The Seven Principles of Poetry Slam

By Brother Said

These are my seven principles of poetry slam. Of course, since I wrote this article, it’s my opinion, so these seven principles aren’t universally recognized. But I believe anybody who wants to be a poetry slammer should be aware of these principles. This awareness could save you a lot of frustration. I’ve isolated and categorized these seven principles to dispel the natural, but wrong, assumptions new comers to poetry slam make. Why seven? Because seven is a cosmic number, dude.

I’ll expand on each of these principles in future articles. For now, the seven basic principles of poetry slam in order of importance (and yes, in my opinion) are:

1. Poetry slam is a game – Poetry slam is primarily a game of chance, and NOT JUST SKILL. Accept this basic nature of poetry slam now and save yourself hours of frustration wondering why you lost a slam. New comers to poetry slam wrongly assume that poetry slam is just about their writing skill. Make no mistake, you should strive to write great poems, but since the judges might like your poems or might not like your poems – that makes poetry slam mostly a game of chance. That’s just the nature of the game. Therefore, you WILL lose some slams. But if you optimize your writing skills and take the time to learn how to play the game, you will increase your chances of winning.

2.You MUST influence the judges – New comers assume the judges traditionally picked from the audience will judge the merits of any poem presented to them just because they’re instructed to judge fairly. But a poem about the excesses of the modern Republican Party, no matter how well written, won’t score well in front of judges randomly picked from the audience who happen to be Texas conservatives. Poetry slam judges are usually mocked as unqualified morons – but they’re a necessary part of the game, since they pick the winner. They are the reason why poetry slam is a game of chance, and you can increase your chances of winning by accepting that reality. The more you slam the more you learn how to influence judges who are traditionally picked from the audience into scoring you high for your great poems AND great performances.

3. You will need good performance poetry -You can compete with regular poetry. But like the Poetry Slam Incorporated website says, poetry slam is the “art form of competitive performance poetry.” Slam is NOT just a poetry reading with judges. The simple heartfelt poem delivered with little to no artifice works well sometimes. But if you’re going to influence judges into giving you higher scores, then you must learn to write and perform good performance poetry.

4. Know the rules – Why go to all the trouble of writing great five minute performance poems that the judges score high, only to lose points because you went over time? You have 3 minutes to do your poem. That’s standard in most places in the U.S. – but new slammers pick this rule to break above all others, because they assume they’ll score high enough to make up the difference. For those who claim they hate poetry slam, this is the rule they hate the most. The three minute rule is actually a beautiful rule that can help you write more effective performance poems. Besides the three minute rule the other rules that are standard nation wide among all certified slams is no props, no costumes, and no music. There are also other rules that apply specifically at the the National Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Slam. If you know the rules, you know how to break them or manipulate them to your advantage.

5. Know the Format and Rotation – There’s the national format, then there is the format of the other 100 or more certified poetry slams out there. Is the slam two rounds, three rounds, or four rounds? Is the slam elimination or no elimination? Is the slam random first round, hi score to lo score order in succeeding rounds or lo to hi in succeeding rounds? Or is the slam random first round draw abcd, second round bcda, third round cdab and so on? Is it a themed slam? Local slams don’t have to follow the national format, so local formats vary. If you want to slam in one of the 100 or more local slams out there you better know the format.

6. Positional truth – Are you going first, second, third or tenth in a poetry slam? It matters. If you’re going first in a 4 x 4, you may be able to pull out a win. Since it’s four rounds you have time to possibly pull out a win. If you’re going first in a ten poet, three round slam – you just might be screwed. Alternatively, if it’s the third round, where are you in relation to the other poets by score? A lot of poets or teams lose because they mismanage their position. Manage your position well and you can increase your chances of winning any poetry slam.

7. Learn the Basic Plays – It’s TOO easy to assume that when you slam, all you have to do is just play your poems. But because this is a game of chance that depends on influencing the judging, you need to employ basic plays or recognize when your opponent is using a basic play. For football it’s the draw play, and the play action pass. In basketball it’s pick and rolls, and fast breaks. Chess is full of standard openings that are centuries old. Poetry slam has basic plays. Know the basic plays.

How do you learn to play poetry slam strategically? By getting involved in your local poetry slam on a regular basis. Contact the Houston Poetry Slam Slammaster who is ready and eager to teach poets to be the best poetry slammer you can be.


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