I’ve been writing slam poetry since middle school. Or rather, I was writing some weird combination of prose and poetry that didn’t make much sense to other people, so I kept it all between the pages of my journals. I didn’t know what to call my creations until high school, when Sarah Kay made her first Ted Talk (watch below!) about how to encourage new writers to start performing their pieces. From her, I started binge-watching every clip on Button Poetry, clicking between Megan Falley’s “Fat Girl” to Phil Kaye’s “Surplus” to Samantha Peterson’s “Dead Men Can’t Catcall”. Basically, I was hooked.
It wasn’t until high school that I ever worked up the courage to share my pieces; coincidentally, my first audience was one of VocaLady Magazine’s editors and writers, Darcy Brauchler, back in our high school’s old practice rooms. I took my laptop full of poems off with me to college, where I found my way into my first few slams. My sophomore year of college has been characterized by joining Binghamton University’s slam poetry club, where I’ve been work-shopping and slamming steadily for the past few months.
Nowadays, in addition to my already-eclectic college routine, it’s often disrupted by late night practices with friends in sketchy practice rooms in the basement of academic buildings; jotting down poem ideas in the middle of classes and lectures before the idea escapes me; and running from night classes to make it on time to open mics that will soon have my name on their roster. To give a better picture, back in the beginning of this semester, someone had asked me for a fun fact about myself. I told them I was a slam poet. Now, I’m finally starting to feel like one.
Still, new adventures in writing leads us to new life lessons. Slam poetry means something different to everyone involved, but for me, it has taught me quite a lot about the world, and about myself.
1. You’ll make some of your best friends in slam poetry.
I remember my first few slam events, where I kept urging my friends to join me so I wouldn’t have to go alone. I was so anxious over being on my own at events where I was about to tell a room full of strangers weird, intimate details about my life. Now, those strangers have become my friends. When you stick around the same people to read poems to, and hear their work in return, you bond more than most people. Even worse, you get weird inside jokes. (For my Binghamton slam people, “¡Hace más palabras! Drop the pen! Go write a poem about it!”)
2. What happens in a slam, stays at a slam.
There’s a certain level of trust in a poetry slam, with the biggest part of it being that whatever you share with the audience will be kept in confidence. The things you choose to talk about cannot be held against you, since you were the one with the courage to share it in the first place. That’s a very comforting part of slam—even if I find the confidence to talk about personal issues outside the comfort of a work-shop or practice room, there’s no fear. Just the relief of talking about it, and a response from the audience that tells me I’m not alone with my thoughts. Which brings me to…
3. Your poems will be more relatable than you think.
One of the hardest pars of being a slam poet is writing poems for a crowd. Surprisingly enough, though, many poets don’t care about it, and focus instead on writing for themselves, taking the opportunity to talk about their opinions and experiences. The reactions from crowds may vary, but there’s always people snapping along with you. I remember the first draft of one of my pieces, For When You Get Help, where I discussed my mental health and anxiety in my own terms. The crowd was virtually silent the first time I performed it, except one woman in the back who kept snapping for me the whole time. After my performance, she came up to me to thank me for sharing a poem that, she told me, perfectly described her own experiences with anxiety. It was her comments that encouraged me to revise and keep performing that piece, which is getting increasingly louder support from crowds. Slam poetry always reminds me that no matter how alone I can feel, there will always be people who sympathize with my writing.
4. The scores mean nothing.
This one’s a bit odd. I mean, slam poetry is inherently competitive. The score is the almighty indicator of a poem’s value—it always matters! Right?
Wrong. Poems will rarely receive the same score twice. One of my favorite pieces, How To Get Over Your Ex (In Ten Easy Steps), has helped me to win some slams…and gotten me eliminated from others. The judges used in most poetry slams are random people in a crowd, with their own biases and sympathetic responses. I’ll never see the same score for the same poem, because my audiences are always changing. That’s part of what makes slam poetry so unique—there’s no way to anticipate a competition’s outcome, so don’t take your scores too seriously! We always try to win, but it’s more about perfecting our own performances than impressing strangers; and, it’s all about supporting our fellow poets. Competition may be fun, but bonding over competition is even better.
5. You get what you put into it.
I started writing and performing slam poetry because I love public speaking, and I love having a more creative outlet for my writing that would otherwise sit alone in a desk drawer. But I continue to write and perform, because I’ve found it to be one of the most therapeutic methods of handling my stress and anxiety. It even helps me connect with other people who are experiencing the same problems as me, or can give me new perspectives on old ideas. By putting in this many hours, and dedicating myself to going to almost every workshop, slam and open mic that I can get my hands on, I get the most out of my experience. I get to see a real impact come about from my courage to talk about my own problems, and instead of being the victim, use these experiences to empower myself. That’s what I get out of slam poetry. And I hope I’m putting something into it, too.
Please see below for full versions of the excerpted poems from above!