Storytelling and poetry have existed for centuries and now these art forms have evolved into something more intense and lively. Story slams and poetry slams outreach mainly to high school students and college-aged adults, though all ages, cultures and races participate.
My inner radar sounded off when I first heard these evolved art forms. I anxiously attended a poetry slam workshop/contest led by Tracie Morris and Jean Howard at the 9th Annual Great Salt Lake Book Festival on October 28, 2006. Tracie and Jean shared the basic format of a poetry slam. I searched other sources to find what aspects are common.
Format of Story Slam/Poetry Slam (may differ from event to event)—
- Anyone Can Share Poem/Story
- No Props or Costumes
- Five Judges from the Audience and/or Pre-determined Panel
- Time Limit
- Audience Reactions
All are welcomed to perform and so all types of genres are shared—tall tales, legends, scary stories, romances, hip-hop, social injustices, and the list goes on. Events may censor what can be shared, though most tend to be open to any theme, expression, or style. Some slams may not be appropriate for children 12 years of age and younger.
How is a slam different from an open mike? A slam’s first priority is to the needs of the audience. An open mike is seen as a network of supporters for the artist.
Marc Smith noticed that some open mikes needed a breath of life into them as some participants droned on without connecting to the audience. Marc partnered with Dave Jemilo, owner of a Chicago jazz club called the Green Mill; they created the Uptown Poetry Slam held every Sunday night ever since July 25, 1986. Now, the Green Mill is known as the Mecca of Poetry Slam.
Slams occur mostly in taverns and coffee shops, though other venues sponsor these contests such as festivals, bookstores, libraries, and even Humanities classes. The Ruth Lilly Hoosier Storytelling Festival in Indianapolis had their 3rd Annual Story Slam in October 2006 and awarded $100 to first place and $50 to second place.
No Props or Costumes
Though I have not seen why props and costumes are discouraged, I suspect it is so the audience can focus on the words and the performance. Perhaps another reason would be that props and costumes might give unfair advantage to participants.
Five Judges from the Audience and/or Pre-determined Panel
Random selection from the audience can give anyone a chance to be a judge. No previous experience in judging is necessary. Jean Howard suggests that a pro slam poet gives the first performance, drawing hearty response from the audience, so that the judges can practice giving scores. Of course, this can calm—or terrify—the amateur slam poets.
Poetry slams have either a 0-to-10 scale or a 1-to-10 scale (with 0 or 1 being low). Rarely are perfect 10s given. Out of the five judges’ scores, the highest score and the lowest score are dropped. The three remaining scores are totaled so that the contestant receives a grand total of 0 to 30 points.
Tracie Morris confessed that some slam poets have the performance skills but lack the quality in the poem itself. Judges may let some less-than-desirable pieces slide due to stage presence, though contestants should not expect this to always be the case. There is no telling what piece will grab the judges. What can win in one round may stink in another round.
The Ruth Lilly Hoosier Storytelling Festival’s Story Slam prefers to have a pre-determined panel that includes professional storytellers, teachers, and students. Scorecards are divided into five main categories—
- Presentation Skills
- Staying within Time Limit
- Audience Applause/Approval
- Story has Beginning, Middle and End
After the event, contestants receive copies of the evaluation forms.
More people can participate when there are time limits. According to Poetry Slam Inc. and the National Poetry Slam, each person has a three-minute limit with a ten second grace period. As for Story Slams, the tales should stay under five minutes. Any second over the allotted time and points are deducted from the judges’ scores.
Jean Howard said that when she acts as emcee for a slam, she teaches the audience how to react. She practices with them on how to boo, hiss, and stomp feet. This way, the audience will be more vocal and bring more excitement to the event. Applause may be a rarity.
Tracie Morris noticed, “Sometimes the best response is for people to not like your work.” Difficult or controversial themes are often unleashed. Perhaps the performer’s intent is to have the audience react, despite if the reaction is positive or negative.
Regardless of themes, audiences interpret your body language. Tracie pointed out that doing a particular gesture once, like throwing down your fist, might be more powerful than if done repeatedly.
Beyond gestures, Tracie likes to take out the rhyme in her poems to see if she still likes her work. Tracie warned, “After the 15th person uses rhyme, the audience gets fatigue.”
Audience fatigue can be avoided if a poet/storyteller develops writing skills. Tracie stressed that you “learn how to write well by reading.” Books keep you well versed in ideas so you can create your own ideas. Plus, reading may inspire which lines of poetry—or parts of a story—you may want to prioritize.
If you want to be part of a story/poetry slam—whether as performer, judge, emcee, or audience—most likely there is an event in your neighborhood or nearby city.
As for Salt Lake City, you can go to a poetry slam at A Cup of Joe’s on 353 West 200 South every Saturday at 8:00pm. I met some people who would love to have storytellers so you may find that a poetry slam can be a story slam and a story slam can be a poetry slam.
The final step of the evolving art of storytelling and poetry may be the time when those two art forms become one.
Until we tell again,