Words, rhythm, and rhyme. Now’s the time. Let ‘er shine. If you write it, slam it, you’ve got it. If you don’t, keep your day job.

                A poetry slam is a competitive art event in which poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience and a panel of judges. While formats can vary, slams are often loud and lively, with audience participation, cheering, and dramatic delivery. Hip-hop music and urban culture are strong influences, and the backgrounds of participants tend to be diverse.[1]

                Marc Smith gets the credit, or the blame for creating the genre in 1984.[2] Some like it. More don’t. The Perspective offers three reasons why it’s, at best, a lesser art form. “Slam poetry is not poetry; it’s little more than angry yelling. It is limited in what it can express . . .  it isn’t a unique art form . . . and not everyone buys it.”[3]

                That said, The Perspective also offers a positive notion.  “It offers an outlet of communication, as does poetry. “From finally telling your parents what you really feel or think of them to communicating your delicate feelings about politics, slam poems supply the same outlet to unleash your inner convictions and random musings as does written poetry. For example, Grand Slam Poetry Champion Harry Baker performs a powerful and amusing piece about prime numbers, while sticking to all the elements of spoken word. Yet, there are many written poems expressing a fascination for prime numbers as well; both modes of expression are able to convey similar ideas, albeit by using different tools. The human voice captures emotion as well as the written word; rather than assessing the nature of Slam as “other” than poetry, it makes more sense when viewed as an enhancement of what written poetry already does, i.e., each are art forms that provide a way to effectively communicate emotions.”[4]

                Imaginated.com offers a physical description. “You walk into a dimly lit room. The air is charged with excitement as you take a seat among the other audience members. Suddenly, a voice booms from the stage, commanding your attention. It’s a poet, but unlike any you’ve ever seen before. They’re not reciting words from a page, but rather delivering a performance filled with passion, rhythm, and emotion. This, my friend, is the power of slam poetry. Slam poetry is a unique and dynamic form of spoken word art that has been growing in popularity over the past few decades. . . It is a way for poets to break away from traditional forms of poetry and connect with audiences on a more personal level. Slam poetry has spread all over the world and has become a platform for individuals to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences through a powerful combination of words and performance.”[5]

                If you’re in need of a little pick-me-up, then you might try this beginner’s guide. “You don’t read Slam Poetry alone in your room at midnight by candlelight. You participate in Slam Poetry downtown shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers. Slam poetry is poetry snatched from the rich elite and placed on the tongue of the ordinary working class like an acid tab. A distinguishing feature of Slam Poetry is that it is a social event. It brings together like-minded people in a friendly competition. The aim is to showcase their talents without the drudgery of academia or bringing in the commercialized publishing industry.”[6]

                Apparently, a key to either liking slam poetry or hating it, lies in the obvious; Do you like fast-paced, loud, controversial, political topics? Or do you prefer slower, more reflective themes like love, loss, and identity? The key denominator is understanding that poetry, either slammed or spoken word requires a clear understanding of the personality differences in the differing audiences. “Slam Poetry emphasizes performance and is judged by the audience, while Spoken Word incorporates storytelling, poetry, and music to connect emotionally with the audience. Slam poets use repetition, rhythm, and relevant themes to captivate their audience, while Spoken Word artists carefully choose their words, and use metaphor, imagery, and rhythm to convey their message.”[7]

                What are the ethics of delivering slam poetry as opposed to writing poetry? Is the former more challenging because it involves a good deal of hollering about other people? Does the fact that slam poetry is almost exclusively about other people, while written poetry is often softly spoken about the writer matter?

                The Association Of Writers & Writing Programs has considered these questions. “At the outset, there is a significant goal that separates the ethics of one versus the other; the concept of othering. In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself. How poets achieve that othering, that is, their avenues or methods. . . extending one’s vision beyond the self is important to good writing. Poetry should expand our sense of what it means to be human. . . ethical disjunction for their readers. Ethics is the systematic endeavor to understand moral concepts and justify moral theories and principles. Concerned with what “ought to be,” ethics seeks to effect change. . . In one sense, poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself. How poets achieve that othering, that is, their avenues or methods concerns me here. Poetry should expand our sense of what it means to be human.”[8]

                At its core, all writing is governed by four basic ethical principles. “Ethical writing is writing that clearly indicates, via documentation, where source material has been incorporated into one’s own writing. Ethical writing is also writing that acknowledges a range of perspectives on an issue. Ethical writing is writing with a level of inclusion, respect, and acknowledgment of diversity. The importance of ethical writing, then, is based not only upon the avoidance of plagiarism but also avoiding the weaknesses of bias and exclusive language, sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.”[9]

                At the risk of gross overstatement, Slam Poetry poses significant risk of ethical avoidance, if not ethical violation. Slamming anything, including poetic expression, is a challenge when the effort is advanced by yelling, hollering, damning, or demeaning another person or point of view. Its narrow focus leaves little room for inclusion, respect, or diversity. And, although debatable, the basic notion of making a point by slamming it home does not square with the basic premise of slamming—which is to focus audience attention on something that they might find unlawful, undesirable, unfair, salacious, or just plain mean.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetry_slam

[2] How Did an Architect of the Slam Poetry Scene Become Its Public Enemy No. 1? ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com)

[3] https://www.theperspective.com/debates/entertainment/is-slam-an-accepted-form-of-poetry

[4] Ibid.

[5] What is Slam Poetry? (Definition, History, & Examples) (imaginated.com)

[6] What is Slam Poetry?: A beginners guide – Pick Me Up Poetry

[7] https://whenyouwrite.com/slam-poetry-vs-spoken-word/

[8] https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/writers_chronicle_view/2241/poetry_ethics_writing_about_others

[9] https://www.kent.edu/stark/ethical-writing-reliable-sources

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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