What Is a Poetry Slam?

by Timothy Green

 

For years, locals have been stopping me at the farmer’s market and the post office to ask when we’d have another poetry slam. They were always part of the Wrightwood Literary Festival, which ran from 2015-19, and word of mouth reviews were so enthusiastic that no one wants to miss the next one.

The wait is finally over, as the 5th Wrightwood Poetry Slam is one highlight of this year’s Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival.

But what is a poetry slam, anyway?

Slam poetry was founded in 1984 by Chicago construction worker and poet Marc Smith, as a way to rescue poetry from what he saw as snooty academics holding readings no one actually cared about. He wanted to create a show that would “give poetry back to the people,” where audiences would be compelled, rather than merely obliged, to listen.

To encourage honest and genuine audience engagement, Smith turned the performances into a sport, with the poets judged Olympic-style by volunteers selected from the crowd itself. Scores are averaged, and poets advance through several rounds until an event champion is crowned. As a result, the poets have to work at actually entertaining and impacting the people who came to hear them.

The format was an instant success, and Marc Smith soon moved the weekly series to its permanent home, at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown, Chicago, where it remains one of the longest-running shows in Chicago history.

Poetry slams are far too lively for a bookstore or library, and often take place in bars or small theaters. Expect to hear more cheers or boos than polite applause. Speaking to us at Rattle magazine, four-time National Slam Champion Patricia Smith (no relation to Marc) described her first experience at the Green Mill slam like this: “[A]t the end of it, there was this white hot moment of silence where people didn’t know whether to applaud or cry or scream or yell or what, so they just kind of gasped.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the poetry slam format has spread to over 500 cities, from Los Angeles to Singapore, including an annual National Poetry Slam with attendance in the thousands.

We decided to bring the excitement of a poetry slam to our small mountain community, too, for the 2016 Wrightwood Literary Festival. The event was held at The Yodeler, a bar in the center of town. The place was packed that Saturday night—half of the crowd was from the festival, but the other half seemed to have no idea what they were about to experience. A fuse had blown, so the lights were dim and the beer was flowing as 15 poets poured their hearts into the microphone. It was a night of shouts and gasps and laughs, until we finally crowned L.A. poet Kelly Grace Thomas as winner of the $150 prize.

If you’ve ever wanted to try attending or performing at a poetry slam, this year’s Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival, Saturday, May 21st, is a perfect opportunity.

The event will be headlined by Taylor Mali, one of the most well-known poets to have emerged from the poetry slam movement. Articulate, accessible, passionate, and downright funny, Mali studied drama in Oxford with members of The Royal Shakespeare Company and puts those skills of presentation to work in all his performances. He was one of the original poets to appear on the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and was the “Armani-clad villain” of Paul Devlin’s 1997 documentary film SlamNation. His poem “What Teachers Make” has been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube:

In addition to his performance in the evening, Taylor will be hosting a workshop in the afternoon, teaching slam poets the tools of the trade: Scores Please! Registration is required and space is very limited, so would-be performers should sign up soon! The cost of the two-hour workshop is $25.

Those who would like to compete in the slam must pay a $10 fee, either on-site or online. Again, space is limited, so early registration is encouraged. The first prize will be $500, with $250 going to the runner-up.

The slam is free to attend and open to the public, running from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. at the Wrightwood Community Building (1275 Hwy 2). Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and wine will be available for sale provided by the Village Grind. The festival is presented by the Wrightwood Arts Center, Rattle magazine, and over 20 other local sponsors.

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