Marc Smith is credited with starting the poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984. In July 1986, the slam moved to its permanent Chicago home, the Green Mill Jazz Club. In 1990, the first National Poetry Slam took place in Fort Mason, San Francisco, involving a team from Chicago, a team from San Francisco, and an individual poet from New York . As of 2008, the National Poetry Slam has grown and currently features approximately 80 certified teams each year, culminating in five days of competition..
Although American in origin, slams have spread all over the world, with slam scenes in Canada, Germany, Sweden, France, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, the Netherlands, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Macedonia.
At a poetry slam, members of the audience are chosen by an emcee or host to act as judges for the event. After each poet performs, each judge awards a numeric score to that poem. Scores generally range between a low of zero and a high of ten. In the standardized slam, there will be five judges. The highest and lowest score are dropped, giving each performance a rating between zero and thirty points.
A single round at a slam consists of performances by all eligible poets. Most slams last multiple rounds, and many involve the elimination of lower-scoring poets in successive rounds. A standard elimination rubric might run 8-4-2, with eight poets in the first round, four in the second, and two in the last. Some slams do not eliminate poets at all.
Props, costumes, and music are generally forbidden in slams. Additionally, most slams enforce a time limit of three minutes (and a grace period of ten seconds), after which a poet's score may be docked according to how long the poem exceeded the limit.
In an "Open Slam," the most common slam type, competition is open to all who wish to compete. If there are more slammers than available time slots, competitors will often be chosen at random from the sign-up list.
In an "Invitational Slam," by contrast, only those invited to do so may compete.
A "Theme Slam" is one in which all performances must conform to a specified theme, genre, or formal constraint. Themes may include Nerd, Erotica, Queer, Improv, or other conceptual limitations. In theme slams, poets can sometimes be allowed to break "traditional" slam rules. For instance, they sometimes allow performance of work by a poet other than the poet on stage (e.g. the "Dead Poet Slam", in which all work must be by a deceased poet). They can also allow changes on the restrictions on costumes or props (e.g. the Swedish "Triathlon" slams that allow for a poet, musician, and dancer to all take the stage at the same time), changing the judging structure (e.g. having a specific guest judge at the Manchester Creatures of the Night slam), or changing the time limits (e.g. a "1-2-3" slam with three rounds of one minute, two minutes, and three minutes, respectively).
Although theme slams may seem restricting in nature, slam venues frequently use them to advocate participation by particular and perhaps underrepresented demographics. For example High School page poets only, or Women poets only may be allowed to participate in a particular slam, and thus it might encourage poets from those demographics to feel more confident in participating in a poetry slam for the first time.
Poetry slams feature a broad range of voices, styles, cultural traditions, and approaches to writing and performance. Some poets are closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and draw heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicized genre belonging to black and particularly West Indian culture. Others employ an unrhyming narrative formula. Some use traditional theatric devices including shifting voices and tones, while others may recite an entire poem in ironic monotone. Some poets use nothing but their words to deliver a poem, while others stretch the boundaries of the format, tap-dancing or beatboxing or using highly-choreographed movements.
One of the goals of a poetry slam is to challenge the authority of anyone who claims absolute authority over literary value. No poet is beyond critique, as everyone is dependent upon the goodwill of the audience. Since only the poets with the best cumulative scores advance to the final round of the night, the structure assures that the audience gets to choose from whom they will hear more poetry. Audience members furthermore become part of each poem's presence, thus breaking down the barriers between poet/performer, critic, and audience. Bob Holman, a poetry activist and former slammaster of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, once called the movement "the democratization of verse." In a 2005, Holman was also quoted as saying:
The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation's dialogue that you don't hear on the floor of Congress. I want a floor of Congress to look more like a National Poetry Slam. That would make me happy.
Slam has not been without its critics. Populist responses to slam have included the International SpokenWord and Poetry Tournament, created by the Hip Hop Feminist Nation, and the Anti-Slam, begun at Collective:Unconscious on New York's Lower East Side. The ISPT emphasizes positive messages by all participants. At an Anti-Slam, all forms of expression are given a six-minute set and all participants are given a perfect ten by the judges.
Academia has also responded to slam in various and contradictory ways. In an interview published in a recent Paris Review, literary critic Harold Bloom called the movement "the death of art." In response, poet and critic Victor D. Infante wrote in OC Weekly,
[The death of art] is a big onus to place on anybody, but Bloom has always had a propensity for (reactionary) generalizations and burying his bigotries beneath 'aesthetics,' insisting — as he did in his prologue to the anthology Best of the Best of American Poetry — that the 'art' of poetry is being debased by politics.
In Canada, poet Paul Vermeersch, stirred up controversy in the Toronto poetry community with a blog entry entitled: "Rant: Why I hate Spoken Word." Vermeersch made several provocative remarks, such as "(w)hen the message (of spoken word poetry) isn’t born of social consciousness, it’s generally born of self-aggrandizement and cocky posturing," causing a slew of reactions both in support, and in strong opposition to his views. Within a week or so the blog hit 153 comments, before Vermeersch shut down the thread, after an anonymous blogger compared him to Hitler. The key issue seemed to be Vermeersch saying that spoken word poetry should not be referred to as poetry; that by calling themselves poets, spoken word artists degrade the poetic tradition.
Despite the highly-visible animosity between certain members of both groups, a number of poets belong to academia and slam: Jeffrey McDaniel started as a slammer but has published in such mainstream poetry journals as Ploughshares and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College; Sam Pierstorff created the ILL LIST Poetry Slam Invitational, is the Poet Laureate of Modesto, CA, and has published poems in various conventional journals; Craig Arnold won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and has competed at slams. Ragan Fox, a Performance Studies professor at California State University, Long Beach, has been a finalist in the individual competition at the National Poetry Slam. Bob Holman has taught for years at the New School, Bard, Columbia, NYU. A less successful attempt at crossover was that of Henry Taylor, winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, who competed in the 1997 National Poetry Slam as an individual and placed 75th out of 150. Poets such as Michael Salinger, Felice Bell, Javon Johnson, Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett, Robbie Q. Telfer, Phil West, Karyna McGlynn and Scott Dillard have devoted much attention to the merger in their respective scholarly works.
Academics are not the only critics of slam. Poet and lead singer of King Missile John S. Hall has also long been a vocal opponent, taking issue with such factors as its inherently competitive nature and what he considers its lack of stylistic diversity. In his 2005 interview in Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, he recalls seeing his first slam, at the Nuyorican Poets Café:
...I hated it. And it made me really uncomfortable and... it was very much like a sporting event, and I was interested in poetry in large part because it was like the antithesis of sports.... [I]t seemed to me like a very macho, masculine form of poetry and not at all what I was interested in.
Slam poetry has found popularity as a form of self-expression among many teenagers. Youth Speaks, a non-profit literary organization founded in 1996 by James Kass, serves as one of the largest youth poetry organizations in America, offering opportunities for youth ages 13-19 to express their ideas on paper and stage.
Another group offering opportunites in education and performance to teens is URBAN WORD NYC out of New York City, formerly known as Youth Speaks New York. URBAN WORD NYC holds the largest youth slam in NYC annually, with over 500 young people. The non-profit organization provides free workshops for inner-city youth ran by Hip-Hop poet and mentor, Michael Cirelli.
Young Chicago Authors (YCA) provides workshops, mentoring, and competition opportunities to youth in the Chicago area. Every year YCA presents Louder Than A Bomb, the world's largest team-based youth slam and subject of a forthcoming documentary by the same name.
In a 2005 interview, one of slam's best known poets Saul Williams praised the youth poetry slam movement, explaining:
[H]ip-hop filled a tremendous void for me and my friends growing up... The only thing that prevented all the young boys in the black community from turning into Michael Jackson, from all of us bleaching our skin, from all of us losing it, just losing it, was hip-hop. That was the only counter-existence in the mainstream media. That was essential, and in that same way I think poetry fills a very huge void today [among] youth. And I guess I count myself among the youth.