Slam Poetry -- "The Points Are Not The Point"

Mar 26, 2020

National Poetry Month is coming up in April and earlier this month Kishwaukee College held an interactive poetry workshop called, “So You Wanna Be a Slam Poet.” 

Bear Wolf speaking to workshop participants.
Credit Yvonne Boose

Some people may be familiar with spoken word poetry or may have attended a poetry reading. Bear Wolf is the adjunct professor of English at Kishwaukee College. He said there is a slight difference between spoken word and slam poetry. 

“The slam is the competitive part. You have a 3-minute time limit. You get two rounds. Your points are added up to see if you can get to the final round.”

Wolf said these points are determined by random judges and they judge on a scale of one-to-10.

Matt Weibel is the assistant professor of communication at the college. He said people should be authentic when they are performing slam poetry.

“We don’t need another Taylor Mali; we don’t need another Bear Wolf. We need a you. We need you to be your own poet, to have your own style, your own flair.”

Taylor Mali’s poem, “What Teachers Make” was one of the examples that Weibel and Wolf used during the workshop. The performance is on YouTube. Here’s an excerpt of that performance.

“I make parents see their children for who they are and who they can be. You want to know what I make. I make kids question. I make them criticize, I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write, write, write and then I make them read.”

Wolf and Weibel also shared a couple more examples. Omar Holmon and A.R.'s, “Open Letter to Black People in Horror Movies” and Asia Samson's “90s Love.” Below is an insert from “90s Love.”

“I want to love you like the 90s. I want to love you like Jordache backpacks and Trapper Keepers. I want to love you like you love your beeper.”

Wolf said slam poetry shouldn’t be a cookie cutter performance.

“The beauty of poetry slam is that it’s whatever you want it to be. The whole point about the points that they do -- even they say at every poetry slam that you go to -- the first thing that they tell you is the points are not the point.”

He said the points do not indicate the poem’s quality.

“I’ve gone to slams where I’ve given it my all and I get a low score and I then I feel bad. But on any given day it just depends on what the audience is there for, what they’re looking for, what they like. So just do it because you love it.”

Wolf also said it’s OK to use profanity when performing but it isn’t always necessary.

“So, I encourage you, when you do use profanity in poetry, to find a different way to say what you want to say. So that when you do use profanity, it actually has more of a meaning behind it, it has more oomph to it.”

Wolf said another way to be effective is for the poet to recite the poem like they mean it. He said the poet should memorize their poems.

Matt Weibel
Credit Yvonne Boose

Weibel said there are things that a poet can do to help them memorize their poem. One way would be to look in the mirror while delivering or even recording their performance.

“Along with that I would say practice it in front of people. Because you don’t know, 'oh this line was funny' or 'I didn’t realize that' until you actually had that experience.”

Wolf said poets should let others critique their work.

“When I first started out slamming, I was one of those rapid fire, just go, go, go, go.  And several people would come up to me and say, you’re saying some really cool stuff but I’m missing most of it.”

He said another thing a poet should do is take theater classes. He said there is a key theater rule; let them laugh. He said the audience needs time to respond to what is being said.

Hannah Sutter is a student at Kishwaukee College. She is working on her associate's degree in arts, and poetry is one of her electives. She delivered a portion of Jared Singer’s poem, “The Entomologist’s Last Love Letter (Words).” 

“I do mean lovely, dice him into tiny pieces. She eats every morsel. Even exoskeleton must go. She does this so that she has a first meal to regurgitate to feed their children, now that is dedication.”

Hannah said she likes how flexible slam poetry can be.

“It’s a medium where you can appreciate other people’s styles but you don’t always have to imitate them. You can also bring your own style and communicate cross culturally.”

And the communication of love can expand across cultures. Here’s more from Sampson’s poem, “90s Love.”

“Love never needed 2,000 songs, it only needed three albums: 'Together Forever' by Shai, 'Heartbreak' by New Edition, and the 'Boomerang' soundtrack. I want to love you like a time way back when lyrics would describe exactly how I feel.”