A poetry slam is an event in which poets compete with gorgeous spoken word performances before a live audience and a panel of judges. The concept was invented in the 1980s by Marc Kelly Smith, a construction worker who thought poetry was losing its passion. He wanted to make poetry events more engrossing and energetic. His idea of a poetry slam was to let it be open to anyone who was willing to participate. The judges would be five random people from the audience who’d rate each performance on a scale of 0 to 10. Out of the five scores, the highest and lowest scores were dropped. The three remaining scores were added to give the poet an overall score. The poet with the highest score at the end of the competition was deemed the winner with the best slam poetry!
Marc’s original framework of a poetry slam is still followed, with little tweaks. The art form is getting increasingly popular across the USA, Europe, Canada and Japan. Today, you can experience the rich celebration of poetry through slams from the comfort of your home. You can watch both live or recorded performances online or be lifted by sheer eloquence when experiencing slam poetry events in person.
Slam poetry is democratic. The only criteria for winning is your ability to move the audience with the power of your poetry. With the tense political climate and unending biases, slam poetry events feel like precious protected corners. It fills me with joy and courage to see so many people speaking their truth out loud, through poetry. The experience of a poet performing their own piece can be moving and cathartic for both the poet and the audience. I encourage you to watch or participate in slam poetry events and let yourself feel all that they can make you feel.
Here’s a compilation of some of the best slam poetry to send shivers down your spine.
1) “Mama” by Emi Mahmoud
“I’m not saying dating is a first world problem, but these trifling motherfuckers seem to be.
The kind who’ll quote Rumi, but not know what he sacrificed for war.
Who’ll fawn over Lupita, but turn their racial filters on.
Who’ll take their politics with a latte when I take mine with tear gas.
Every guy I meet wants to be my introduction to the dark side,
Wants me to open up this obsidian skin and let them read every tearful page,
Because what survivor hasn’t had her struggle made spectacle?
Don’t talk about the motherland unless you know that being from Africa
means waking up an afterthought in this country.
Don’t talk about my flavor unless you know that
My flavor is insurrection, it is rebellion, resistance
My flavor is mutiny
It is burden, it is grit and it is compromise
And you don’t know compromise until you’ve rebuilt your home for the third time
Without bricks, without mortar, without any other option”
2) “Why are Muslims So…” by Sakila and Hawa
“No graffiti artist is going to tell me to go home
No Call of Duty player is going to threaten me
No overprotective bigot of a mother is gonna ruin my day
No ignorant bystander is gonna leave me feeling left out
No tumblr post is gonna scare me away
And no biased border patrol is gonna stop me from seeing my family
Because today is one of the holiest day of the year
And instead of spending time with my family,
I’m up on stage defending my family.”
3) “Hair” by Elizabeth Acevedo
“They say Dominicans can do the best hair.
I mean they wash, set, flatten the spring in any loc
but what they mean is we’re the best at swallowing amnesia,
in a cup of morisoñando, die dreaming because we’d rather do that than live in this reality, caught between orange juice and milk,
between reflections of the sun and whiteness.
What they mean is, ‘Why would you date a black man?’
What they mean is, ‘a prieto cocolo’
What they mean is, ‘Why would two oppressed people come together? It’s two times the trouble.’
What they really mean is, ‘Have you thought of your daughter’s hair?’
And I don’t tell them that we love like sugar cane, brown skin, pale flesh, meshed in pure sweetness.”
4) “Adrenaline Rush” by Rudy Francisco
“Once, a friend of a friend asked me
why there aren’t more black people in the X Games
and I said, ‘You don’t get it.’
Being black is one of the most extreme sports in America.
We don’t need to invent new ways of risking our lives
because the old ones have been working for decades.”
5) “What Kind Of Asian Are You” by Alex Dang
“Let me tell you about being so marginalized, it’s to the point of ‘I really can’t believe that’s Asian!’
Let me tell you about derogatory terms and origins of words such as: chink and gook
let me tell you about the struggle of Asian parents not knowing the language,
Ate pet food because it was cheaper
Let me tell you about the job of interpreter
When you’re still playing with Lego blocks but your English is already that much better than your parents
Let me tell you about honor and dignity
Let me tell you about a society that projects us as nothing but the secondary role and never the leading man
Let me tell you all the things you don’t want to know
like how chink,
comes from the clinking of metal to railroad as the slaves built train-tracks for this country to be connected”
6) “Fight For Love” by Andrea Gibson
“Thank you for telling me there’s no need
to open our relationship because being with me
is already like being with fifty
impossible people. Thank you for accepting
my friend request for the fifth time this year.
Thank you for screaming
all the way home from that straight bar
to the bed where our bodies made up
while the full moon flew through the window,
and a firefly poured into the room
and landed in your hand, which you opened
like a ring box, and asked me to marry you,
and we were so new, I blushed
instead of answered.
But a firefly is forever and you know what my answer is.
A firefly is forever. And you know what my answer is.”
7) “The Period Poem” by Dominique Christina
Know how to let things go,
How to let a dying thing leave the body,
How to become new,
How to regenerate,
How to wax and wane not unlike the moon and tides,
Both of which influence how YOU behave.
Women have vaginas that can speak to each other.
By this I mean, when we’re with our friends,
Our sisters, our mothers,
Our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up.
My own vagina is mad influential.
Everybody I love knows how to bleed with me.
(Hold onto that, there’s a metaphor in it).”
8) “Translated Disney” by Diksha Bijlani
“I am a descendant of a family of multilingual folk
who are synonymous to non-English speaking.
Who sent me to English school so I could be better than them,
Because speaking English in India is status
English in India is, ‘Look, I have a verbal Mercedes!’
English in India is sucking up to the colonialists,
but forgetting they left a long time ago.
The first time I dated a white guy,
I would sometimes let words from my native language
slip into a text out of reflex,
and he’d dismiss them as typos.”
9) “Principles” by Danez Smith
all lives don’t matter
the same as all lives
some lives matter
only to themselves
some lives matter
only they hood
some lives matter
of fact & some lives
up for debate
all lives matter
but what about
this life of mine?
& black as it is?
what my life mean to you?
am i talking to you?
do you wish me justice
or do you wish I would just
shut up already, vanish already?”
10) “In My Skin” by Sha’Condria “iCon” Sibley
“This is a poem for every poem that uses cliché wordplay and metaphors
to conceal a disgust for makeup under the mask of empowerment.
You know the queen-you-don’t-need-makeup-to-make-up-for-something-you-are-lacking poems.
That are as overdone as YouTube eyebrow tutorials.
I hear you. But your preference for natural beauty hasn’t been there on the days I’ve been brave enough to face the world bare-faced
and you forced your stares, comments and recommendations into my already irritated skin.
It has not been there on days when no matter what I tried, acne and eczema were still hell bent on leaving their mark.
This is not vanity, it is survival.
It is the only way I can avoid the smudges of your jokes smudge off on the collar of my self-esteem.”
11) “Pocket-Sized Feminism” by Blythe Baird
“Once, I told a boy I was powerful
and he told me to mind my own business.
Once, a boy accused me of practicing
misandry. ‘You think you can take
over the world?’ And I said ‘No,
I just want to see it. I just need
to know it is there for someone.’
Once, my dad informed me sexism
is dead and reminded me to always
carry pepper spray in the same breath.
We accept this state of constant fear
as just another component of being a girl.”
Books by Blythe Baird: If My Body Could Speak
12) “Joey” by Neil Hilborn
“When I wanted to
open myself up and see if there really were
bees rattling around in there, my parents got me
a therapist. I can pinpoint the session
that brought me back to the world. That session
cost seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars
is two weeks of groceries. It’s a month of bus fare.
It’s not even a school year’s worth of new shoes.
It took weeks of seventy-five dollars to get to the one
that saved my life. We both had parents that believed
us when we said we weren’t OK, but mine could afford
to do something about it. I wonder how many kids
like Joey wanted to die and were unlucky enough
to actually pull it off. How many of those kids
had someone who cared about them but also
had to pay rent?”
Books by Neil Hilborn: Our Numbered Days
How to Find the Best Slam Poetry Events
Here’s some sources to find the best slam poetry near you (both online and in person!):
- Eventbrite: Find events based on your geographical location
- Poets.org: Have this on your radar for poetry readings, workshops and slam poetry events!
- Brave New Voices: This is an international slam poetry competition. Check out their website to register as a participant or show your love and support for all the brave new voices from the audience.
You can also frequently flip through the cultural events section of your local newspaper and mark your calendar for any upcoming poetry slam event. I hope you invite poetry in and let it open you up in ways you haven’t before.
For more insights on the best slam poetry, check out 10 More Poetry Slam Videos You Must Watch and 14 Gorgeous Poems Written and Performed By Poets Of Color.