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Hey, What Happens at a Poetry Slam Anyway?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Toronto MU chapter.

What do you think of when you hear the term “poetry slam”? Do you think about Button Poetry? Do you hear snapping and social justice warriors yelling into a microphone? Are you re-enacting that one scene in 22 Jump Street?


The truth is that people don’t know what to expect from a poetry slam, so with some personal experience and a lovely interview with published slam poet Twoey Gray, I’ve got the rundown on what goes down at your typical slam.

First and foremost, a poetry slam is a competition event. Poets get a maximum of three minutes to essentially “tell a story,” as Gray puts it, by way of spoken word. They are not allowed to have any accompaniment such as props and costumes; they just bring their voice. Poets are marked out of ten by five judges. Judges can be curated experts if it’s a final event, but for most poetry slams the judges are picked randomly out of the audience. No experience or expertise is required; the only criteria is that they have no personal connection to any of the slammers to avoid bias.

An audience member holds up their score at Poetic Exchange’s Oct. slam at Ryerson. (Facebook/CELESTE DANIELLA)

“The point of spoken word is giving poetry back to the people,” says Gray. By having audience members judge the competition, this ensures that poets are allotted points based on how their poems connect with the audience. Whoever wins the poetry slam can sometimes move along to a bigger competition—Ryerson, for example, is sending its top five finalists this year to the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational in Chicago. 

Twoey describes slam poetry as having three major components: writing, performance, and audience. The poem can be objectively well done, but audience interaction is what makes a poem successful. The crowd is encouraged to be loud and lively—you’ll see a lot more reaction than a couple of thoughtful snaps. People cheer, people laugh, people boo; basically, if the poem makes evokes an emotion, you let the poet know. You’ll also notice that there are certain protocols for crowd participation: for example, if someone yells “Don’t be nice!” the appropriate response is “Be nasty!”.

Kevan Davidson, who took first place at Poetic Exchange’s finals in November, performing an emotional poem on race. (Facebook/SOPHIE MASSON)

The content of a poetry slam knows no restrictions. Often poets will draw from their personal experience. After a three-minute performance, you might feel as though you’ve known the poet for a lifetime, simply because they‘re so brutally honest in sharing parts of themselves most people would never think to expose. Topics can include race, sexual assault, identity, mental health, love, death—anything that affects people on any scale. Social justice is a common theme at poetry slams, however the tone doesn’t always have to be serious. A poem can make you laugh until you cry, or make you laugh then cry; there’s no telling how you’ll be influenced. Furthermore, you’ll be truly amazed by how intricately some poets weave metaphor and other devices into tell their stories. Sometimes, a line will be so breathtaking that the crowd can only respond with silence.

It’s true that poetry slams aren’t for everyone. If you are on the fence about attending one, however, I would seriously encourage you to try it. Slams are one of the most welcoming spaces you can find, because every one is there to respect and encourage free, honest expression. Poetic Exchange, a student-led group at Ryerson, holds a slam and a spoken word workshop every month. They’ll be taking a break next month for exams, but they will be back with another event in the new year! Check for updates on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Twoey Gray performs at Poetic Exchange’s October slam. (Facebook/CELESTE DANIELLA)

Photo credit: Header Image1, 2, 3

Third-year journalism student at Ryerson University. Enthusiastic about enthusiasm, arts and culture, and dogs. Not a devout follower of CP style (see: the Oxford Comma). Campus correspondent for Her Campus at Ryerson. 
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