How To Get Started in Poetry Slams

Poetry slams are Olympics-style poetry competitions, judged by randomly selected members of the audience.  Poets must read original work, and no props, music, or costumes are allowed.  They are held at local, national, and international levels, with thousands of participants across the country.  Created by a construction worker in Chicago in the 80's, the poetry slam movement has enjoyed national success over the years, spawning multiple documentaries, hundreds of slams, and even an HBO hit television show!  With no signs of stopping, getting into poetry slams is easier than ever. 

  1. Go find some poetry.   Much like how a painter cannot paint without his quiet fruit, poets cannot write good poetry without having experienced their peers and the poets before them.  Go to your local bookstore and dig through the poetry section.  Go to your local open mic and get a feel for what recited poems sound like. 

  • Write poems!   Poetry slams are events made to help share poetry, so you need the most critical ingredient: the poems themselves.  Write about anything and everything.  Practice writing the same poem from different angles, perhaps approaching the same subject with a different tone, or perhaps writing a scene from another character's angle.  Focus on writing with concrete imagery and a voice that will be comprehensible to an audience.  Slams often have three minute time limits, so time your poems as you read through them.  If necessary, edit down to meet the time constraints.
  • Memorize your poems, and practice reading them aloud.   This can be in your mirror, in the shower, or on the car drive to work.  Learn your poems backwards and forwards until you can literally recite them while watching television or typing an e-mail.  Slams can be intimidating for the uninitiated, and being confident in your memory is a great stride towards overcoming rookie nervousness.
  • Choreograph your body.  You'll look very awkward if you're standing on stage, arms at your side, perfectly still, as you otherwise animatedly read your poem.   Practice acting natural, like you're telling your friend a funny anecdote.  Keep your hands out of your pockets.  Let your body be expressive.  Watch yourself in a mirror and see if you look more like a person or a pole.
  • Find a slam.   Googling the name of your city and "poetry slam" will often be all you need. also has a city by city listing, though it is often inaccurate.  Always call ahead to verify details.
  • Sign up and slam.   Slams usually have 6 to 9 participants, and have multiple rounds.  Be sure to have multiple poems on hand if you plan on reading enough poems to win the slam.  But always remember Allan Wolf's adage: the points are not the point, the point is the poetry. 


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