What to Expect at a Poetry Slam
Poetry slams are a form of poetry reading that are not for the faint of heart. Poetry slams are, most commonly, competitive readings at which audience reaction, or the reaction of a panel of judges, decides who "wins." You may win a cash prize, a free drink, or nothing at all.
You can find slams in all the ways you can find readings and open mikes. They take place in the same kinds of places as well. Poetry slams, just like readings and open mikes, have ground rules, and you need to be aware of them. Some require a mere sign-up; others require that you submit your poetry for consideration or read in an audition beforehand. Often, there is a time limit for readings — 3 minutes and 20 seconds is a popular limit. Know what the limit is and prepare accordingly.
A certain kind of poet, and a certain kind of poetry, goes over well at slams. Self-indulgence is expected. Performers will do just about anything in a poem (or a performance!) to win the audience.
What should you read at a slam? The kind of poetry that wins very often has
Striking, often outrageous or violent stories with interesting characters. Poetry slams often have poems about suicide, illness, drugs, crime, childhood abuse, discrimination, poverty, sex, and mental illness. But you'll find that different venues are associated with particular kinds of poetry — which is something to pay attention to as you shop for slams.
A strong, assertive first-person narrator (an I).
Immediately striking language — often ribald, vulgar, hip, or slang.
Lots of jokes and other humor.
Constant allusions to contemporary popular culture (movies, TV, music), social history, politics, and poetry.
An ending that leaves the audience with a concluding shock or joke.
Slams are slams. If you're going to get up in front of the crowd to read your poetry, you have to:
Like the rough-and-tumble of it, the theater, the zaniness.
Embrace the need to be a real actor, a ham if necessary.
Grow the triple-thick, titanium-coated rhinoceros skin you're going to need if response to your work is less than, um, wonderful.
Learn to be a good sport, to congratulate your conquerors, to be gracious and full of good humor if an audience or panel lets you have it. Conversely, if you win, you should be just as gracious.
Promise yourself you won't go to only one slam. Experience is everything, especially in this world halfway between fine arts and the World Wrestling Federation. Become part of the regular audience, get to know the poets and their entourages, and enjoy yourself.