Poetry Slams- a brief history

Poetry Slams- a brief history

The Poetry Slam originated in the mid-1980s, when a Chicago poet named Marc Smith came up with the idea of a poetry competition to entertain the Sunday regulars at a bar named the Green Mill, (a Chicago jazz club and former haunt of Al Capone).  Smith drew on baseball and bridge terminology for the name, and instituted the basic features of the competition, including judges chosen from the audience and cash prizes for the winner.

The Green Mill evolved into a Mecca for performance poets, and the Uptown Poetry Slam continues to run every Sunday night.  The genre evolved and poetry slamming has become an American institution with national competitions.

Essentially a poetry slam is like a lyrical boxing match that pits poet against poet. During an American national bout, there will be three teams of four poets as well as an individual poet taking turns performing their work. The teams can choose to perform a group piece during a member’s slot, or that person can perform alone. Poets who perform alone have the opportunity to advance to the individual finals even if their team doesn’t make it as a unit. Consequently, strategy comes into play when team members decide whose slot will be sacrificed for a group performance that may earn the entire team points. Five people randomly chosen from the audience before the bout will give each poem a score from 0.0 to 10.0, with 10 being the highest. The high and the low scores are dropped, and the three remaining scores are added.Each poet has a time limit of three minutes, with a 10- second grace period. After the grace period is passed, points will be deducted from the poet’s final score.

Unlike theatre or music performance, the poetry slam is a pared-down event because poets aren’t permitted to use props, costumes or music. Yet the slams are able to offer the audience more. There’s just one person and a microphone – an expression of creativity straight to the vein.


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