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Slam Poetry Makes its Mark

A Brief History

Lively slam events reenergize poetry, and have taken it in a very different direction from its rigid and elitist roots.  Today, slam poetry influences many aspects of our culture.

Poetry slams began in Chicago in 1984, when Marc Smith, a construction worker with a literary bent, began experimenting with open mic poetry readings and turning them into slams by introducing competition. His vision of taking poetry out of the academy spawned the National Poetry Slam, an annual five-day event held in a different American city each year, where teams of poets compete from cities all over the United States and Canada. There are also hundreds of other slams all over the world sponsored by schools, non-profits, and individuals. They are held in coffeeshops, bars, auditoriums, and in parks, and often provide an important venue for people to speak from the heart.

The performances at a poetry slam are judged on both style and content. Although the rules associated with poetry slams may vary by venue or event, there are general guidelines that are often adhered to:

  1. Anyone, regardless of age, race, sex, education, class, disability, gender, or sexuality, can compete.
  2. Poems can be about any subject but typically are supposed to be the creation of the performing poet.
  3. Poems are not to exceed a three-minute limit (with 10-second grace period); if they do, points are deducted.
  4. No props may be used when performing the poem.
  5. No musical accompaniment or musical instruments may be used when performing, but the poet is allowed to sing, clap, hum, or make noise with the mouth or other body parts.
  6. Poets may perform on their own or in groups with other poets.

Today, slam poetry is an artistic movement that helps to define the collective psyche of our times.