Retrospective on Slam Poetry



American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

In the 1980s a form of poetry that combines the elements of performance, writing, competition, and audience participation began its journey. It is called Slam Poetry.


It has been presented as a way to make poetry more engaging. In 1986 Marc Kelly Smith created a weekly poetry event to increase the popularity and interest among the public. This contest was open to anyone, and it had a few rules: every poem must not last more than three minutes, otherwise points are deducted, there must be no musical instruments and accompaniment, and while someone is performing, they must not use props.


The subject of the poem can be anything and may be performed by a group of people. The audience plays an important role and from it five people are chosen to be the judges. This poetry, in fact, is called slam because it includes a contest. In these first bouts (also nowadays rules are pretty similar) there were five votes from zero to ten: the highest and the lowest number were excluded and the others were added together.


This poetry can be very strong because it is meant to be performed and to instil emotions in the audience. To achieve the inception of feelings, poets use devices such as metaphor, symbol, allegory, and simile to create vivid imagery which hook the audience and put them in their shoes. They also use a lot of figures of sounds such as alliteration, rhyme, consonance, assonance, repetition, and onomatopoeia to render the poem more fluent and with an easy-followable flow. These techniques draw the attention of the audience and force them to carefully listen to the poet’s emotions.


If a poem lacks these tools or a poet is not able to interpret and engagingly perform, slam poetry may be boring or not interesting.

Thus, to well perform this kind of writing, it is also fundamental to have strong speaking skills. A piece that is not well written could sound amazing because the performer is capable of engaging the audience, or vice versa, an awesome poem sounds boring because the person who carries it out is not interesting.


Slam poetry can be practiced in a lot of places, in the same way, many contests between writers are born. In particular there is a big competition that takes place in thirteen different cities in the USA and in Canada but it’s hub is in Chicago. Its name is “Louder Than a Bomb” and during this festival more than five hundred young poets attend workshops, bouts, and special events. It was born in 2001 after the falling of the Twin Towers, since many young coloured people of Chicago were threatened of having their rights taken away. It had begun as a few people spitting bars in a basement and now is an important festival with more than one hundred and twenty teams running for the title. In Canada, this festival is held in Toronto. The most recent one took place in 2019, before Covid made it practically impossible.


Students of almost every grade can participate in the contest and they only need their slam poems and motivation to get into the game. Then, schools can register their teams and their youth writers to take part at the LTAB. At this point, the teams have to prepare two types of bouts: the first is a solo performance, with a single poet performing; the second type is a group one, with a group of poets that carries out one poem. At the end, the points that every person and group of a team have made are counted together and whoever has the highest score wins.


The poems performed vary in topics and emotions. They can be funny or angry or sad or melancholic or real or fantasy.


To clarify what a slam poetry could look like, let’s look at these extracts:


“I feel so lonely, even the moon that keeps me company… disappeared” (Jennie Duong, York Memorial CI, Grade 10, LTAB Toronto).

This shows how the poet feels like she is alone and with the metaphor of the moon that vanishes we can imagine how her loneliness may be.


“Stand still for the statue staring at you shots and shotgun’s shells fly like pterodactyls… the world is going crazy I’m just a daily reminder” (Lamar Jorden, “The Steinmenauts”, LTAB Chicago).

This piece of the poem named “Shooter” points out another example of what this kind of poetry can look like. The poet sounds angry and scared at the same time and he uses the alliteration of the letter “s” and assonance of the letter “a” and “o” to give speed and rhythm. He creates a simile, comparing the “shotgun’s shells”, which are flying, to some “pterodactyls”. Moreover, he says that “the world is going crazy” and this shows us the point of the poetry and makes us feel and then realize that there actually is something wrong in what he is telling.


“We the successors of a country and the time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president” (Amanda Gorman, poem at the inauguration of the president Joe Biden, 01/20/2021).

This is the perfect example that slam poetry can cover any theme. This young poet performs her poem at the inauguration of the president and in this line, she traps the significance of what it means to be free and in telling this she represents the USA as a country where there is liberty. This illustrates how powerful words are and how much more decisive a good performance of the words can be .


Slam Poetry awards to anyone the opportunity to give themselves a voice. This new form of expression, that engages the audience as much as the poet, helps writers to more directly impact their listeners and, at the same time, to actually feel the emotions provoked by the words of the poems that they are performing.