A poetry slam is an event where poets have three minutes to read, recite, or perform original work in a competitive atmosphere. Five judges are selected randomly from the audience to distil the poem into a score out of ten. The low and high scores are dropped for a possible total score of 30. After two rounds (usually with a feature in between rounds), the poet with the top score wins the slam.
In the case of the Winnipeg Poetry Slam, a regular season of competitions is held to establish a set of poets who will progress through to semi-finals and finals. The top five poets will then form the Winnipeg Poetry Slam team, and will have the opportunity to represent the city in a national competition at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. Also, the poet with the top score at finals will be crowned as the Grand Slam Champion.
(See the Competition Rules page the complete breakdown.)
The poets typically memorize their poems. The audience is encouraged to snap when they hear a line in a poem they enjoy, and they can sway the judges too—yelling things like “higher” or “get it right” when they think the poet deserves a good score.
Slam poetry is not the same poetry you analyzed in high school English class. There is no teacher who has the final say in what’s good and what isn’t—any spectator at a slam can pick up a set of scorecards and rate the poetry from one to ten. These judges could know a lot about storytelling, or they could be someone who hasn’t read in years.
Because spoken word is performed, improvisers, comedians, actors and singers can excel at slams. Rapping, dancing, and beatboxing can all become elements of a great spoken word poem.
Perhaps the best way to explain the energy and theatrics of poetry slam is to imagine, if you will, a diving competition mixed with a rap off.