Slam Poetry as Ritual by Melissa Rose, organizer and performance poet

Slam Poetry Rules:

­3 minute time limit­

­Original work only­

­No props/music­

­5 Judges are selected randomly­



I found my voice on a slam stage when I was 15 years old. Stepping on that wooden platform in Campbell, CA in a theatre packed with cigarette smoking, loud mouthed twenty somethings and way past my curfew I had no idea what a poetry slam was. I just wanted to read aloud the rushed words I had been filling composition notebooks with. To validate my angst and get applause. After I finished my poem and walked back into the darkness with the other spectators, I knew that something changed in me. That when the audience applauded it wasn’t because they liked me, but it was because they understood what I was saying. That they connected with me in a way that was impossible in other contexts. I could express myself in conversation, but onstage, my voice carried a sense of importance.


I find that people gravitate to poetry slam and connect with it for different reasons. I’ve seen audience members watch poetry shows for years before deciding to step on the stage and take some limelight for themselves. To make their own voices heard. That’s part of the magic of the art form. Anyone can do it. Everyone’s voice is valid. Everyone has the opportunity to say what needs to be said. Despite the judging, slam has crafted its own space in the literary world uniquely; with poets who can perform just as well as they can write. Poets, who can connect with an audience emotionally through their authenticity. Slam blends theatre, literature and activism into a real­world real time experience of short performance art. The judging is just a side piece to the main course. A gimmick to keep the audience coming back. Poetry Slam is about storytelling and reflection. Slam poets have a wonderful ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to see itself.


In my 15 years in the slam poetry scene I have seen the art form grow and change with the times. Slam poetry has gone from coast to coast and beyond the United States; changing and evolving depending on the local culture and its needs. In recent years, the scene has changed again with the popularity of Youtube and for the first time, people who have never been to a poetry slam in person can finally see what all of the fuss is about. From the comforts of one’s computer screen, slam poets and slam poetry has been offered a platform where the audience stretches far beyond the confines of a crowded bar or theatre… to the millions. Websites such as Everyday Feminism and Upworthy regularly feature slam poetry as a way to convey information about important current events, social insights, and powerful personal stories.


I’ve had a hard time convincing others that Slam Poetry is considered a valuable form of literary art , let alone a form of literary art anyone had even heard about. 10 years ago when I  described myself as a slam poet, I was dismissed by other writers and academics who found the art form “too theatrical”, or didn’t understand the art form at all. To this day, the term “slam poetry” is still easily defined by outsiders, but not fully understood. In his article “Slam Poetry Does Not Exist”, Chris Gilpin brings to light that in recent years the term “slam poetry” itself has become it’s own genre of poetry in the minds of the mainstream:

“The negative impacts of adopting the term slam poet are far ­reaching. The idea of a singular, formulaic genre called slam poetry creates an artificial barrier for those who would like to share their work at a slam because it gives the impression that they are writing the wrong kind of poetry if it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s.”


Gilpin notes that with more exposure, “slam poetry” is now used as a way to describe a singular style of performance poems, making the culture and scene more visible, but less accessible as a result. The constrictions of what people expect “slam poems” to sound like in the contemporary scene make it more difficult for poets who don’t “fit that mold” to feel like it is a place and a space for their voices . Gilpin himself mentions how some of his students don’t think they can even participate in a slam because their poems don’t “sound” like slam poems. Simply put: what a slam poem is is always open to interpretation. As long as the poet and the poem fit the requirements of the rules, it is a “slam” poem and they are a “slam” poet. Slam’s strength as an art form may be its ability to challenge molds. From the start, Slam Poetry and the world of literary writing have butted heads. Some slam poems might resonate well on paper, but Slam is something that has to be experienced to truly understand. It is, much like live theatre, an experiential art form.


While many of the poems written for slam can translate well to the page and visa versa, the live performance, the poet’s voice and body language add a dimension to the poem itself that cannot be felt as strongly on paper. This is why traditionally, most slam poets in the American slam scene memorize their work instead of reading off paper. While no props or costumes are allowed on stage, there is no rule against utilizing microphones, mic stands or using other innovative performance techniques such as back flips and walking through the audience in order to make the message of the poem more effective.


Good poems, like many other art forms, evoke a strong emotional reaction from the audience. I’ve experienced poems that have caused just as much anger and outrage as they have caused healing and dialogue. Slam poetry in the United States tackles a multitude of subjects. Technically, nothing is off limits, but in general, the art form in the USA pays close attention to current events, social awareness, and self-reflection. Poets may use the platform to tell a story, or voice an opinion, or to simply have a few minutes on stage to engage with an audience. Not everyone uses the slam art form for therapeutic reasons. Some (like myself) do and have used it this way. As the child of an abusive and addicted household, I found that expressing the aftermath of those experiences not only helped me process them objectively, but by performing those pieces in front of others I had the opportunity to engage in a cathartic experience and truly be at peace with what I had gone through. Audiences going into a poetry slam might identify with a poet or the story they are telling and find catharsis through experiencing that with the poet together, forming a strong human connection. This act itself can be a healing event for an entire community. Storytelling itself is a powerful tool for social and personal change. Caren S. Neile explains this power in her essay “The Gate of Heaven”:

“If we consider that a storytelling audience is, as noted earlier, a co­creator, sharing ownership of the storytelling event, we see that the audience is an active­­and essential­­participant in the storytelling ritual….A storyteller requires an audience to complete the ritual”


Academic research has proven that writing is therapeutic, but other disciplines such as Drama Therapy has shown that performance is just as powerful in processing events and trauma. We as communicative creatures can blend both into 3 minutes of power, declaration and ritual through the poetry slam experience. Whether you are on stage or observing the poets who are, you are participating in the experience. Slam is in fact a ritual. The details might be a bit different depending on where you are, but the same structure proves that this is more than just a “show”. Slam poets are spellcasting. A good slam poet can make you feel exactly how they want you to feel. They can communicate their message in a way that stays with you. That changes you. That makes you think differently. The true power of the art form is the poet’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the clear focused moment when a message is communicated with truth and authenticity.



About the author:

Melissa Rose has been performing her poetry in the United States and Europe since 2001. She is currently the Executive Director of SIREN, a non profit organization that uses spoken word to empower teen girls.


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