How To Win Poetry Slams

Poetry slams are Olympics-style poetry reading competitions, where five judges randomly selected from the audience score poets from 1 to 10.  Since slam's inception, it has spawned an HBO television series, a Tony-award winning Broadway production, and been the subject of many documentaries.  

With judges randomly selected from the audience, poetry slams can be literary events, or they can be popularity contests.  Sometimes the judges bring common sense, other times they bring dice.  While it is difficult to consistently win poetry slams against talented performers, you can maximize your own consistency in placing well.  Being able to put up consistently high finishes is the key to winning a slam league or tournament.

  1. Read and write all the livelong day.  Read poems online, in literary journals, in books.  Sharpen your writing skills so that your poems are thoroughly edited and polished.  Find poets who are willing to offer criticism and listen to them.  Read their work and comment on how it can be tuned-up.  Being in a community of writers is the best way to make rapid improvements.
  2. Develop confidence and stage presence.  Both of these traits come from experience, so go to your local open mics and read.  Prepare one or two poems a week and hit as many venues as possible to get in a lot of practice. In a month you'll have read over 40 times, and will begin to naturally have a knack for listening and responding to an audience.
  3. Watch the best.  DVDs are available of top competitors, and can be bought at and other sites around the internet.  There are DVDs for Nationals since 2000 and Worlds since 2004, and studying them gives you a great perspective on what poems look like at the highest level of competition.
  4. Understand the two forms of scoring: cumulative rounds and clean-slate rounds.  In cumulative round scoring, a poet's score is added from round to round, and the winner of the slam is determined by the highest cumulative score.  In clean-slate, a poet's rank is determined round to round, without considering their previous scores.  It is possible for the overall highest scoring poet to come dead last in the last round of a slam!
  5. In cumulative round slams, read your best work early.  As slams progress, score margins begin to decrease, to it's important to take the biggest lead you can, as early as you can.  In clean-slate slams, you want to save your best poem for the very last round, and read whatever poems you can to make it into the next round.
  6. Establish synergy within your poems.  The audience is always viewing you as a character, whose stories you tell through your poems.  Think about how reading different combinations of poems over a night changes the way your character looks, and what kind of persona you can create.  Sometimes, you want to be very serious and political, and will read three consecutive political poems.  Other times, you'll want to be more lighthearted, and you'll read something easier to digest.  In general, the most believable persona you can create in your poems, the better you'll perform in the slam.


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