Christopher Fox Graham’sBasic Strategy: Tips for your first time on the slam stage
Treatise on Slam Strategy
The basic approach to the art of competitive performance poetry
Treatise on Slam Strategy
The basic approach to the art of competitive performance poetry
1. Enjoy yourself. Understand that at its core, slam is a gimmick to get non-poets interested in poetry. In the grand scale of things, a single slam poet is a cog in the machine moving society toward acceptance, respect and love of poetry.
2. Remember that each and every slam is a crap shoot. We are letting a random group of people, usually non-poets, judge our work. Most judges have no clue about the craft of slam. They want to have a good time. They want to hear good poetry. They want to be moved. They want poets to rock the stage, blow them away and inspire them to write.
So do we. If you take a score at a slam as a personal measure of your character, then slam is not for you.
Your work and your soul are separate entities.
3. Have fun. Slam is a game. Even if you lose, you will still have fun. Walk away from every slam with a new skill underneath your belt. Watch the poets who beat you. Know why and how they beat you. Was it tactics? Was it stronger poems? Were the judges on their side? Learn from the masters. Once you know how you lost, only then can you start to win.
4. Tactics does not take the place of talent. Write more. Read at open mics. Go to workshops or the writing circles. Surround yourself with poets, both slam and academic. Read other poets and if you feel something from their work, understand why.
5. Slam takes practice. On the national level, there are poets who have been doing slam for 15 years, and some date back to the first few slams almost 20 years ago. Listen to those poets who have several years of advice to offer. They have seen slam poets come and go; prodigies rise and fall. Listen and learn and strive to be a long-term poet, not a flash in the pan.
6. If you find yourself writing only slam poems, stop. Slam is an avenue of poetry like sonnets, haiku, erotica, or hip-hop. Slam is a genre, not the be all, end all of poetry. Most poems written for slam do not transfer well to page. If you are looking to ever publish a book, have your poems read by people you don't know, or by your descendants ages and ages hence, slam won't do it for you. Slam should be, at max, 10% of all your poetry.
7. Slam will not cure you. It will not satisfy. Slam is a drug. You will not wake up one morning and always win from then on. No matter your accolades, no matter your accomplishments, you will always have to struggle in each slam to measure your own talent. Any poet, rookie or veteran, can beat you. Thus, have fun and learn. Use slam as a tool, like brainstorming or free writing, to write better poetry. Use it to network and build community locally and nationally. Success in slam comes not from winning slam after slam. It comes from building a community in which you are respected as a poet whether you're on the page, on the stage, or in the street.
So, you wanna win?
You must practice the Strategy of the Slam Poet
There are two rival schools of thought within the slam community about how a poet should approach slam. For the purposes of this essay, we will call them "art slammers" and "craft slammers." Poets can move between both groups at will and some switch back and forth even in the middle of a slam.
"Art slammers" "Art slammers" try to remain pure to the emotion that inspired the poem. They believe that the quality of poem alone will win the day, regardless of the tactics or strategy. They often quote Allan Wolf, “The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.” They write and perform for themselves.
“Craft slammers” try to choose which poems to slam to win. They disengage from the emotion when deciding what poems to perform then lock into that emotion when on stage. They often quote Taylor Mali, “The point is not the points, the point is to have more points than anyone else.” They write and perform for the audience.
Art Slammers consider themselves “poets true to the art of poetry.” Craft Slammers consider themselves “poets true to the art of slam.”
Art Slammers are accused of being pretentious, arrogant or taking themselves too seriously. Art slammers must be careful not to take scores personally, but rather, examine the tactics of performing the wrong poem at the wrong time.
Craft Slammers are accused of being insincere about their poetry and only slamming to win. Craft Slammers must be careful not to lose their passion for poetry and write only slam poems.
Neither school of poetry is more right. Keep a balance so that you do not become too craft: a stylized performer who rarely steps out of your comfort zone, nor too art: so anti-competition that you don't see slam as fun.
Most poets who begin in slam rely on instincts and emotion to choose their poems. Good start. If you want to always slam what you feel, you may or may not win, and some poets are fine with that.
However, if you want to win, if you want to get on a National Poetry Slam Team, and if you want to see that Finals stage, you must work on your craft, tactics and strategy. You do not have to focus on winning, but you must understand that in slam, poems are tools. In a hot and heavy slam, unless the art slammer is phenomenally above and beyond the competition, the craft slammer will always, always win, and can actually do so with a weaker repertoire.
You can remain true to the emotion of poetry if you understand that the emotion that inspired the poem is still there. Use it when you hit the mic. But do not let that emotion interfere with your strategy and tactics. This is the Strategy of the Slam Poet.
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part I: The 12 Virtues of Slam
If you want to win, you must work on craft.
Slam is a linguistic war. War is the purest art form because in war, you give everything you have. Slam is no different.
Slam poets have a number of unspoken virtues to which they all cling. While some good slam poets have done quite well without obeying some of these virtues, all great slam poets exhibit them.
The 12 Virtues of Slam
Memorize your poem or have your page reading skills down flawlessly. Mark notes or symbols on the page so you always know where you are if you have to read it. Start the poem in the middle and see if you can finish it. You never know when or if you may drop a poem. If the audience doesn't know, the judges will not fault you.
Get to the slam early and meet the host(s) and promoter(s). They dictate how you are announced. A host's inflection when announcing your name as you approach the stage does change scores.
Off stage, be quiet. You do not have to listen to every poet, but do not be a distraction. If you are loud, disruptive, or look like you don't care, the judges will notice and it will affect you on stage.
Be friendly and invite your friends. Obviously, they should not be judges, but their applause and support may boost your score. It also makes performing easier. All a host wants is a full house. If you arrive with 10 friends in tow, the host is happy, the venue owner is happy, and that clout reflects on how they treat you on stage.
Additionally, poetry is about expressing the ideas of the individual to community to show a commonality of thought and thus, strengthen that community. When your friends meet strangers and get to know others in the community, it only makes that community stronger. Two strangers may meet at a slam that otherwise would never have met, and that is why we perform, rather than write poetry at home.
At a slam, the host is god. To the audience, the host is infallible because they run the show. Even if the host screws up the order, puts the feature poet in the middle of a round, forgets to read scores, changes the draw or mispronounces your name, bring these issues to the host quietly, quickly, and professionally. The show must go on. Causing a scene in the crowd or on stage will hurt you, even if you are in the right.
Treat every poet with respect. Slam is an honorable sport and slam poets are verbal samurai. We are here to promote poetry and improve our work. Slam is a sparring match, not an ego contest to prove you are better than another poet. The poet in last place tonight may have a 3-point lead at the next slam. They may wind up on your team. We are here for poetry, not your ego; know that the same muse guides you both.
Remember that there is a fine line between borrowing ("sampling") and plagiarism. It has been said Pay your dues. If you borrow a line or concept, give props to the initial writer. If someone tells you a certain line was good, and it wasn't originally yours, cite the writer. Plenty of otherwise good poets have had their reputations ruined - ranging from smack-talk to lower scores from judges in the know to outright banishment from a venue to lawsuits.
Keep this guideline in mind when and if you decide to borrow:
"One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest."Confidence.
T.S. Eliot's book “Philip Massinger.”
Be confident, but not arrogant. In the end, every poem is just words and it is up to audience to do something with them.
Demonstrate grace. In part, every audience member and every judge subconsciously wishes they could be slamming. Make them see you as someone for them to admire. Most likely, the judges have never been on a slam stage. In the United States, public speaking is more dreaded than death. They are amazed that anyone can be calm on stage. Put them in awe of you.
Have fun. In the split second before you leave a stage and a judge raises a score, you are still on stage. Even if you dropped your poem, were reading on page, or have been drinking, if you look like you nailed the poem, and enjoyed it, the judges will reward you. They may not score you high on this poem but, if not, then maybe next round, or in another slam. Make it look effortless.
If you win, do not brag. If you lose, do not complain. Know that if you played your strategy right, you gave your best effort to win. If you play the right strategy, someone in the audience heard exactly what they needed to hear and/or was moved by poetry, the most common virtue held in esteem by both the Art Slammer and the Craft Slammer. You may have lost tonight, but there is always the next slam. You may have won tonight, but there is always the next slam.
Always thank people for compliments. They may be judges or they may slam against you next time. Even if they never see another slam, make them walk away respecting poetry. A jerk may win tonight's slam, but they will not win 10 in a row.
Walk away from each slam having learned a little more about strategy and more about poetry. You should have heard at least three lines that moved or inspired you and you should have a few ideas about new poems or ways of presenting old ones. Rather than ignoring or holding a grudge against an opponent, let their work inspire your own.
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part II: General Tactics
Strategy is the science and art of command as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combative operations to win.
Tactics is the science that deals with securing objectives set by strategy, especially the technique of deploying and directing resources in effective maneuvers against an enemy, i.e., opposing poets.
A Craft Slammer is a chess player. Your poems are rooks, knights, bishops and pawns. Use tactics of moving poems at the right time to a score a checkmate and win the slam.
The tactics and strategies are not a list rules to follow, but a list of observations of what works and wins. Even if you follow each point, an original poem written and presented creatively will always beat yours, even if, or especially because, it ignores every point below. The key is to always be original. Bend some rules, break others, but do so with intent.
Know the house rules.
Not all slams are run with official Poetry Slam Inc. regulations. Some only have three judges. Some have no time limits.
They are touring the country because they are good. Whether they are page poets, spoken word artists, or slam poets, they are good at what they do. First, respect their sacrifice of traveling to visit you, and second, learn what they have to offer you as a poet and a performer. Do not leave when they are performing and do not worry about your performance in the following slam while they’re on stage. Buy their merchandise: books, CDs, or DVDs as you can enjoy and learn from them.
Know your slot and be ready to go.
If the rotation is random, be ready to go after any poet. Practice your strategy by asking yourself, “If I had to perform after this poem, what poem would I slam?”
Keep an eye on the poet immediately before you.
See how they approach the stage and the mic and how they leave it. If your poem is meant to be more dramatic and personal, approach the mic with more dignity and grace. If the last poet was funny and you are doing a crazy, humorous, maybe you should run to the mic frantically. The poet before left the last taste in the audience’s mouth. Their residual affects your performance.
A slam is not a wine tasting, it is a starving man's buffet. There is no water to cleanse the palate. The audience and judges are tasting all the other poets before you, especially the one right before. Pair your poetry to match theirs to improve the flavor, thus winning the slam.
As musicians know their instruments and lawyers know the loopholes, poets must know their equipment. Effective mic control can be the difference between a 7.0 and a perfect 10.0. With a standard mic, direct it toward your face so that you can see a the ring (in red in the photo). Make sure it does not block too much of your face.
- Mic check: If you can get a mic check before the slam, do so. Listen for the nuances of the mic: popping, buzzing, high and low ranges, feedback, volume, depth, tinniness, resonance and fullness. Adjust your vocal performance accordingly.
- Yelling: In a venue with an awesome sound technician and state-of-the-art equipment, you can yell into the microphone. Those situations are rare, if not impossible. If you yell in your poem, either back off the mic perhaps more than foot, move away from the mic, or position your head so that you are shouting over the mic and it is not picking up your voice. An audience does not want to lose hearing because of your passion for shouting. If you disrespect the mic by shouting, the judges will penalize you, regardless if they are aware of it or not.
- Whispering: The most common flaw is that whispering comes off breathy and your words get cluttered and lost. The audience may not hear your lines. Rather than actually whispering, simply lower your voice, get close to the mic, and speak softly. The audience will understand your intent.
- Dynamics: Three minutes of monotone is dull no matter how great the poem. Vary your vocal dynamics in both pitch and volume as you would in typical speech. Often rapid poems, hip-hop, or high-energy poems carry the same vocal tone and volume fro start to finish with occasional breaks for breathing. You can maintain the speed, style or energy but make your presentation diverse.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can guess what it’s about by the title. They moment you get on stage, the audience is trying to evaluate you as a poet and person. Despite our ideals, the human mind immediately attempts to classify people by their age, race, color, creed, gender or gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, religion, disability, social class and/or subculture. As a performer, you can control of number of those characters. Appearance and dress can confirm or deny those characteristics.
Additionally, you can use people’s assumptions against them by performing poetry that contrasts your actual identity or addresses assumed stereotypes. Audiences generally prefer interesting poets. A poet from group “A” who writes poetry expected from group “A” is not as engaging as a poet who comes from group “A” but writes poetry like groups “A” and ”B,” and a poet who blend groups “A” and “B” in their appearance, and writes like groups “A,” ”B,” and ”C,” is even more intriguing. Don’t wear a costume, as that's against the rules, but be aware of how you present yourself before you even speak.
An audience tries to identify you quickly. If your poem does not deal with stereotypes, identity, etc., then make your appearance easily understood so the audience isn’t spending the first few moments trying to identify you as a person.
When planning poems, be aware of the judges and their biases. If you are performing at a college coffeehouse, poems about college life, grades, and having no money may strike a chord. With judges in their 60s, poems about history, politics, personal ancestry, childhood, and learning through aging could win. With five female judges, poems about women’s rights, love, sincere emotions and gender equality might do well. With five men, humorous poems about sex, failing with romance, or working a dead-end job may score high.
Know your judges and give them what they want to hear.
A judge wants to know that they are not alone in their opinions and beliefs. Perform poems that they wish they could write or use poems to convince them to see the world through your eyes.
Know your judges and give them what they should hear, not what they want to hear.
A more complicated tactic is to take what the judges know and love and twist and turn through metaphor into what you want them to know and love, especially if it is the opposing concept. Basis rhetoric. Even if the judge doesn't immediately change their beliefs, if you can make them see, you've won high marks.
Know the politics of your crowd. If you are performing in a liberal arts college venue, the poetry can push the leftist envelope. If you are performing in rural Oklahoma at a conservative Baptist college, you may want to stay rightist. You don’t need to change your political beliefs to win a slam, but you should be aware of the politics in your work and the crowd.
Watch you hands and arms.
Use them only when necessary and only to accentuate points. If the poem discussed grapes, pluck them; if it touches sensuality, use your hands to caress your invisible lover’s hips, etc. Tape yourself, watch yourself on mute and see how silly you look with darting arms.
If the audience is intently watching you, that nervous jerking arm that happens every 10 seconds at the end of line begins to draw more attention than your words. Give the audience minimal distractions from your poetry.
Be sure not to rock back and forth or side to side. It can be distracting, especially if the poem is low-energy. Every move you make says something to audience. Use your body as you would use your voice.
Slam has rules against props. The enforcement of these rules varies on the local and national level. A prop is anything that enhances the performance of the poem that is not available to all the poets. Thus, a microphone, a mic stand, and a mic are fair game, while an occasional chair or other item on stage is also sometimes usable. Ask the host before the slam starts. Most local scenes ignore minor or accident props, such as clothing, glasses, hair, etc., but the National Poetry Slam can get rigid with its interpretation. Some local scenes are even more militant about props. The interpretation is varied.
For example, a poem may mention wearing glasses. If the poet then touches their glasses, that is a prop foul. If they don’t then it’s usually OK. Logos on clothing, types of clothing, using one’s pockets, logos on hats, tattoos, jewelry, etc., are usually considered props. Referencing hair, one’s disability, race, or being pregnant have all come before PSI at various times. The basic rule is, if it’s not a normal human function (having a certain skin color, being pregnant, being an amputee or growing hair) or if it’s directly pointed to, it could be considered part of “costume,” not available to all poets. Bottom line, if you got it, don’t point at it.
Entertainment vs. boredom.
A high-energy, entertaining poem with varied dynamics will beat a dull, quiet, but better-written poem. Slam poets entertain our audiences. They came to feel art but also to be entertained.
Be open to criticism.
The best slam poets are always learning from other slammers, loyal fans, critics and first-time attendees. Poets go downhill when they get blinded by ego, wins, loses, or uniformity. Always try to change your style to keep opponents, the audience, and yourself on your toes.
Leave the stage quietly, quickly and efficiently.
The last thing your audience should remember of you is your last line, not how you stumbled away to shouted a the barkeep for a beer.
Humility is a virtue.
It is better to be confident but humble rather than confident and arrogant.
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part III: Tactics Within Poetry
The Arc of a Poem:
To work, a slam poem must hold the audiences attention for at least the last 20 to 30 seconds. However, it doesn’t matter how witty or world-changing the last 30 seconds are if the audience stopped caring in the first 30 seconds.
With a typical slam audience, you want to hook the audience in the first 10 to 15 seconds, hold their interest for the next 2 minutes, preferably drawing them ion closer with increasing stronger writing or more intense emotion, then nail the ending in the last 20 to 30 with the moral, the punch line, the summary, the emotional denouement, the profundity of insight, or the push for social change. If your writing is superb, you can move up that moment earlier in the poem, but it should be within the last minute or you risk losing the audience after the climax.
Know your audience and plan accordingly. If you slam before a college crowd, they will want poetry that either speaks to them, from their experience, or educates them about an outside experience. While a poem about binge drinking, choosing a major, or trying to date on the college scene may be appealing, it may be overdone. Use language and metaphors that they will understand. Conversely, performing a poem about another experience, such as that of an old man looking at his grandchildren, may be appealing because of its unique experience. But select words and phrases that they can understand even though the experience is foreign. The goal with writing for an audience is that you want the poetry to have the widest comprehension with maximum emotional content yet still retaining your distinct voice, the originality of the presentation, and the depth of the content.
A key line or stanza that catches the audience and entices them to keep listening. It is similar to a commercial jingle, sales hook, or the lead in a news story. For most poems, the hook is a witty turn of phrase, joke, profundity, or repeated line. If it is a deep thought or social insight, the audience agrees and waits for more. If it’s a contradictory statement, they wait for you to explain it, counter it, or complete it. For a signature poem, it’s usually the first line and the audience loyal to your work will know what poem you’re doing by it.
Ask yourself with each poem, stanza and line if there is a more efficient way to express yourself. There is no need to use 30 words when 10 will do and no need to browbeat the audience. They may not all be poets, but they are intelligent people. Leave them wanting more, and do that by not explaining everything to death. Get the point across, so that the audience can imagine the anecdote or example to illustrate your point, then move on.
Grammar is your friend.
Grammar rules do not exist arbitrarily. Grammar exists as the accumulation of the best means to describe thoughts and experiences given the limitations of a specific language. Play with language when the poem calls for it, when you’re speaking with a certain slang, dialect, tone, or characterization that enhances the poem. Otherwise, obey basic grammar and your poems will be stronger. Failing to follow basic grammar is not a thumb in the eye of your third-grade English teacher, it makes the poem hard to follow and if you lose your audience, you lose the slam.
Basically, use identical or equivalent syntactic constructions in corresponding clauses or phrases, i.e., “we are going, doing, fighting,” rather than “we are going, will have done, have been fighting.” The first example has a unity of verb phrases, the second changes tense, and sounds jolted. Unless there is a specific need for a line to change tense, it should remain unified. Among most new poets, their work reflects a spoken grammatical syntax. When they condense and edit that poetry into page poetry, they take the syntax as it was spoken, do not make it parallel and, instead, leave disjointed. When they perform their work, that lack of parallelism becomes evident to the audience that finds the work hard to follow. The poet, still identifying with the original spoken thought and not the transcribed written version, often remains obvious to the flaw. In the end, either the line fails to capture the crowd and the poet changes it or removes the line or the poem, or the poet sees it fresh and recognizes the error then changes the poem. Poets, read your work as though you did not write it and see how it flows. Make adjustments as needed.
Likewise, if you list points, examples, time references, or metaphorical constructs, maintain the same tense as each one is introduced. I.e., if the audience hears, “in my freshman year, the boys …,” they are expecting to hear, “in my junior year, the boys…” not “and then, when I was a junior, the boys.”
If time is paramount to a poem, such as an autobiographical or identity poem, make sure the audience knows what time it is. They should not have to guess your age, the time of day, the year, or the historical era at a certain point in the poem. If they are doing math, they are not listening to why that age is important.
Person of address.
Keep the same person of address throughout the line, if not the same stanza, or the whole poem. I.e., don’t switch midway from third person to second person to first person to third person. It changes the conjugation of the verb and the audience isn’t sure who is speaking. This reduces the power of sarcasm, irony, and satire. For a love poem, it changes the focus from the “significant other” to the audience in the role of the “significant other.” Pick one or the other unless that transition in itself has purpose, i.e., telling the audience about a lover, then having the audience “become” that lover to show the humor, emotional intensity or depth through the rest of the poem; or vice versa to show the detachment.
You only have three minutes. There is no need to repeat unnecessary lines within a poem. There are exceptions, when repeating works because it is done with purpose:
- Chorus: like lyrics in a song, the chorus repeats a key line or overall theme. A chorus is either generally more than one line, or the same line repeated often, usually more than three times, sometimes rapidly in succession or with a few brief lines between.
- Bookends: Toward the beginning of the poem, you make a statement. The body of the poem alters, narrows, or expands on the interpretation. The line repeats either to 1) emphasize change, or 2) reinforce stability, either positive or negative.
- Repetition in threes: The human mind equates 3 with order. For a poem, it gives a sense of introduction, intermission, ending. If a person hears two identical lines separated by a space of 20 to 30 seconds, the natural inclination is to expect a third. This gives a poet two options, 1) satisfy that expectation and win subconscious praise for doing so, or 2) intentionally leave the audience longing for completion. This works if the poem is meant to be left open, but can be very dangerous if done haphazardly, and the audience is left unfulfilled. Do not leave a broken repetition of threes unless you can arguably justify how it strengthens the poem.
- Repetition in fours: Like 3, the human mind senses order in 4. Rather than a triangular sense of competition, this leaves a square or four quarters into which the audience can break the poem. Think preface, beginning, middle, end.
- Repetition in fives: While 5 borders on just being called a chorus, there is precedence in storytelling for fives that can be used as breaks between sections, i.e, exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action/denouement.
Be specific. Make sure your words have concrete meanings. Words like good, faith, truth, hope, dreams, evil, death, doom, hate, peace, are vague. To an audience, they are fluff and have little to no real weight in a poem. Try specific historical, literary, personal, pop cultural, alliterative, metaphorical, anecdotal or otherwise vivid words. If you touch it, see it taste it or smell it, so can the audience.
Don’t underestimate the power of adjectives. The right adjective adds color to a line, decorates and otherwise dull noun, and can change the entire meaning of a line. There is no reason to spend 20 seconds on two lines when you can collapse one line into an adjective, use it in the first line, get the point across and save 10 seconds.
In general, are a risky venture, unless the poet is using racial slurs directed at their particular ethnicity. Most slam audiences are socially progressive and hearing racial slurs can be offensive, even if the slur isn’t aimed at the audience’s general ethnicity or if it is directly referring to yours. If the poem is about racism, racial identity, or race relations, . Presenting a list of racial slurs at the beginning of a poem on race or bigotry is overused. The “shock value” often causes tune-out unless the hook immediately following it is extremely creative. Never trivialize the damage the was and is still caused by these words.
Know what your audience speaks. In the Southwest, a significant portion of the population commonly understands Spanish. If you plan to use whole lines in a foreign language, the context surround it should explain the line, its use, or it should be translated, or “mistranslated,” (such as “Spanglish,” pidgin English, or Lingua Franca) depending on the gist of the poem. Whole sections in a foreign language can lose the audience. Be aware that a mistranslated word or line can be offensive to native speakers.
The mark of a skilled poet, but also a reckless one if done badly. Using a metaphorical construct, the poet replaces a word, phrase, verb, or metaphor with a complex synonym. Removal adds a depth of complexity to a line because rather than a simple word being used to describe an emotional construction, the metaphorical replacement carries its own emotional construction which adds to the poet’s. This is used most often to incorporate pop cultural references into poetry, but can be used with other mediums. Examples:
- First-degree removal: Assume the intended line is “It was like the '80s were back, ” First-degree removal, “It was like the Cindy Lauper was back.” The line requires an understanding that Cindy Lauper was a (predominately) ‘80s artist. The line obliges the audience to not only understand who she is in the historical context, but attach their emotional response to her name to the line and the replacement of “'80s”.
- Second-degree removal: This construction requires more activity from the audience, meaning the reference should be specific, but broad, and the audience should be savvy enough to grasp the reference. Assume the intended line is “I will be faithful to you.” A first-degree reference would be, "I will be faithful to you like Artax in 'The Neverending Story'". A simple second-degree reference would be simply, “I will be faithful to you like Artax.” A complicated second-degree reference would be, “I will be your Artax.” The line requires the audience to know firstly that Artax was Atreyu’s horse in “The Neverending Story” and secondly to understand that Artax was faithful to Atreyu to the cost of his own life. The construction requires the listener to know not only the book/film but also the characters within. Both levels have a certain emotional attachment that can be tapped to strengthen the emotional bridge between your poem and your audience. With limited lead-in, you can establish the reference points for to audience to know the metaphorical construct you are building.
As poets are generally bad with numbers, statistics can be useful. If you’re using more than approximations and want to use actual numbers, be accurate. If a judge is a math teacher or an accountant or a dive instructor, etc., and they hear a line about geometry, national debt or scuba, they expect to hear numbers that make sense to them. If the numbers reflect a region, be accurate and adjust your numbers for the venue, (A poem in Flagstaff about number of Democrats in Coconino County who voted in last election might be more effective in Sedona or Prescott using Yavapai County numbers). In a social issue poem, use accurate, preferably up-to-date numbers (if you poem has rape statistics, drunk driving deaths, or the number of dropouts for “this year,” periodically update the statistics to reflect the year numbers). For the most part, the audience won’t know the numbers at all, but one never knows when an audience member of judge might. Accuracy establishes and maintains credibility. Even sounding credible works: remember, 93.9 percent of all statistics used in arguments are made up on the fly.
The use of jargon has two effects. If used well, it can establish the “character” of the poem or relate a certain sincerity to the poet’s knowledge of the subject matter. “A knee injury” is general, “torn the ACL” (anterior cruciate ligament) The weakness of jargon is that it can be too specialized and the audience may lose the meaning. Be specific but accessible.
The key with depicting or describing violence is to maintain the intensity of the experience. Build tension, if the nature of the content requires it. Spontaneous violence should be sudden and over the top, for example, describing getting slapped by a girlfriend for saying something rude or breaking up, or getting caught in lie, state the lead-in line, the suddenly and passionately slap you hands or state “slap” so that the audience, much like the poet in the situation does not see it coming. Gun violence should have the same immediacy as a gunshot: loud, quick, intense and sharp.
Many poems have songs or short sung verses as bookends, leads, or endings. The practice is cliché and many veteran slam poets frown on the practice. The audience, too, often finds the song jarring, unnecessary or "unpoetic," most simply because the poem is entirely the poet's work and the song is obviously by another author. The most overdone styles are Negro spirituals, patriotic tunes (for political poems) or a childhood nursery rhyme. Veteran slam audiences have been known to tune out poems after hearing a song intro leaving an otherwise good poem unheard.
However, the practice can still be effective. If you sing, know the song and the tune. Be able to sing cold at a moment’s notice. Know the meaning, and history of the song. For instance, “Ring around the Rosey”/”Ring-a-Ring O’Roses,” is a nursery rhyme about the Great Plague of London of 1665. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Wade in the Water” were Negro spirituals used by Underground Railroad conductors to guide fugitive slaves north. Use that knowledge to your advantage but choosing a song that with lyrics or history matches the theme of the poem, or writing a poem that reflects the meaning of the song you have chosen to sample. If an audience member knows a song's real meaning and you don't, you can appear oblivious or ignorant – both are deadly to you in slam.
Do not add a song to a poem that has no connection to the poetry or chose a song haphazardly because the audience will try to link the two together. If they are debating why a poem and song relate, they are not listening to you. To work, the song should not be too common (like overplayed songs on the radio) and the poem should directly reference the song's title, lyrics, composer, theme, historical era, or latter (mis)interpretations. One of best uses of a song among slamming poets in Northern Arizona is Christopher Lane's "this arizona red dirt," which samples a line from Townes Van Zandt's "Poncho and Lefty." The obscurity of the song, the selected lyrics, the emotional tone of the song, and Lane's Texan accent contribute to the song's effectiveness.
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part IV: Tactics and Strategy with Topics and Themes
Poets tend to pick common subjects. For them, it's important. For others, it's dull. Your goal is to impress the audience with wordplay or topics. Hearing six "I'm oppressed because ..." poems will bore the audience, judges and other poets. Be original. If your dad beat you as a kid, don't write a poem whose summary is "dad beat me a kid, isn't that a bad thing? woe is me." It's like when a mother on Oprah or Jerry Springer says "at least I don't beat my kids" and the audience cheers. You're not supposed to beat your kids. Give us a new angle and keep us interested in the why, not the what.
These are poem topics that are way overused. A first time poet or audience member may think that they're edgy, but after three months or three years of slam, poets and long-time audience members simply tune out unless the poet is highly engaging, verbose, creative or colorful. With good poetry, any topic, including those covering topics below can be a brillant Pulitzer prize-winning piece. However, a mediocre poem or poet writing on the following topics is rehashing topics that thousands of other poets have done before. Be innovative, creative, vibrant and turn the topic on it's ear.
If you're going to pick a topic and not do anything special with it, avoid these topics:
- Life sucks/I wish I was dead/all I think about is death.
- Poems about poetry.
- Poetry is cool.
- Poets should be paid for our awesomeness.
- I'm a poet, thus sexy, thus sleep with me.
- I love you.
- I love her/him, but she/he doesn't know it
- I miss my ex.
- I am an oppressed minority.
- Oppressing people is bad.
- I was raped.
- Rape is bad.
- My friend got shot to death.
- Guns are bad.
- Violence is bad.
- War is bad.
- Our president is dumb.
- Our government is bad.
- I don't know anything about politics, but that won't stop me writing a poem about it as if I do.
- There is no god.
- Religion is for idiots.
- I hate drugs.
- I like drugs.
- Let's recycle.
- Global warming is bad.
- Television is bad.
- This slam lets me cuss on stage for three minutes. Watch.
- Your (insert major/minor vice) is bad.
- This poem is about one of the Ten Commandments, let me tell you why it's good/bad.
- I traveled to this cool place once. It was pretty.
- Here's three minutes about my "soul," and I plan to say "soul" a lot.
- My father never loved me.
- A drunk driver killed my friend.
- I was beaten as a kid.
- Beating kids is bad.
- I've found Jesus. Your turn.
- My bad date.
- MySpace/Facebook, etc. is destroying America.
- I like bad rhymes. Here, let me show you.
- I voted, the other candidate won, and now everything sucks.
- I stood up to a bully, so can you.
- I stood up to a bully and he/she beat the crap out of me. But I stood up.
- I hate my job.
- I hate my job with corporate America.
- I hate my job and don't get paid enough.
- Slam poetry is destroying poetry, therefore I won't slam anymore (after this poem, of course).
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part V: Overall Slam Strategy
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part VI: Examples of the Poets and Poems
The Strategy of the Slam Poet, Part VII: Further Reading
Algarin & Holman, ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe
Beau Sia, A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge
Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl, Pelt, and Why Things Burn
Gary Glazner, Poetry Slam
Jeffrey McDaniel, Alibi School, The Forgiveness Parade, and The Splinter Factory
Justin Chin, Bite Hard
Michael Salinger, Neon and Outspoken
Patricia Smith, Big Towns, Big Talk : Poems, Close to Death : Poems, and Life According to Motown
Ragan Fox, Heterophobia
Regie Gibson, Storms Beneath the Skin
Emanuel Xavier, Americano, and Bullets & Butterflies: queer spoken word poetry
Specific poets with Wikipedia entries:
- Laurie Anderson
- Craig Arnold
- Robert Ashley
- E. G. Bailey
- B. Dolan
- Roger Bonair-Agard
- Richard Cambridge
- Staceyann Chin
- Jamie DeWolf, aka Jamie Kennedy
- Maggie Estep
- Ragan Fox
- Sage Francis
- John Giorno
- Jesse Glass
- Gary Glazner
- Hedwig Gorski
- Matt Harvey
- Allison Hedge Coke
- Bob Holman
- Taylor Mali
- Jeffrey McDaniel
- Mighty Mike McGee
- Karyna McGlynn
- Don McIver
- Anis Mojgani
- John Most
- Alix Olson
- Eirik Ott, aka Big Poppa E
- Lynne Procope
- Carl Hancock Rux
- Michael Salinger
- Beau Sia
- Otep Shamaya
- Marc Smith
- Patricia Smith
- Patti Smith
- Rod Smith
- Shihan van Clief
- Robbie Q. Telfer
- Buddy Wakefield
- Anne Waldman
- Saul Williams
- Emanuel Xavier
- bout (n): A team competition, either a head-to-head (two team) contest, or a full-scale NPS (five team) slam, or a regional competition. For example, a tournament with eight teams may have four teams in the first bout, four teams in the second bout and the top two teams in the last bout.
- Bout Manager (n): A slam official who maintains order among the teams so the host can focus on the stage. A Bout Manager watches for possible rules violations, works as a liason between the host and the teams' coaches during a bout, ans is one of the deciding factors if a protest is brought forth.
- "Calibration Poet" or "Sacrifice Poet" (n): A poet who reads before the slam to “calibrate the judges.” The poem is judged, but the score does not count in the competition. Calibration poets are often the featured poet, poets who arrived too late to compete, regulars in the scene, the host or virgin poets who don’t want to slam.
- draw (n/v): The order in the round. Generally, poets who pull the first few slots in draw have a statistical handicap. Pray for a late slot.
- dropping a poem (v): forgetting it midway. The remedy is to have it memorized or be able to improvise.
- "East German Judge" (n): the lowest scoring judge of the night. Often, appealing to them is how you win. If the judges are giving 9s for everything, but the East German is giving 6s for humorous poems and 8s for drama, do drama.
- feature (n/v): A poet, usually on tour (local features are common in large slam communities), who gives a 10 to 45 minute performance before a slam starts or between rounds of a slam. In this case, the feature is usually considered the entrée of the event, with the slam itself as a bonus. Promoters usually highlight the feature poet as the reason for attending a slam. Thus, treat the feature like a visiting rock star or preacher. Generally, the feature is paid by the venue, host or organizer. Almost without exception, the feature is allowed to sell merchandise. Buy their merchandise for three reasons: 1:) touring is difficult and expensive. 2:) a feature has no long-term qualitative way to measure how they touched a crowd as they usually are on tour, but sales are quantifiable 3.) you will learn something from the merchandise, either a writing style, new phraseology, or how to prepare and market your merchandise.
- identity poem (n): A poem that highlights a poet's age, race, color, creed, gender or gender identity, marital status, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, religion, disability, social class and/or subculture. Poets use identity poems to either highlight a difference they have from or similarity they have to the general demographic of the audience. My only real identity poem is "English Major."
- National Poetry Slam or NPS (n): The annual slam championship tournament, wherein three to five-person teams from North America and Europe compete against for the NPS title. Since it was founded in 1990 with just four teams, it has grown to nearly 80 and has become part Super Bowl, part poetry summer camp and part traveling exhibition, according to the PSI Web site.
- Poetry Slam Inc. or PSI (n): The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that oversees the international coalition of independent poetry slams.
- rock star (n): A poet who always has a lead in a slam because of experience or the audience. If you can't beat them because of their experience, then aim for the next highest poet. Watch the rock star and learn why they are who they are.
- rotation (v): The order in a round and between rounds. Random Rotation is the most dangerous for strategy and you must always be ready to slam in any slot. It generally is the most unfair numerically, but considered the most fair traditionally. Forward, Reverse, High to Low, (ABCDEF, FEDCBA, the highest score to lowest score) is one of the most egalitarian rotations. It gives all poets the strength and weakness of each round, though the poets in the middle in the first two rounds see little improvement or detriment. The weakness is that after the first three poets of the third round, the slam is usually decided. One-Third Rotation, (ABCDEF, CDEFAB, EFABCD) is also considered fair though the first few poets still feel the crunch of score creep.
- score creep (n): The biggest flaw in slam. Typically, the first few scores of a slam are lower than later scores, regardless of quality. Scores generally increase as the slam progresses even if the poem quality remains the same. The variance in rotation exists mainly to counter the problems of score creep.
- signature (adj/n): A poem, topic, or style for which a poet is most known. The strength is that a poet can usually score well even if the signature poem is performed poorly or if the new poem in the genre or style is weak. For other poets, the counter-attack is to contrast the poem or its style. My signature poems are "The Peach is a Damn Sexy Fruit," "They Held Hands (The 9-11 poem)" and "English Major."
- Slam Family (n): The national poetry slam community. We meet once a year at the National Poetry Slam and at other, smaller regional events. Networking online or with feature poets, booking touring poets or going on tour yourself incorporates you into Slam Family. It is open to all who compete.
- SlamMaster (n): The poet, host, or organizer who is registered with Poetry Slam Inc. to be the official spokesperson of the venue and the scene on the national level. It handles registering teams and venues with the National Poetry Slam and other administrative operations. Most slams across the country use PSI-approved rules for slam.
- slot (n): Your order in the round. Generally, poets who pull the first few slots in draw have a statistical handicap. Pray for a late slot.
- spotter (n): a volunteer who helps the host get scores. Do not get in their way. Help only if necessary. Being too helpful may irritate the host, the audience, or the judges, especially if done poorly.
- virgin (n): a poet who has never slammed before. After the slam, thank them for competing. If you heard their poem(s), tell them the lines you liked. If you didn't, at least ask them to come back to the next slam. Any virgin slammer is begging for acceptance in to the slam family. Make it a point to do so.
The author of this treatise
Christopher Fox Graham, of Sedona started slamming poetry on Oct. 18, 2000 at the Essenza Coffeehouse, in Mesa, Ariz. He won his first slam there in January 2001 and managed to make it on the first Flagstaff National Poetry Slam Team in April 2001. He performed at his first National Poetry Slam in Seattle in August 2001.
From August 2001 to May 2002, he was the SlamMaster and Host of the Flagstaff Poetry Slam, now called FlagSlam.
From May to July 2002, he toured for three months with three other poets (Josh Fleming, David f. Escobedo and Keith Bruecker) to slam scenes from L.A., Chicago, Michigan, Canada, Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., Texas, and back through California, performing his own work in 37 different venues watching and studying several hundred slam poets perform on their home turf.
In 2003, he was a Bout Manager at the National Poetry Slam in Chicago.
In 2004, he the NORAZ Poets Grand Slam Champion and a member of the inaugural NORAZ Poets National Slam Team.
In 2005, he placed third at the NORAZ Poets Grand Slam and was a member of the second NORAZ Poets Slam Team, a team which went on the win the Slab City Slam (Arizona's state tournament) at Arcosanti.
At the Arizona All-Star Slam, which features the top 15 poets in Arizona, he placed 2nd in 2002, 3rd in 2003, 4th in 2004 and 1st in 2005.
But he is only as good as his last slam.
His craft and tactics, not just his poetry, made this possible. He believes anyone can do this.