Compiled by Carol Bodensteiner
European troubadours, Irish pub poets, Japanese partygoers collaborating to write a renga, and beatniks in the 1960s — all operated in the spoken word tradition. Modern-day poets revive that spoken tradition in poetry slams.
“Everyone has something to say, but most people never say it,” says Jim Coppoc, senior lecturer and poet at Iowa State University. “Slam is a chance to get up and get it out.”
Poetry slams originated in Chicago in 1986 as a way to spice up open mic nights at a jazz club. The format used then — a hosted presentation with poets reading their own writing and a panel of audience members serving as judges — continues today. Now slams are held nationwide, most often in university towns.
Coppoc acknowledges the personal risk involved when people voice their thoughts, but he describes slam poetry as “therapy from the mic to work out issues.” A slam poem may live on in anthologies, or it may never be heard again. “Slam is about the moment,” Coppoc says, “like jazz.” — CB
The spotlight shines on poetry during National Poetry Month every April, but look for slams throughout the year in local event listings.