A Beginner's Guide to Slam Poetry

Emily Elderfield studies modern languages--which is all fine and fun until she remembers one of those languages is Russian. Distraction techniques include baking, writing and chasing after dogs on Market Street. Avid admirer of the sea. Hates ketchup.

I stumbled upon slam thanks to a Youtube spiral, after I reached the end of an algorithmic playlist one night, and the automated formulae spat a different kind of video back at me: a slam poem. I don’t remember the name of the poem, or the poet, but I remember it was about zombies and dying and being terrified. I’ve spent countless hours trying to retrace my digital steps, to find the four-minute chunk of poetic brilliance that introduced me to slam, but I haven’t found it since.

Slam is spoken word’s loud, badly behaved little brother – the kind of poetry that draws on the walls in permanent marker, and stands at the front of protest marches with over-large homemade signs. It’s unapologetic, competitive and, more often than not, raw. The basic premise is easy enough to follow: a pre-determined number of poets, three-minute long poems, a series of knock-out rounds, and an audience encouraged to judge and whittle away the competition until there’s one poet left standing.

The competitive aspect may seem unnecessary at first. After all, how can you judge art? Yet this is one of slam’s intrinsic factors; poets are constantly trying to outdo themselves, to say more, to get deeper into the heart of things. It’s that which ultimately makes slam so addictive to watch: poets are dealing with topics too messy to confine to elegant printed verse. It’s a platform to talk about anything and everything, from discrimination to grief to heartbreak.

What it lets poets do more effectively than most other written art forms is turn their personal experiences into something universal. Poems frequently address what a lot of people might label ‘uncomfortable topics’ – self-image, abuse, marginalisation – and gives the poets space to throw everything into the open. Poets aren’t afraid to get political, either, and given that slam started in the US in the 80s, it’s been dealing with capital-I Issues since its conception. Because of this, it’s common at slam competitions to hear audience members snapping their fingers (applause is considered bad manners in slam circles due to it being distracting during a performance) to an opinion they agree with, or cheering at a poet’s outspokenness. Slam engenders a sense of community much more tangible than merely reading off the page, or passively listening at an open mic.

Still confused? Here’s a list of 5 slam poems that got me hooked:

1)     Neil Hilborn | OCD | Many of you may have already heard this one it went viral a few years back for how honestly Neil talks about having OCD, and it remains one of the best examples of how slam gives people a platform to talk about mental illness. |


2)     Lily Myers | Shrinking Women | The first slam poem I watched about feminism, and still the bar I use to judge other ‘outraged feminist’ poets. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good ranty tirade against the patriarchy, but there’s something about Lily’s measured tone that speaks louder than shouting |


3)     Patrick Roche | Siri: A Coping Mechanism | Proof that slam can be clever and poetically intricate, and still be heart-breaking |


4)     Terisa Siagatonu & Rudy Francisco | Sons | America’s got issues, y’all, and these guys aren’t afraid to break them open. This one speaks against the twisted justice system, racism, and turning children into criminals of circumstance |


5)     Olivia Gatwood & Megan Falley | Princess Peach Speaks | Proof slam can still be funny! It was hard to choose just one of this duo’s poems, but this one got extra points for the Mario Bros references |


So there you have it! I encourage you to watch, to lose yourself in a few Youtube spirals, and maybe even try your hand at writing your own slam poems. (And if you come across that zombie poem, let me know).

Words by Emily Elderfield.

Videos from YouTube.