POETRY SLAMS are a growing form of dramatic expression that are giving students of all academic abilities the opportunity to write and perform poetry. Young people who may be shy can learn to express their passions, win recognition and make some friends. They can write about what is important to them through Spoken Word clubs.

Amaya Hamilton loves being a leader on the Hollywood Hills High School Spoken Word Team. About two years ago, she saw a Spoken Word competition and knew it was for her.

“It stole my heart and I fell in love with it,” said Hamilton. “I love to write and perform poetry. When I perform I step out of my box. I am in love with being in front of an audience and put effort into my poems.”

Hamilton placed third in a major Spoken Word competition and is hoping to participate in more competitions. “I write about love and the experiences my family has had,” she said.

Her father is from Nicaragua. “I’ve written about the struggles my father and many other people have had in trying to cross the border to get into the United States. The border has separated many families.”

Poetry Slams are a Form of Performance

A poetry slam is a rhythmic performance of poetry and is a way for young people to participate in poetry tournaments and performances. They get to participate in a competition and enjoy time with other young people their age.

Iseanyi Uwadia is a top student at Hollywood Hills High School and really loves Poetry Slams. She’s won tournaments and loves being on the team. “I write about things that are part of my life like my favorite songs. I’ve struggled to find my voice but I love to perform and being part of the Spoken Word Club. I’m looking forward to more competitions.”

Uwadia become involved in Poetry Slams as a freshman and loved the chance to work on poetry, express herself, make new friends and win competitions. “I worked hard and won the Talented Ten which is a huge competition. I call it performance poetry and love writing a poem that shows how I feel about something, like a favorite song and giving a performance in front of an audience,” she said. 

Spoken Word and performing in Poetry Slam competitions isn’t always easy for students. Uwadia had to work hard to overcome performance anxiety and she wrote and performed a poem about her struggles to find her voice. “This isn’t something you can put a half effort into. You have to put a full effort into Spoken Word and you have to work at it every day,” she said. 

Poetry Slams Aren’t Just for Students

Emonde Prosper, the drama and debate teacher at Hollywood Hills High School has led students to success in Poetry Slams. And she’s won Poetry Slams herself. She’s seen students who’ve struggled academically blossom through Poetry Slams and Spoken Word events. 

“It started in Chicago in the hip-hop culture,” said Prosper. “It helps kids build their vocabulary and develop their imagery, literary, and performance skills. They learn you can play around with words and create great poetry and good performances. I’ve watched kids who were awkward grow as people and learn to express themselves. I’ve seen them learn how to do research and create good presentations.”

Poetry Slams Help Develop Academic Prep Skills

It takes academic work to become good at slam poetry. Students must work on writing a strong poem and this often involves using a dictionary and spending hours and hours writing and editing a poem. Then the competitors must memorize the poem and practice presenting it. “The presentations can be raw and cathartic and the students really love presenting their work. They often show raw emotion in the competitions,” said Prosper.

The Spoken Word competitions are run like traditional tournaments. They are usually conducted in four or five rounds and teams compete in each round. The rules of the competition are often determined by the people running the competition.

The Benefits of Poetry Slams for Theatre Students

Poetry Slams are a great way for theatre students to get practice performing in front of a welcoming and supportive audience. They’ll get practice using a microphone and captivating audiences through words, voice inflection, and body motions. Typically in slams, poets aren’t allowed to use props.

“The best way to find Poetry Slams either virtually or locally is through social media. Searching poetry, poetry slam, or spoken word will usually help people find posts and events. There are also a lot of performance examples on YouTube,” said Mia Pino, diversity, equity and inclusion manager for ACUI, which promotes campus organizations. 

A Brief History of Poetry Slams

The Poetry Slam movement began in 1984 as construction worker and poet Marc Smith began a poetry reading series at a Chicago jazz club, the Get Me High Lounge. He wanted to improve the open mic poetry format. There was an emphasis on performance. In 1986, Smith approached Dave Jemilo, the owner of the Green Mill, a Chicago jazz club with the idea of hosting a weekly poetry competition on Sunday nights. On July 25, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born. Judges were chosen from the audience and cash prizes were awarded.  The Uptown Poetry Slam became extremely popular.

In 1990, the first national Poetry Slam was held on October 18 in San Francisco. There were four-person teams from Chicago and San Francisco and an individual poet from New York. The Chicago team won the composition and Patricia Smith of Chicago won the individual competition.

In 1991, Chicago hosted a national competition with teams from eight cities including Boston, Cleveland, and New York. The team from Chicago won. Marc Smith, the organizer, called it the National Poetry Slam.  

In 1996, Filmmaker Paul Devlin shot the film SlamNation at the Nationals in Portland which opened at the Sundance Film Festival two years later. This competition brought 3,000 people and 27 teams together for four days of competition. 

By 2004, the Poetry Slam movement had to deal with massive growth. Marc Smith was named the official founder. The first World Poetry Slam was held in Greenville, South Carolina, and poets from around the world were invited. 

In 2008, the first Women of the World Poetry Slam was held with only women competitors and officials in Detroit. The organizers received the Spirit of Detroit Award from the City government.  

DAVID VOLZ is a South Florida-based writer with 30 years experience as a journalist, writer, editor, and photographer. 


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