The University Record, March 11, 2002

Slam seasons: New fad or old standby?

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

The Slam Season is under way. With more than 90 certified poetry slams across the country—events in which participants perform their work and are judged by members of the audience—performance poets are lining up to show their stuff. Last year’s National Poetry Slam’s finals attracted an audience that filled a 4,000 seat auditorium in Seattle, where 56 teams and 238 participants went head to head. An equal, if not greater, audience is expected at this year’s finals in Minneapolis in August, says Deborah Marsh, national secretary of Poetry Slam, Inc., the official nonprofit organization charged with overseeing the international coalition of poetry slams. Marsh also has been the coach for U-M’s slam teams.

On campus more than a hundred people regularly take their seats to watch and listen to participants compete for the best in satirical art.

Reintroduced in Chicago in the 1980s, the competitions spread rapidly, eventually emerging into a slam circuit, slam masters, geographically organized leagues such as the Midwest League and the Southern Fried League in North Carolina.

But can Chicago really claim the birth of poetry slams? No, says Derek Collins, professor of classical studies. The ancient Greeks started the craze. “They held poetic competitions at large public festivals as well as at local festivals, performing within such genres as tragedy, comedy, and even snippets from Homer. Rhapsodists recited with a competitive zeal their own works as well as different scenes from the Iliad and Odyssey, all before live audiences.”

These poetic warriors often were financed by autocrats, Collins says. “They were like the rock stars of today—pop icons.” Except, if the audience laughed in the “wrong” places, the competitor likely would not be paid.

Guilds existed for the training of rhapsodists. And improvisation not was only accepted but encouraged—what in today’s slams is referred to as extemporaneity. And there were games such as skolion, which means crooked, where participants could show off how educated they were by handing off lines of lyrics between participants.

These local competitions took place at dinner parties where participants also stitched songs together often connecting the beginning of one with the end of a song or poem. Sound familiar? Consider the rap music with its rhythmic and/or rhyming speech.

U-M, site of the 2001 collegiate national finals, will host a slam at 9 p.m. March 15 in the Michigan League Underground to celebrate women as part of Women’s History Month. The featured poet will be Natalie Knaizk.