Slam poetry is a forum not a form
And the difference is u --
Something living, someone alive,
It’s the difference between a boulder, unmovable
And being bolder, or
At least moving
Toward each other
Because the difference is u.

I am a poetry slam coach at a high school. We just finished our third year of competing in Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), “the world’s largest youth poetry festival.” This year around 90 schools competed and in about a month’s time, over 1,000 poems were read. That’s undeniably cool.

Yet I resisted the slam scene at first. I’ve been teaching for 25 years but slam coaching for only a few. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with slam. My wife and I were among the first audience members at the Green Mill, a local bar known for jazz sets by singers Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling. When my wife first let me know about Marc Smith’s slam poetry at the Mill, I was a little skeptical, but in those early days we heard some fine poets, including Marc Smith, Regie Gibson, and Patricia Smith (that rare poet whose work is as impressive on the stage as it is on the page). I just didn’t want to think of poetry as a competition.

The gimmick – in case you haven’t seen movies like SlamNation or last year’s excellent Louder Than a Bomb – is that poets perform before a panel of judges who rate the poems on a scale of 1-10. Smith’s idea was that the judges were arbitrary – untrained barflies who’d usually rather be watching a Cubs game on TV than listening to poems. He wanted people to care about language. “The point,” as they say, “is not the points. The point is the poetry.” Slam poems are kept to three-minute maximums, and there is a DJ onstage who offers musical fills and sometimes witty musical rejoinders to the poems. It all feels a bit like a rock concert.

Looking back, my initial reservations now seem rather petty compared to the beauty and power of most of the slam scene. What’s more, I have come to see the power of slam poetry firsthand. My daughter, Alison, is a veteran slam poet and a senior in high school. It was she who convinced me to start the team at my school, and the results for her have been tremendous. Not only has she written more, but she has also gained confidence and made friends with people from all over the Chicagoland area.  I, too, have come to think more about performance in my teaching and my poetry than I ever had before. And, as one of my fellow coaches put it: “Worst case scenario:  slam poetry is a gateway drug that might lead a whole new generation of young people to appreciate poetry and to care about language.”

Originally Published: April 4th, 2012

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...