writers organizations. It was in a bar with a dance floor area that they had roped off like a boxing ring with balloons in the corner. This was some publicity thing and two poets would be given a subject and five minutes to write a poem, then perform it.
The judges were some well-known jock and a writer. They scored a winner from each round and then those two would face off. In the end I won the poetry slam and still have the wall plaque. The judging aspect is supposed to be what a poetry slam should be like.
However those early days here had a bit more of a biased and ruthless variety. Most of my friends ran screaming from the word poetry, believing it to be moribund and incomprehensible. When a few of my friends did come with me to a few readings they found my poetry as well as the other poet’s much more accessible and lively. Of course we were doing performance poetry or spoken word.
The slams, though, were another thing. They’d be held in different bars and I would go with my written poems, like everyone else. Then each poet, or maybe two against each other, would read a poem and the audience would boo or cheer for the one they liked the best. This is different than what traditional slams are, where a few select members would be judges, scoring the pieces and making it somewhat fairer, one poet to the other.
The problem with just the audience cheering to decide the winner was that usually the poet with the most friends present won. It had nothing to do with good or bad poetry or performance. On top of that there was a predilection for certain poets to read every poem in the same impassioned way. Every line would end on an upward inflection, as if you were asking a question. Therefore someone loud using this cadence would outweigh a truly good poem read well but without the dramatics.
I saw good poets get torn down because they didn’t have a large crowd of friends and didn’t read their poems in the popular cadence. After a few of these, I decided they were too brutal. Poetry is hard enough to write and if a person has the guts to stand in front of a crowd and read or perform their work, they should be encouraged, not lambasted. So I stopped going.
The one thing to remember if doing any sort of slam or a spoken word reading, is to put life into a poem. Don’t read it as if you’ve come from the grave, unless the poem is about you coming from the grave. Then it will need to be wry. If there is delicate imagery, read it delicately; if it is harsh and bold, read it that way. The aspects of good acting apply to performing poetry: vary your cadence, don’t speak at the same volume all the way through and emphasize some elements to draw attention. I took a voice and speech class at one point, more for acting but it works equally as well when used with any spoken performance.
Maybe the slams have evolved, if there are any these days. I haven’t heard of many but then it seems I also fell out of doing readings a few years back. It might be time to pick up that thread and do some readings or spoken word again. Other cities have a much more active slam circuit: Toronto, Chicago, New York. Maybe we’re just too West Coast here. I just know that going to a slam the way they used to be here, is not for me. Maybe just maybe I can drag a friend or two with me the next time I read.