So you want to know how to write slam poetry.
Widening of your pupils, dampness of your palms, heart rapidly pounding the inner wall of your rib cage...
These are just some of the physical effects your body echoes while, and shortly after, listening to powerful slam poetry.
Just like music, poetry taps deep into the reserve of human emotion. It is no surprise that in many cultures, the words song and poem are still used interchangeably.
The difference between a slam poem and a song is that the strength of slam literally and symbolically moves people without any music involved.
Through the power of spoken word alone, the slam artist is able to bridge the gap between the performer and audience, transcend societal and cultural divides, and change perspectives.
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to write a good slam poem, the simple answer is passion.
The most powerful slam poems do have some other important elements. So, what is slam poetry all about?
There were times when people considered poetry as esoteric. Reserved for the few, rather than for the many. But poetry is for the people. All people.
This is where the slam poetry movement came into play.
Slam poems, being a type of spoken word art, were created to be performed, delivered on a stage at poetry readings, and fully bring down any remaining barriers between the audience and the slam poet.
Slam poetry has the ability to take an idea that is hard to relate to and make it tangible for any audience. It makes the message accessible to all people regardless of their age, gender, race…
If you’ve ever watched 8 mile you will be familiar with the last scene where Eminem battles Papa Doc.
Although many would label this art form as rap, in this particular scene you can witness a direct representation of how truth speaks in slam poetry competitions.
The only rules slam poetry events follow are - there must be no props or musical assistance. Just the audience, the performer, and the stage. To make things more exciting, performers only have a three-minute limit per poem in each round and the audience gets to score them.
Deciding what to perform can be intimidating. Especially, when you have to put your trust in a stranger whose main goal is to judge your poem.
Luckily, to write a slam poem, you don’t need to have experienced adversity. You can use it to express your ideas and beliefs. What you think about certain topics, your memories and personal experiences can all be shared within the parameters of slam poetry.
When slam poetry first sprung its roots in Chicago in the 1980s the requirements for people participating in slams were: “Poems can be about any subject but are supposed to be the creation of the performing poet.”
Since then, some themes, like racism, sexism, and social exclusion have dominated the slam poetry events but the essence remains. The topic idea has to be something true to you.
Your truth. Your message. Your passions.
The audience knows when a performer is being inauthentic. In this way, if the personal experience is faked, a slam poem loses something in its entity and power.
Everyone has a story to share. To help you write your first slam poem and make your story stand out in your audience’s minds, here are 5 techniques you can begin to apply on your first go.
Having experienced the power of slam poetry written by others can make anyone want to begin writing their own poetic masterpiece.
Sure, it can be hard to get going on your first try. At times, with anything new knowing the key principles can go a long way.
So, here are 5 guidelines you can easily apply to creating and performing your first-ever slam poem.
Finding what works for you is the essence of developing any story within a poem.
Once you have chosen the theme you are passionate about, the one topic you want to explore, there are 2 techniques you can put into use in your first draft.
Focus on a moment, a memory. Explore every detail of this event and be particular.
Engage all the senses: What you see, smell, hear? What do you feel in this moment that you are remembering? Write it all down. Explore the smallest details in your mind.
What happened then? Who was there? What were the surroundings like?
Pick a memory that had an impact on you, maybe it even changed the way you understand the world now. When there is a strong emotional connection, words tend to flow easier.
Everyone has beliefs, opinions, ideas on a subject. What theme can you narrow in on? What ideas are you passionate about?
Slam poetry becomes powerful when the writing opens a window into the authentic, personal experience of the speaker. It becomes relatable when the poet is able to show vulnerability.
Be honest with your audience: what do you really think about your topic?
Once you choose an idea - maths, countries, a tv show, a famous person… Or could it be a grander topic: a protest on the news, experimental medicine, social injustices, and gender inequalities…
Create a mind map and write down everything you associate with this topic. Your beliefs, the beliefs of others. Even play a little word association with yourself. Why not? Poetry is all about wordplay.
Whether you choose to mind-map, take a walk down memory lane, or both, you can start to jot down some words that work well for emphasis and impact.
Part of writing a slam poem is having fun with the plethora of poetic devices available to use.
You can use analogies instead of stating what happened. Imagery engages the reader's senses and repetition helps them remember important themes and messages in the slam poem.
Alliteration is also a powerful technique for the overall flow, audience participation, emotional or intellectual, and enhancing the delivery of your slam poem.
For some alliteration inspiration, check out ‘Paper People’ by Harry Baker.
Slam poetry is a type of poetry that is meant to reach the ears of others. Its rhythmic ability is what moves people. That’s why you need to hear what it sounds like for yourself.
This is your first draft, so use this time to try on your words and sentences for size. Imagine you are putting together an outfit:
Are these trousers too long, will they make you stumble? The sentences need trimming down.
Are the colors too lifeless? The word choice doesn’t make the impact you are looking for.
Do you really need that clunky jewelry? If you can replace something with a better word, do it.
You can start adding repetition and wordplay at this stage. Repetition of sounds, words, or sentences emphasizes the ideas and also helps those ideas leave a lasting imprint on your audience.
Reading your first draft out loud can also help you tune into your own unique style.
Spoken word poetry is colorful. It can be a monologue style, or it can sound more like a rap, it can be slow or it can be fast.
Don’t be afraid to be ruthless once you find the answers that put together the best poem. You are getting it ready for the red carpet of a slam show.
“Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” - Stephen King
The most important quality of writers of any caliber, genre, or greatness is the ability to edit yourself. Cutting the fat is essential for a successful slam poetry delivery and the flow of the poem itself.
Keep in mind that you are sharing a story. Any writer can share information, but a slam poet shares pure emotion.
Don’t be scared when it comes to rewriting parts. Allow it to be part of your creative process. Even go ahead and take some time away from the original draft to let all the emotion set in, first.
Then come back with your editing sword (translation: a different colored pen). Move sentences, even whole sections, around like you’re rearranging furniture in your house.
Make Thesaurus your friend when it comes to editing. Exchanging the original words for more powerful synonyms can create more of an impact.
Change the rhyming pattern so that your poem becomes more rhythmic. If you’ve set out to share your heart might as well make the poem beat in resonance with it.
And finally focus on quality, not quantity. Shorter sentences are always better in the case of slam poetry.
You can write a slam poem any day. You can also create a good slam poem. But how do you bring to life amazing slam poetry?
You want the reader to see what you see, so let them borrow your eyes through masterful language use.
You want to describe the time of year it all happened, don’t say what season it was. Instead, describe the surroundings.
Can you feel the difference already?
Use language as your paintbrush and words as your colors.
Keep in mind slam is about performing your poem. You want to ignite feelings within your audience and inspire reactions, may it be laughter, tears, shock…
Use your voice as a literary tool.
Where do you want to pause to add suspense or let the information set in? Do you need to raise your voice or whisper to add emphasis on particular words/sentences? Can you gradually get louder as if you are building up to a moment of crescendo?
Don’t be afraid to bring the passion, the power, and the flair. A great slam poet is a true storyteller.
Are you ready for your first poetry slam? If not, that’s also okay.
Exposing your heart in front of an audience is often more daunting than suddenly becoming naked while casually walking down the street.
And that’s why you can be your first listener.
Whether you practice in the mirror or record yourself, make sure to listen back to the video/recording. The act of practicing your poem out loud can give you that little boost of confidence you already have within you.
Listening to yourself perform can also be imperative for deciding what you want to change one final time.
And if you find that you do want some extra feedback, do a dry run with friends and/or family.
Whether you have already attended a few slam poetry competitions in the past or it is your first time, nerves can be a dominant emotion when it comes to sharing your personal art.
The one thing you can always rely on is the knowledge that poetry is not about being the best, it’s not about winning and it’s not about being perfect.
This space allows for authenticity, emotional connection, and sharing your thoughts with others in an alternative, creative way.
So, have fun! And slam, friend, slam!