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Slam Poetry and Spoken Word

written by: Eighty Six • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 3/31/2014

Wondering what spoken word or slam poetry is? A practiced poet paints a vivid image of what slam poetry writing, rehearsing and competitions are all about.

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    Writing Slam Poetry

    Slam Poetry and Spoken Word 

    Slam Poetry and Spoken WordWhat is this thing called slam poetry?

    Slam poetry is where open mic becomes a competition. Contestants get three minutes and no more to perform an original work. Props, costumes and musical accompaniment are not allowed. Exceeding three minutes earns a time penalty. The reader is then judged on a scale of zero to ten by five judges selected from the audience. Both quality of the writing and performance are considered. The high and low scores are thrown out. The remaining three are totaled to form the reader's score for that round.

    Depending on the size of the field, the lowest scoring competitors may be cut. Only the high scores will advance to the next round. In a large competition, there may be three rounds. Whoever finishes with the highest combined score wins a cash prize. Where I'm from, that's $50. Second and third place end up with a gag prize worth a buck or two.

    Most important, first place gets three points, second gets two and third gets one. At the end of the season, writers with the highest point totals compete to perform at the nationals. No matter what the pay is, that is serious publicity for some dude or chick complaining about an ex-lover in a coffee shop.

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    It Ain't Poetry

    I'm not saying it's better or worse. It's just different. That is the first thing to understand about writing for this purpose.

    Poetry is a written art form. The readers get words on a page and should need nothing else. They see the punctuation and where the lines end. They can reread and take time to absorb what they have read. They should learn more when they approach the text for the second or third time. If the author must be present, delivering the words with his or her own inflection, then the poem has failed.

    Slam poetry is something else. It's a misnomer. I don't like using “poetry," “poet" or “poem" at these events. I think “script" is more accurate.

    You get one chance to get your impression across. No one sees what you have written. Your voice is a tool. So is your body language. This is performance art. This is acting.

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    How Do You Write For This?

    Keep it simple. Again, no one can reread this. Complex verse form is wasted here. Double entendre, toying with homophones and other word play will be lost. The audience must get it one the first pass. Don't get too deep. Be personal and authentic.

    Have a central image or metaphor. Two at most. Establish a clear theme and stick with it. If you are writing about women being like great books, don't stray from that imagery. Don't get too elaborate or you will leave the people saying, “Huh?" Make sure they can feel, smell and taste your words.

    Use sound. When writing poetry, I almost never use rhyme. When writing a script for a slam, I almost always do. This is an a cappella performance. You need to move the crowd, but be subtle with it. I vary the length of my lines (even when they can't read them) or rather, I vary the time and number of words between rhymes. I use near rhyme. I build a rhythm but try to wander away from it before coming back like good jazz.

    Start and finish strong. This is true for all writing, but I'll put the “duh" in redundant here. Primacy and recency. They will remember the first and last thing they heard. You need to get their attention with your first words. You're probably in a club, not a classroom. Their food, drinks, neighbors and phones are competing for attention. You need to end with an impressive twist. This is the last thing on the minds of the judges while you are being scored.

    Write something you can remember. At the ordinary level, people often read from paper or phones. At the highest competitive level, memorization is compulsory. I aim to read from memory. This is performance art. Performing while reading from a screen or sheet is impossible, so I use sound bonding not only for the audience but also for myself. I need a certain rhythm and repetition so I can remember.

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    How to Memorize

    Prior to my first slam competition, I could recite 10 or 20 lines of my own writing and that was it. I didn't think I could be good at memorizing, although I had never really tried.

    Fortunately, slams in my area occur about twice a month. I get two weeks to memorize new work and practice old stuff. I try to keep my writing with me, in my pocket or mind, and recite it often. It's only a couple minutes. I can run it through my head during a commercial break. I can recite it to my windshield while driving.

    Full volume recitation is important. Don't just think about it or whisper it to yourself and think you are ready for the stage. I have seen writers deliver a loud and passionate half-minute before running out of breath.

    So you need to get to a place where you can perform at full throat. Maybe even louder than you will at the slam. Let it out. When I'm out walking my dog, I will find an empty field and bounce my voice off the nearest building. I'll run my piece as often as I can until it's second nature.

    I like to put it all on one sheet of paper in landscape format with two columns. I'll break it into sections. I'm a visual learner. I can see the paper and stanza breaks in my head. This helps me keep it stuck there.

    And if you mess up while practicing, keep going. Don't start over. You won't get that chance at the competition. Practice screwing up. If you mess up a line, read something out of order or skip a part, improvise. Finish anyway.

    An experienced slammer once told me something that now feels obvious: only you know that you made a mistake. If you indicate to the audience that you have stumbled, they will know it. The judges will take note. But if you keep sauntering along, everyone will believe it was supposed to be that way.

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    Why You Should Ignore This Guy

    In four slams, I've never finished higher than fourth place. Last time, I was last place. I do not know how to win these things. In fact, I go against the regular grain. If I have a trademark, it's that I look to entertain a crowd and am beaten by rants about ex-boyfriends, addiction and suicidal thoughts.

    Every time, I have stumbled on lines at least once. With my notes in my pocket, my backpack or at home, I've paused on stage looking for a line I have recited a hundred times previous. You can hear your score dropping.

    It's a high-pressure thing to me. I still lack the experience to be completely cool up there. I enter the venue and the adrenaline kicks in. No matter how well I know my script, I charge ahead too fast and leave my memory behind. It feels like I keep swinging too early at change-up pitches and pull them all into foul territory or swing-and-miss entirely.

    You and I have the exact same zero points in the standings. Yet I am still a couple good performances away from making the local finals. I've almost always felt great about my own reading. I have almost always loved the crowd reaction.

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    Why You Should Ignore Everyone

    First of all, it shouldn't be about winning. True, I am well aware of how my career would change if I could at least participate in the nationals, but I know that a gigantic majority of people cannot both write something and perform it in front of a crowd. If you can do it, you've done something no matter what the scores say.

    And about the scores? By definition, slam judges are selected from those folks who show up. Unbiased, unexperienced ones are preferred because they give the most honest feedback. So what do they want to hear? Who knows?

    Last time I performed, I nailed my last reading. I liked the script. I delivered it smooth and strong from the head. The crowd listened and reacted. I got a 9.9 from one judge. The best individual score I had ever received. And I got my worst. A 5.9. On the same reading. You try to learn something from that.

    By the way, they are a blast. No one on stage or sitting down is a loser unless they hate having fun. I don't know about other cities, but in Spokane, we believe slams are a rock concert. They're loud. Heckling happens. Boos, cheers, whistling and all that. I make it into an emotional demolition derby, but I never feel less dead.

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    And How Can You Slam?

    This thing is actually incorporated. Visit Poetry Slam Incorporated to learn more about the rules, the history and to find an event near you.

    Have fun. And if you don't care about the results, you just might win.

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    Wanna Be a Fish

    wanna be a fish
    have a saucer-eyed fish head
    think fish thoughts
    spread fish jam on my fish bread
    I don't sleep
    no need for a fish bed

    if I was a fish
    I'd never have a wish
    I'd dance in rings
    and never learn a god damn thing
    not have these desires and ambitions
    never say: “why do I never have time to go fishin'?"

    rather be a fish
    'cuz fish life is the best
    plenty of gold in my treasure chest
    coral castle for my home
    plastic kelp full grown
    diver blowing bubbles
    can't remember my troubles
    mirror in the corner
    what's up fish?
    you must be the new guy
    swim around my place again
    what's up fish?
    you must be the new guy
    what did I miss?
    what's the news?
    any reason I should have the blues?
    none?
    then I must be having fun

    if I was a fish
    I'd never feel wrong
    wouldn't have a head full of pop songs
    with my memory five seconds long
    what's up fish?
    you must be the new guy
    what's on my fish to do list?
    separate the O from the H2O
    take a long poop
    well, I guess I better go
    wait for the flakes to fall
    and that's all

    everything's okay
    around my tank today
    if I didn't like it
    I'd just swim away
    if I had a dream
    it would come true
    I look outside my tank
    and I don't want to be you

    silly people with your wobbly knees
    goggly eyes, soggy ideas
    how do you breathe with those furry gills?
    why do you wear your feet down like they're pencils?
    I'd rather have some fins
    and finish right where I begin

    because a fish plays it cool
    never seen a fish sweat
    what you obsess about
    he hasn't imagined yet

    never seen a fish frown
    until he's floating upside-down
    and a fish ain't a lush
    never smokes or drinks too much

    a fish doesn't worry about women or kids
    he just spawns
    and gets it over with

    I'd be the best ever
    if I was a fish
    not bronze, not silver
    I'd be a gold fish