A wham-bam guide to slam poetry

With the last chances to qualify for the Scottish Championships approaching, we go through the basics


Ross McFarlane

After a year of quality poetry in Scotland, we’re now down to the final two opportunities for performers to qualify for the Scottish Slam Championship. So, while there’s still time to get your quills, ink, coffee shop napkins, typewriters, notepads or computers (if you go in for that kind of thing) busy scribing the next If or Howl, I thought I would offer a quick insight into the world of slam poetry!

For all those who have never heard this phrase outwith 22 Jump Street, your first question might be some formulation of “What is slam poetry?”

In its most basic sense, slam poetry is competitive spoken word poetry. Based on different criteria depending on the slam itself, poets are expected to, in one way or another, perform their poetry to be judged by the audience as a whole or a panel of onlookers (sometimes experts and sometimes not). While it might be the case that a lot of slams have more in common than just this description, it would be pretty safe to say that any event with this format could be considered a slam.

Despite poetry arguably always being a performance medium, and performance being key to a lot of poets success prior to any formalised competitive element, the first slams stem from mid 1980’s Chicago. After four years of independently run, small scale slams the format saw the first American National Poetry Slam in 1990. The first Scottish Slam Championship, with honours going to Graeme Hawley, was held in the Mitchell Library in 2008 and continues to grow in size and stature each year.

Even with that description, some poets and audiences still see slam as a very specific type of poetry, which often leads to questions such as “Is slam a genre of poetry?”

Yes and no. Honestly, it depends where you go. Popular poetry in America has seen an upsurge in particular types of performances, and if you watch slams from down south, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was only one way to slam.

However, my experience of Scottish slams is that all styles are welcome and enjoyed at competition. Just by looking at those who have qualified already for the Scottish Slam Championship, there is a depth and breadth which could be said to be lacking from other slams in other scenes – from Agnes Torok’s charming but politically charged shows to Stephen Watt’s often comic realism concerned with everyday occurrences. So, if you’ve considered performing, but don’t believe the style suits your writing, I would highly recommend checking out the sheer variety of poets succeeding in slams.

So, after hearing that you might ask “With all those different styles, how do you compare poems?”

In short, there’s no formula. A basic outline for several slams is to mark on three criteria – the poem, the performance and the audience reaction. But even here, there is variation among judges and throughout different events, nevermind different weighting of each of these aspects depending on the competition. In the end, slam poetry, like the ranking of any art form, ends up largely arbitrary at the top level.

“So, why should I attend or compete in a slam?”

Slam poetry is just incredibly fun. If you want to see a wide variety of poets come together to showcase their best work while performing at the top of their game, your best bet will always be a slam. Scotland’s spoken word scene is fantastic, and there are cabarets up and down the country demonstrating the sheer immensity of an art form finding its feet and its popularity, but there’s something special about the atmosphere and performances pulled out of the bag on slam nights. New voices emerge, underdogs rise and champions are made.

If I have at all managed to whet your appetite for what slam poetry has to offer, here are a few events over the next month to get yourself along to:

Aloud Presents The Glasgow Student Slam, 2nd of February – 8pm – Jim’s Bar, QMU – Glasgow

The Edinburgh Flyting 2015, 18th of February – 7.30pm – The Constitution Bar – Edinburgh

The Scottish Slam Championships, 26th of February – 8pm – Pleasance Cabaret Bar – Edinburgh

The Circus Slam, 27th of February – 7pm – The Dalraida Pub – Edinburgh


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