A Crash Course in Slam Poetry

7 min read

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Nichrysalis's avatar
There are ten days left to submit to the Louder Than dA Bomb submission folder. With that being said, I'm putting out an article that offers some tips and quick solutions to problems a poet may be facing when writing their slam poem. But very quickly, I would like to address a stigma surrounding submitting "great" work to contests.

I'll keep this brief. The world is not set to your pace. Or anyone else's really. Everybody's just trying to keep up. This line of thinking can't be taken to the publishing industry (for those that would like to publish) or anywhere else for that matter. Applying the thought to your art or literature that unless it was created under certain circumstances is to not take your work seriously.

If you don't believe you can write and read a slam poem in ten days, I'm here to tell you different and to tell you the ins and outs of slam.

Slam Poetry 101

Slam poetry works the way it does because of a few key elements, all of which the poet must infuse with energy.

A Good Topic

The topic you choose to write about and perform should be one you are familiar with and feel strongly about. The more knowledge you have of the topic the more material you will have to work with. A good topic isn't about choosing something popular, but choosing what is on your mind that makes you feel something, whether that emotion is positive or negative. A slam poem with a good topic should be written plainly and clearly for the audience.


Passion is the driving force behind slam poetry. You must tell us the why's of why this subject is important to you and make other subjects appear minuscule in comparison, and by doing so, convey significance of the subject to others. Passion is implored in every part of the performance: gestures, tone, references, rhythm, phrases, word-play, your breathing, other vocalizations, and even the speed and acceleration of how you recite a poem. Passion radiates from a poet who feels strongly about their subject in their brittle-battered bones.

To Metaphor, To Narrative, or To Statement

Unlike poetry for the page, slam poems mostly rely on being either of three things or a combination of any of the above.

A metaphorical slam poem usually works by representing the poet's ideology through a variety of techniques, such as a scene, objects, actions or series of images, like in Buddy Wakefield's slam poem, Human The Death Dance. Slam poems can also consist of one metaphor entirely, and in my experience work by either flipping the audience's expectation of the image or scene as a positive/negative image to the opposite or by stating the meaning behind the imagery and providing insight and shocking emotion into the listener.

A narrative slam poem is as straightforward as the name of the type of poem implies; it tells a story and the story is what drives the poem through tension and climax. Some people who write prose use this avenue to tackle subjects for slam poetry as they are more accustomed to it. The narrative slam poem is usually used for topics that are shocking, revealing, such as Nova Venerable's Apartment on Austin Street. The audience often trusts the writer that this narrative experience is a true, personal account when written in first person and is not when written in other point-of-views (you may want to keep that in mind for possible ideas).

A stated slam poem consists mainly of straightforward statements directed to the audience, such as Taylor Mali's famed What Teachers Make, and is a type of slam poem that relies on each sentence holding up the next, building on each other with tension and a succession of topics. Slam poems such as these are written a lot because they make use of repetition oftenly, and repetition is a powerful motivator to an audience when used properly and engagingly. This makes it more challenging to write such a poem that stands out among the many that have been written before, but they have also proven very successful throughout the years.


Repetition is essential to any type of poetry, whether the reader is aware of it or not. Stretch the boundaries of repetition and use it in various ways or turn it on its head and write something unexpected with what is assumed to be repeated. Finding the right words to repeat without having redundant concepts will further highlight the content of your poem.

Read, Write, Repeat

Upon finishing a draft for your poem, you should now read it aloud to yourself a few times, definitely more than once, and put yourself in the audience and not as the reader. If you find awkward phrasing or words that don't connect with what you want to say or don't match how you want to perform it, then it's time to isolate those areas of the poem and begin revising.

One thing to take a look at is to see what words you are using and if they can be replaced with more 'hard-hitting' terms, both vocally and emotionally. Remember to keep your poetic devices at the ready: allusions, rhyme, assonance and consonance for starters. Then repeat.

You do not have to make a "great" piece of writing to compete in a contest. Though it is about putting your best foot forward, you do have to use your other foot sometimes. ;) There is no shame in doing so.


© 2013 - 2021 Nichrysalis
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MattVoscinar's avatar
Spoken word poetry in general is such an interesting art-form. Understanding page vs performance is a key distinction that a lot of people can't really wrap their heads around. Then, when it gets into slams, it's even more of a disconnect. The competitive nature of slam poem makes the stakes higher and I think that is where people are becoming concerned.

I think for this particular contest, people need to realize that this isn't actually as brutal as a real slam. You have time to prepare your video several times over, fix your words as you record, etc. When you attend a real slam if you mess up, you're going to get it from both the crowd and the judges. This allows for revision during your performance.

I also think the very idea of writing a "great" poem is a bit far-fetched, considering that each judge has an entirely different aesthetic. Do the best you can with the tools you know how to use and let it be. I got fourth place in my first slam...out of four. Losing isn't the end of the world nor does it mean your poems "suck" or "aren't great." It just means you got the bad hand with the judges.

Basically: write your poem, conquer it, perform it, win at life.
MattVoscinar's avatar
A note: I am not advocating writing doo-doo on purpose.
electricjonny's avatar
Heh, well I've posted this a few times, on this series or other, but I would like to get some feedback on it. [link]

I like to think of this as one of the best slam poets ever :slow: It was performed back in 1999 or so, and I really think it's great.

What say you, poster of this series?
Nichrysalis's avatar
Damn. Bookmarked. That is the type of exploration of self we're looking for in this contest. Just wow.
electricjonny's avatar
Heh yeah, really an honest self exploration of his self there, right?
Nichrysalis's avatar
Nichrysalis's avatar
:lol: I'm facepalming right now because I remember forgetting to listen to this, if that makes any sense.... I shall be back!
cakecrumbs's avatar
Awesome article. I've recently fallen in love with slam poetry and have spent hours watching button poetry's channel on YouTube. Well done slam poetry is just phenomenal.
TuesdayNightCompany's avatar
Thanks for the links to the vids!
But I'm a long way away from ever recording my own voice. Yeesh. I'm doing the public a favor.
Nichrysalis's avatar
MattVoscinar's avatar
I had this same feeling when I started recording. Then I learned it doesn't matter how I feel about my voice because other people seem to enjoy it. You should do the same.
TuesdayNightCompany's avatar
Should I come out of the mid-2000's and get a recording device beyond my flip-phone, I will do so.
MattVoscinar's avatar
If that's all you have, use it. Your computer doesn't come with a microphone?
TuesdayNightCompany's avatar
I'll give it another shot.
Nope. Mid-2000's all the way, baby.
K47454k1's avatar
Shane koyczan's, sarah kay, anis mojgani all thank you.
MattVoscinar's avatar
Nichrysalis's avatar
maxnort's avatar
I can record now. hakko was written more than a week back. it's fresh meat. red flower blue thorns. red flowers blue thorns. I'm a poet on the edge ---

one thing I can do with some of my poems that isn't readily obvious (I don't use keywords): stick them together with minimal transition to vary length as required. same poem, different years? hey, it happens. even if someone ITRW finds this place, they still never know what they will get.

I studied line interchangeability and optionalness once; where lines can go in any order, or can get left out on a whim and the thing still makes some sense:
inches away,
across the infinite chasm
the space between here,
inside, I am trapped without
narrowing or growing I feel
the distance never changing
never bridged disconnected
I am left broken failure,
and there, outside, just
out of reach she lies
the point is: pick and choose anything from your catalog if it helps you.
Nichrysalis's avatar
Interesting. Most interesting....
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