What Is a Poetry Slam Anyway?

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Speak the beatings of your heart.

The words “poetry slam” make me think of a strange combination of two things: people wearing black who snap their fingers instead of applauding and Gallagher (maybe, the hulk). Which is absolutely ridiculous because that’s not what it means at all (though I guess the first thought could be related – there might be some black clothing).

No, a poetry slam is a poetry reading competition. Like a judged open mic but for poetry. Poets get up onstage to read or recite their original works, and a panel gives them scores. The recitations can get pretty intense, and I like that slams value not only the quality of the poetry but also the delivery (but, with acting training, I might appreciate that more than some poets).

I’ve also found that poetry slams are more relatable to people who aren’t into poetry. A lot of people I know think of poetry as dusty, boring books written by people in frilly collars with inkwells and quills. Or stuff that was hard to read in high school. The impassioned, fervent recitations at a poetry slam are more like regular speech. They’re more casual (no intimidating words scattered on a page), so they can reach people who really aren’t into poetry – which is a definite point on the pro side.

On the other hand, many people who are very into poetry consider poetry slams so extreme, competitive, and commercial that they devalue or almost defile the medium. Which I can see from a purist standpoint. It’s kind of the same way professional singers react to American Idol (You can read all about the controversy of poetry slams in the wikipedia article.).

I’m more of a middle road kind of person. I can see the arguments on either side. I figure that if you like poetry slams, go. Watch. Compete. Whatever. If you don’t like them, don’t go (or is that too simple?).

Personally, I’m not really into the competition part, but I like the fact that poetry slams expose non-poets to poetry in ways that they can enjoy. Do I wish everyone could read poems, see the artistry of them, and enjoy them written? Sure. But at least poetry slams pop the frilly shirt/quill bubble and make poetry a little less yawn-worthy to the general public.

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