In 1984, construction worker and poet Marc Kelly Smith started a poetry reading series at a Chicago jazz club, the Get Me High Lounge, looking for a way to breathe life into the open mike poetry format. The series’ emphasis on performance laid the groundwork for the poetry which will be exhibited in slam.
Smith approached Dave Jemilo in 1986, the owner of the Green Mill (a Chicago jazz club and former haunt of Al Capone), with a plan to host a weekly poetry competition on the club’s slow Sunday nights.
Jemilo welcomed him, and on July 25, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born. Smith draws on baseball and bridge terminology for the name, and instituted the basic features of the competition, including judges chosen from the audience and cash prizes for the winners. The Green Mill evolved into a mecca for performance poets, and the Uptown Poetry Slam still continues nearly 15 years after its inception.
The first National Poetry Slam was held in 1990, and has become an annual event in which teams from cities across the United States compete at events in a host city. Slams have spread all over the world, with slam scenes in Hawaii, Ireland, Nepal, Canada, Germany, Sweden, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Austria, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, just to name a few.
Definition of Slam Poetry: A competitive poetry performance in which selected audience members score performers, and winners are determined by total points. Simply put, poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry.
In a typical competition, all poets perform one poem in the first round. Based on the scores they receive, the top-scoring poets go on to the second round, and from that pool, a smaller number of the highest-scoring poets in the second round go on to the third and final round.
While the specifics vary from slam to slam, certified slams adhere to this basic structure, insuring that poets must seek to make immediate connections with the audience in order to continue on. Cash prizes or other prizes are offered to the winner as further impetus for performing well. In most cities, the slam series culminates with a final slam at the end of the season to determine which poets will represent the city at the National Poetry Slam.