Why isn’t anyone talking about the poetry slam? Out loud? Especially now?

Most poets are, would like to be, or consider themselves in the canon’s “official clutches”—the world of poetry célèbre-stars black-tie tributes, gleefully snarky NYT reviews, highbrow race wars, endowed chairs, “if-you’re-supposed-to-know-you-know” writers’ conferences, questionable monetary motivation, cliquish retreats, whiny readings in salons, form vs. free, poet laureates, and lifetime achievement awards for people only halfway through their lifetimes.

Historically, no one chose to pay attention to poetry slammers, those upstart young’uns with their sated audiences spilling out of sprawling arenas. There was no desire to sanction their blazing stanzas as true poetry because some unidentifiable voodoo made those stanzas come from a place deeper than their pens. Performing poems? And the ludicrous specter of poetry in competition? Many established célèbre-stars actually sniffed. Snorted, actually. Haughtily, and with malice.

What an insult to the art, the unforgivable cheapening of a grand tradition! Most of all, what these—ahem, poets—were doing was not sanctioned by the greater (as in “better than”) community. So what they were doing—on their glitzy stages, in rundown bars, “reciting” to each other, for Chrissakes, any damned where there was a microphone—was not poetry.

Well, well, well, despite all that misguided vitriol, look how gracefully we’ve all aged together. Hold on to your knickers, folks, because this summer the poetry slam—that competition of inflamed lyrical fisticuffs—will celebrate its 25th anniversary. The alternately revered and reviled life form has even managed to survive legitimacy.

Marc Smith, the ex-construction worker who is both blamed and blessed for this rogue offshoot of the genre, is plotting a week-long bash this July in Chicago, where it all began. Slam elders (I reluctantly consider myself among them until someone comes up with a better term) will flock to the scene of the crime, some lugging along grandchildren. We’ll reminiscence, imbibe heartily, cram the Green Mill, reflect and weep a little, put on a number of memorable shows, and perform poems that stunned audiences two decades ago. We’ll hobnob with a fresh crop of young’uns. And proudly sport our battle scars and talk about how poetry is better because we were there.

Sounds like a field trip? See you there.

If you were one of those haughty sniffers who missed out (and now, secretly, wish you hadn’t), download the e-book Blueprints at www.poetryfoundation.org/blueprints and have a look at “Second Throat,” my attempt to recreate the mood, merriment and madness of the beginnings of the slam. There was no other time like us. There was no other place like us. And still, 25 years later, absolutely no one sounds like us.

Because nothing like us ever was.

Originally Published: April 3rd, 2011

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...