The Slam Experience
Whereas almost anything goes in a general spoken word performance, walking into a slam can feel like a secret society meeting. At a preliminary bout of the National Poetry Slam competition in downtown St. Paul on August 3, 2010, the crowd pulses, energizing the competitors. Before the slam begins, the emcee for the bout welcomes the audience and gives what he explains is the scripted spiel that is replicated at all slams. “Slam started in Chicago in 1989 by a construction worker named Marc Smith,” followed by a sassy “So what?” by the audience. Jess Kroll, a member of the Hawaii Slam Team, said of the introduction: “I see it as a way of getting the crowd involved from the start, showing who has been to a slam before and who hasn’t, and an idea that nothing is sacred, no person is more important than everyone else so let’s just get on with it.”
So the emcee gets on with it, establishing the rules of the competition. In slam poetry, poets have three minutes to perform an original work. Though poets can read work from a notebook, throwing the book onto the stage or dropping the microphone is generally against the rules, as are music, props and costumes. Five randomly selected audience members are chosen to judge each piece on a scale of 0 to 10 based on the content and the performance. The emcee instructs judges to evaluate the merits of a poem by whatever standards they like, as long as they are consistent across poets. To help the judges calibrate, a predetermined, non-competing “sacrificial poet” performs a piece and is given a score by the judges. This poet serves as the reference point for judging: Every poet judges like more should receive a higher score, and lesser poets should receive a lower score.
The emcee directs the judges, “Do not be persuaded by the audience.” He then advises the crowd: “Audience, sway the judges!” The meaning behind the audience response varies greatly by region, St. Paul Soap Boxing competitor Sierra DeMulder said. Snaps may be given to a seasoned slam veteran delivering a familiar piece or as a form of encouragement to a young poet who has become tongue-tied and is struggling to get through her first slam performance. In some cities, pointed phrasing, clever wordplay or a particularly gut-wrenching line often elicits a “What!” or “Oooo!” from people in the audience.
At the National Slam finals, the emcee repeatedly chastises the Twin Cities audience for being too quiet. Audience participation serves as feedback and a source of energy, DeMulder said, “For me as a poet, I love hearing reactions. It’s communication for me. It closes the circle of communication…Some nights in St. Paul [during the monthly slams at the Artists’ Quarter] are silent,” DeMulder reflected. “But we’re getting louder. We’re getting more fun.”