by Lisa Martinovic

If you haven’t leapt off your barstool cheering along with a couple hundred other poetry fans lately, well then you probably haven’t been to a Poetry Slam. The hippest and hottest new form of live entertainment has rejuvenated this ancient art, fused it with other genres such as hip-hop, stand-up comedy and dramatic monologue, and inspired vigorous debate—and some condemnation—in academic circles.

So what is a Poetry Slam? Described most simply, it is competitive performance poetry. Here’s how it works. First you write a poem. It could be an intense political rant against dot-com culture, a tender confessional piece about growing up as an adopted child, or maybe a hilarious send-up of adopted children who run software corporations—anything your fertile artist’s mind can squeeze into a three minute presentation. Next, you memorize said poem, rehearse it endlessly, carefully choreographing every gesture, gaze and pithy pause. When you’re ready to go public with your masterpiece, you head on down to your local slam and hold forth before an audience and five judges drawn at random from those assembled—all of them expecting to be entertained or enlightened or touched on a level that’s generally the province of intimates. This is not a game for the faint of ego.
Slams are typically held in bars and cafés, so your crowd can be rapt or rowdy, it’s always a crapshoot. The judges consider each poet in turn and then render a score from 0-10 held high on big cards a la the Olympics, giving equal weight to both the content and performance of each piece. And, to ensure a rockin’ show where the fever never stops, any MC worth an iamb vigorously encourages the audience to judge the judges–with boos, cheers, hisses or grunts.

Of course it hasn’t always been this way. In centuries past, when people needed to convey their anger or approval or astonishment to a larger world, they wrote letters to the editor. But it’s a new millennium. We have options. And some people are responding differently to that same impulse to communicate. They infuse their message with metaphors, craft with linebreaks, sprinkle with rhyme or alliteration and then slam it—in public—where they can feel the impact of their testifying. On stage, the skilled slam poet embodies the best of literature and the dramatic arts; be it expressed with raging fury or contained intensity, each poem explodes like a concentrated burst of theater. The poet is a passionate messenger artfully communicating the quirks and hypocrisy, brutality and insanity, the love and everyday heroics, of our lives and cultures.

Who spawned this beast? All hail the windy city! Back in the mid-80s a construction worker named Marc Smith went to a few open mics with the poetry he’d begun to write. He found the readings hopelessly boring and set about creating his own event. He wanted people to get excited about poetry—regular people, not just the other poets on the sign-up list. And, this being America, what better way to generate interest than to make it a competition! Thus was the slam born, at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago.

San Francisco entered the mix in 1990 when local poet and slam organizer Gary Mex Glazner produced the first National Poetry Slam at Fort Mason where poets from Chicago, San Francisco and NYC came together for the linguistic throw-down. Chicago won that seminal event and every year since then the competition has grown in size, scope and interest. In 1999, the Bay Area made a spectacular showing: San Francisco and San Jose tied for first place and Oakland took third—out of a field of 48 teams. The Bay Area slam scene now ranks as one of the brightest, most diverse and enthusiastic in the nation. Slams are held weekly or monthly in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Chico, Petaluma, Davis, Sacramento and Salinas.

Slam is more than an exhilarating new art-form; it cannot be dismissed as mere intellectual blood-sport. In a world where everything from sex to reality itself is virtual, where being passively entertained is lauded as a way of life, slam bucks the trend by providing a venue for authentic creative expression. Slam is a movement, reminiscent of its Beat generation predecessor, but one that has already more deeply permeated the culture. It is a social phenomenon that– not coincidentally– embodies one of the most diverse communities on the planet. People of all ages, races and sexual persuasions come together to compete on a level playing field.

In the past few years, National Poetry Slam audiences have witnessed teenaged and septuagenarian slammers, slammers in wheelchairs, slam poems in sign language, transvestite and multilingual slammers, even a few successfully slammed sonnets and sestinas. This lavish feast is further enriched by Group Pieces wherein two, three or all four members of a team collaborate in the creation and execution of a poem, a process that opens the door of performance poetry to new worlds of possibility. Such as Team Dallas’ now-legendary ’98 finals night coup: a rollicking exposition of gay, black, and redneck superheroes.

Worth a peek, you say? For those curious souls who want to check out the slam –as observers or participants–welcome to Slam Season. In preparation for the 2000 National Poetry Slam to be held in Providence, Rhode Island, cities will be holding slam-offs over the next few months to determine eligibility for their 4-person slam teams. Anyone is eligible to compete—or to judge. One of the defining characteristics of Slam is that judges are always drawn from the audience as opposed to being pre-selected “experts.” The logic is that if the poem does not inspire any given plumber, marketing director, rocket scientist, sex worker or homeless person, well then it might just need some re-working. Slam is poetry for the people, poetry that does not require an advanced degree in English literature to be appreciated. Not that there’s anything wrong with academic poetry.

Except that it’s never generated the excitement, the level of popular participation, or the media coverage that slam has. In the past two years alone the National Poetry Slam has been covered by CNN, Time magazine, McNeil Lehrer, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes. And there’s no end in sight as media-makers scramble to cash in on SlamMania. In the works at press time are everything from a Slam TV series and an all-poetry radio station to Slam DVD’s and interactive home slamming via the Internet.

Closer to home are two watershed events in the world of slam. On April 20-22, San Francisco will play host to the third annual National Youth Slam. And this summer the official slam anthology is due out from San Francisco’s own Manic d Press. SLAM! Changing the world one poet at a time documents the first ten years of the poetry slam including articles on how host a slam and book a poetry tour, and features poems from around the world, ranging in style from haiku to hard core slam verse.

The San Francisco Slam, run by the Living Word Project, is one of the most innovative and best attended in the nation. On a storm-drenched Sunday night in February close to 300 people packed the Justice League on Divisadero to witness the second in this coveted venue’s slam-off series. So many poets signed up to compete that a lottery forced some out of contention. There was incense burnin’, a slide show flashin’, DJ’s spinnin’ and a live band layin’ down a groove and makin’ a mood during breaks–and for any poets who wanted to improv-collab with them. MC Seeking kept the night moves flowing and the energy level on stun as poet after poet took the stage to regale the exuberant throng with everything from vindictive Valentine poems to a gang member’s memorial tribute. By midnight the names of the top four slammers were announced. They took their bows and went home with points toward their slam-final bids, yielding the stage to a trio of undulating dancers.

For a taste of the action, we’ve featured on this page one of the night’s big crowd pleasers. For a five-course meal, log on to the Chronicle’s website and listen to the poems in performance [www., type “Slam” in the “Jump to” box]. Of course, the only way to experience the totality of slam is by checking out a live show. And there couldn’t be a better time to find out what all the excitement is about. Between now and the end of May there will be qualifying slams, semi-finals and finals, featuring the best of the best in the world of slam.

Meanwhile, the next time you feel a burning desire to editorialize, go ahead and write that letter, lick that stamp, drop it in the mailbox, and then take the next step: Slam it! I dare you.

An abbreviated version of this essay ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 24, 2000