I'll Slam You
I'm often asked what I do for a living and my response is not what you'd normally expect: "I'm a financial reporter by day, a slam competitor by night." No one seems to find much interest in my nine-to-five gig. It's usually the latter part that intrigues people. Normally they raise an eyebrow or a question mark trickles down their faces: "What in the world do you mean by slam?"
| A poetry slam is performance poetry within a competitive arena. Poets focus not only on content but on the way that content is delivered.
A poetry slam is performance poetry within a competitive arena. Poets focus not only on content but on the way that content is delivered. Words therefore coincide with the poet's gestures-a slight smirk here, the outstretch of an arm there, the crinkling of one's forehead. Not to mention breathing, attitude, accentuation, emphasis, inflection, intonation, and bodily movements, just to name a few. It's taking poetry to a theatrical level, animating words and bringing them to life on stage.
But that's only part of it. Typically in a poetry slam, a poet's work is judged by five members of the audience who are selected by the host and instructed to give scores on a scale of zero to 10. Of the five scores, the high and low are dropped, and the three left are added together.
The scores are never based on any particular set of factors. One can never predict the ever-changing mood of the audience and how they'll respond to a poet. I once performed a piece that had the audience on their feet and the judges flashing 10s and another week I performed that same piece and received a spattering of claps, low scores and what I truly thought was the humiliating sound of crickets.
Those brave enough to step up to the mike can sign up to slam in the first round. Getting into subsequent rounds (and they're usually two to three) will depend on the judges' scores. Simply put, if they like you, they'll want to see you back on that stage and hear more.
Slam poets are given three minutes to perform their original work and their themes have no boundaries, ranging from love and sex to political and cultural awareness. Recently, performance poetry has been criticized as being more about shock-value and entertainment for the audience than a form of poetic self-expression.
| A slam should not be confused with a poetry reading! Audiences at poetry readings are not active participants.
A slam should not be confused with a poetry reading! Audiences at poetry readings are not active participants. They normally sit back silently and internalize what is read to them, whereas slam audiences are allowed to openly react and vocalize at any time during the event. The host highly encourages the laughter, the whistling, the clapping, the snapping, the hisses. One time I heard an audience "boo" so brutally after a piece that the poet didn't even stick around to see the score. Yes, it was that bad.
The first time I slammed was when I first moved to New York City, right out of college. I heard many things about the Nuyorican Poet's Café and their legendary slams. Well-known poets such as Saul Williams, Susan Scutti and Beau Sia sparked their careers with the help of the Nuyorican. I was petrified by the doggedness and confidence in each of the competitors, but when I finally got the courage to go up there, I didn't want to leave! I didn't make it to the second round that night, but I eventually found my mark in front of that famous Nuyorican brick wall due to loads of practice along the way. Now the slam stage feels like my worn-in journal-comfortable, easy. There's a certain sensual thrill to seeing, hearing, feeling the audience's reactions to your own work. It's that satisfaction in knowing you're establishing a connection.
Now many of my friends who once gave me those inquisitive looks consider themselves slam addicts. They're always probing me as to when my next competition will be. You never can tell what might go down at a slam. Slam competitions are combative, personal, proactive, inviting, unforgiving, intense, unpredictable. And that's exactly what keeps me coming back for more.
© Kimberly Castro