Holding a poetry slam
Introducing students to “the competitive art of performance poetry” builds enthusiasm for literature among even reluctant readers. This article explains how a high school in Cleveland County, North Carolina, held its first poetry slam.
When I was the media coordinator in an elementary school, the highlights of each year included Children’s Book Week in November; visits by local authors, artists, and storytellers; book fairs; and the culminating celebration of National Library Week. As a high school librarian for the past several years, I’ve missed the eager, expectant eyes on the youthful faces entering and exiting the media center, faces belonging to the very students who delighted in the special activities they once celebrated in the elementary school media center. The challenge for me, and indeed for all high school media specialists, is to put back on those faces the anticipation that something fun and really cool is about to happen in the media center, something that students won’t want to miss!
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association, sponsors the annual Teen Read Week events. The 2003 theme, “Slammin@Your Library,” focused on various forms of poetry and the teaching of poetry, culminating in a poetry slam. We decided to include a poetry slam in our media program, drawing from the poetry slamming suggestions in YALSA’s Teen Read Week activities.
Why a poetry slam?
A poetry slam is usually defined as “the competitive art of performance poetry,” with dual emphasis on writing and performance. In a poetry slam, competitors present original poetry or prose, are judged according to set rules that may vary from slam to slam, and the winners awarded prizes. Construction worker and poet Marc Smith initiated the idea of poetry slamming at the Green Mill, a Chicago jazz club, in 1986. The Uptown Poetry Slam continues to run at the Green Mill every Sunday night.
I believe poetry is important in a high school context for three reasons. Poetry is a language that teens can use to describe their thoughts and feelings about areas of their lives that are important to them. Poetry provides an acceptable outlet for the expression of opinions and emotions that teens feel so deeply. Second, creating, reading, and listening to poetry helps to balance students’ fast-paced schedules and saturation with technology. Through this project, we wanted to give students a chance to be still, to be reflective, and to create empathy. Finally, research shows that the reading level of students drops significantly at the high school level. This exercise was designed to create an appreciation for a literary form that could encourage even the most reluctant reader.
Planning and preparation
Planning special media events can be very challenging in high school. Class scheduling, extra curricular activities, the general school climate, and teens’ lifestyles all make it difficult to communicate and coordinate with students and teachers. To simplify our planning, we invited the entire student body to our slam through the English classes. I visited each English class explaining a slam, the rules, and demonstrating a presentation.
First, I had to explain to the students that trying to be “cool” is definitely “not cool” in a poetry slam! One must strive to evoke empathy from the audience, as the poem is presented in a manner befitting the ideas expressed in the poem. A slammer may find herself being very animated as she screams, laughs hysterically, cries, stomps across the stage, waves her arms, or becomes pensive, quiet, or piercingly direct. Slamming is all about expression. To make sure that presenters would feel safe and respected, we decided to allow only participants to attend the slam. That way, everyone in the audience knew that he or she had to present as well, knew how difficult it could be to stand up in front of one’s peers!
I encouraged students to choose from a diverse range of styles including love poetry, poetry on social commentary, comic routines, and personal confessional pieces. Teachers filtered the submissions for strong language, explicit sexuality, racism, and other unacceptable themes. Also, to make the slam a learning experience, teachers made suggestions for improving the poems and coached students on their presentation. In the end, fifty-five students participated in the slam.
We held the slam in the school’s theater, which we transformed into a coffeehouse setting. Low lighting was used on the stage with a single spotlight falling on a stool and music stand. White lights were strung on the walls of the “coffeehouse” and small round tables with chairs were brought in for the participants. Tables were appointed with votive candles, festive cocktail napkins, plastic palm tree cup stirrers, and mini water bottles. Cappuccino, latte and chocolate, were served along side Goldfish crackers and pretzels. To fund the event, we applied for and received a grant of $285 from the Cleveland County Arts Council, but we could have held the slam for less.
Teachers served as waiters, scorekeeper, timer, emcee, awards presenter, judges, and wherever else they were needed. Our school operates on four ninety-minute periods per day with each teacher using one of those periods for planning. This event was held on a Friday afternoon during fourth period, and most of the teachers who had planning during this period helped with the slam.
For our slam we kept the rules very simple.
- Each of five judges gave a numerical score (on a scale of 1 to 10) based on the poem’s content and the poet’s performance, with the highest and lowest scores being dropped. The remaining three scores were averaged. Each judge had a set of ten large score card numbering 1 through 10 and a set of small cards representing decimal fractions. (Decimals were used to prevent ties.)
- Students had three minutes to present one original poem. To warn the poet that time had expired, the timekeeper lit a small nightlight; the student could continue, but points were deducted from the final score for going over the time limit.
- Props, costumes, musical instruments, and multiple performers per entry were not allowed. Only the poet’s personal presence, in action and voice, were permitted.
Traditionally, the audience judges a poetry slam, but we felt we needed some control over the process the first time, so we asked four teachers and one student from the audience to serve as judges. Only the presenter and the scorekeeper were allowed to view his or her score. Because there were so many participants, we held three heats, with the judges choosing a winner from each heat. Each prize included a poetry writing journal and a book of poems by a well-known poet.
All of the students welcomed the opportunity to perform or read their poem and they were, without exception, respectful of each reading. Unfortunately, too few of the students got into the spirit of the slam; most of them simply read their poetry without expression, some very seriously. Next year, we may hold auditions in English classes. That would give students a chance to practice their delivery, and would also allow us to cut the slam to about twenty participants. Fifty-five poets in a ninety-minute period were just too many.
This was a most enjoyable experience for everyone, an activity we would definitely do again. As with any project, detail planning and organization were the keys to our successful slam.