Ways to Celebrate
What is a poetry slam?
The following questions and answers have been adapted from www.poetryslam.com:
Simply put, poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. It puts a dual emphasis on writing and performance, encouraging poets to focus on what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
A poetry slam is an event in which poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host or another organizer select the judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (on a zero to 10 or one to 10 scale) based on the poet’s content and performance.
What are the rules?
Though rules vary from slam to slam, the basic rules are:
- Each poem must be of the poet’s own construction;
- Each poet gets three minutes (plus a ten-second grace period) to read one poem, if the poet goes over, points will be deducted from the total score;
- The poet may not use props, costumes, or musical instruments;
- Of the scores the poet received from the five judges, the high and low scores are dropped, and the middle three are added together, giving the poet a total score of 0–30.
How does it differ from an open mic reading?
Slam is engineered for the audience, whereas a number of open-mic readings are engineered as a support network for poets. Slam is designed for the audience to react vocally and openly to all aspects of the show, including the poet’s performance, the judges’ scores, and the host’s banter.
An open mic is an open space in which all kinds of poetry can be heard. It provides a venue for new poets to read, gives poets a chance to try out new work and get feedback, and creates community. A slam is an inherently competitive event, in which performance is valued equally to literary skill. It is also a participatory event, with the audience serving as judges and sometimes giving instant feedback in the form of boos or cheers.
What kind of poetry is read at slams?
Depends on the venue, depends on the poets, depends on the slam. One of the best things about poetry slam is the range of poets it attracts. You’ll find a diverse range of work within a slam, including heartfelt love poetry, searing social commentary, uproarious comic routines, and bittersweet personal confessional pieces. Poets are free to do work in any style on any subject.
How do you judge?
Part of the purpose of the slam is to empower the audience to hear and evaluate poetry. Judges may use any criteria they wish. Theoretically, they should value the performance and the writing equally. They can take audience reaction into account, or not (remembering that, with a quiet poem, a hush is as loud as a cheer for a raucous poem). Their obligation is to judge fairly and consistently, giving the highest scores to (in their opinion) the best poems.
In choosing your judges, try to select a diverse cross-section from the audience, and try to select people you feel confident will be fair. It’s ok to choose a judge who has never been to a poetry reading before—their opinion is valid too! You might try to find someone quiet and someone loud, someone new and someone seasoned, some poets and some people who have never written.
For the official rules of the National Poetry Slam, go to
www.poetryslam.com/nps/rules.htm. In particular, the section titled “So You’ve Been Chosen to Judgea Poetry Slam” at the end may be helpful.
With these rules as a starting place, you can set up your slam in whatever way you think best suits your audience. Many slams begin with a pacesetter, or “sacrificial goat”—a poet who is not competing, who performs a single poem. The judges are asked to use this poem as their standard for judging the others, to help keep their judging even over the course of the competition. Make sure each judge has a clear understanding of their job and encourage them to return their scores quickly—within about a minute—so that the energy of the event doesn’t falter. You may want to ask your judges to hold up their scores all at once, so that they don’t influence each other. Once a score is up, the judge can’t change their mind!
It’s up to you to decide how many poets compete in each round, and how many rounds will be in the slam.
Creating an Open Mic Reading
The open mic is an event at which the public is invited to read their poetry and listen to the poetry of others. You may or may not need an actual microphone, depending on the size of the group. Open mics can be structured in a number of different ways: read on to see what you'll need to take into consideration as you plan.
The key to any open-mic event is the host. The host sets the tone, defines the parameters of the event and, in the best of circumstances, creates a sense of community and respect among the readers. The open mic is an environment for people to read brand-new work to hear how it sounds, to get feedback, or to connect with other writers, sometimes for the first time. It’s also usually the port of entry for people who have never read their work aloud before. For most, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. A gracious host will create a comfortable, encouraging environment for readers. A good host will handle the unexpected with aplomb and keep the event on time and on track.
Individual introductions can be tremendously helpful. When your participants sign up, you might ask them if there is anything they’d like you to say about them when they are introduced, and if they’ve ever read on an open mic before. You’re not obligated to read a whole bio, but a sentence or two can personalize the reading. If someone is reading for the first time, you might encourage the audience to be extra-supportive. If you develop a set of “regulars” at your open mic, you might acknowledge that when you introduce them. At minimum, make sure you can pronounce the names of all your readers correctly. This also gives you an opportunity to get up after every reader and remind people of time limits, or just continue to set the tone for the event.
You'll need to let your readers know in advance how much time they have on the mic. You might choose to decide this once you’ve seen how many readers have signed up. You can limit your readers by time (five minutes each is usually good), or by number of poems (two short or one long poem, for instance). You may have to let people know what you consider short and long—one page of average-length lines, for instance,versus three pages of prose poetry.
For the epic poet, a five-page poem might seem short, and your audience will get frustrated when they launch into the second one. Most inexperienced readers don’t actually know how long a given poem takes to read. You may need a system for letting people know it’s time for them to give over the stage to the next reader. One possibility is to sit near the front, and flag the reader when it’s time for them to finish. Another is to simply walk up to the mic at the conclusion of a poem. A sense of humor is very helpful for this part of your job. Remember that the rest of your audience, especially others waiting to read, will thank you for being firm.
Some people like to give lengthy explanations before they read. It’s up to you whether or not to allow this, but if you do, make sure the reader knows that their explanation and their poem need to fit within the time limit.
You’ll need a system for signing up your readers. You can sign them up when they arrive, or you might want to do it in advance, with a sign-up sheet at the checkout desk. That’s a great way to advertise the event, and if your readers sign up in advance it makes your planning easier. You can even call them to remind them to come.
Either way, decide how many readers you can handle—if your event is very popular, you might have to put some readers on a standby list, to read if time allows.
If you’ve got a holiday coming up, you might choose a theme for your open mic. Love poems are always popular. Or you might host a combo open mic, where readers are asked to bring a poem by someone else as well. For Black History Month, you could ask everyone to bring a poem by a Black poet to read before they read his or her own, or during Ramadan you could ask your readers to bring a poem by a Muslim poet. Create a display of relevant books to support your event, increase circulation, and get your patrons reading poetry.
Very occasionally, a poet will read work on an open mic that is offensive in some way, or inappropriate for a mixed-age audience. You might avoid the latter by reminding your readers to be mindful of their audience when you introduce the event. If you’re specifically cultivating a family audience, and especially if you are inviting teens to read, you might need to ask to see the poems before they are read. Ultimately, though, the open mic is an open forum, and you may not always be able to control the content. You can let your audience know this in advance. Again, here is where your hosting skills are most necessary.
Lastly, if you present a regular open mic, you are likely to develop a regular group of participants. This can become a very important point of connection for local poets. Honor these people's regular participation in whatever way you think best. And then enlist them to support your other poetry programming!
Open Mic Tips
Choose an emcee—yourself, a staff member, a teacher or someone from the community—who is in touch with the teen scene. Someone who is vibrant and enthusiastic will help set the mood for the entire event.
Think about inviting a poet to do a half-hour reading before the open mike. A featured poet can help you draw an audience. Ask your local teens who some of their favorite (living) poets are and invite one of them.
Publicize! Make fliers and post them all over the neighborhood. Contact principals and English or creative writing teachers at local schools and ask them to make an announcement. Notify local newspapers or radio stations.
At the event, have a clipboard available so people can sign up for the open reading. You can ask people to read in the order they have signed up in, or, if you know the group, you can mix up the order to create a flow for the event. Either way, ask the emcee to let the audience know the order.
Make sure people know how long they have to read. Name a timekeeper who will be responsible for warning the reader when his or her time is up. One YA librarian told us that, when her teens go over their time limit, she walks up on stage and hugs them. She said it’s a great deterrent!
The emcee should go to the mic and call poets up when it is their turn. Bios are not necessary, but some brief acknowledgement is helpful, for example “Here is Cindy Chou, a dedicated poet who travels with an Adrienne Rich book under her arm” or “Please welcome Victor Rodriguez, back again from 186th Street.”
It is helpful for the emcee to repeat the name of the poet who just finished reading—“Let’s give another round of applause for Steve Driscoll. Thanks, Steve! Our next reader is Dennis O’Brien. Dennis started writing poetry a year ago, and this is his first open mic. Let's hear it for Dennis!”
Encourage people to stay for the whole event and to listen to each other. A great poetry reading can’t exist without a great poetry audience.
- Many teens like to push the envelope with their poetry. If you need to,
let your teens know ahead of time what the parameters of the event are: no strong language, for instance, or no explicit sexuality, or no racist or homophobic language. If you’re very concerned, you might ask your teens to show you their work before the event. Reinforce those parameters when you introduce the event.
While poetry slams are very popular right now, not every teen poet is a performer. Make sure you make a space for your budding Emily Dickinsons, too.
Food is a great draw for any teen event. If you can, make refreshments available at your open mic.