On Poetry Slams: Winning Insights from a Judge

Poetry Slams by nature, ought to be fun. That is the first piece of the puzzle. Fun entails that poems must be cleverly written to interest the audience and judges, and do right by their subjects and message. The poems admitted on the stage are expected to give a refreshing experience to those in attendance. Poems that win at poetry slams have certain elements that make them fun, powerful, memorable, and just unignorable. The following are some of the wrinkles that need to be ironed out regarding winning at a poetry slam:

Appearance: This is not even a poetry slam code but just presentational code: if you are standing in front of people you need to look the part. Now, looking the part is very subjective, and so I request you to interpret it as looking like you want to win, to be taken seriously. Conjure confidence, carry yourself around as a winner because you are the performance: how you look and how you deliver.

Poetics: In as much as performance poetry is common to lack richness swelling in page poetry, it is poetry nonetheless. Therefore, it should have poetic elements otherwise it will not be poetry. Slam-winning poems are no strangers to having poetic qualities. A message with poetic elements properly sprinkled here and there into a shrewd performance easily becomes a slam-winning poem. 

Length: Moderate is always best. Not too long and not too short. In performance poetry, as in a slam, short poems usually fail not because they lack quality but because their length on stage is not long enough for audiences to fully immerse and drown in their creativity. The audience would still be settling into a short poem by the time its performance finishes. Therefore, a long enough poem in the least captures the audience into its reality and then takes them on a journey or nowhere, a place where they will follow the poet mindlessly.

Choruses: A poem with chorusing lines, wildly sweet-to-say-along-lines, here and there is a very engaging, participatory, and memorable poem, and to perform it is to want to turn an audience into instant fans and cult members. The mind is hooked on those repeating words, hence it will retain and celebrate the performance involving them. The audience is likely to forget your name but will still remember those repeating lines of your poem. See, loyalty can be bought just with your choruses. Beyond helping you to drill your message into the hearts of attendants, repetition is good for regaining your confidence and taking control of your performance. Be mindful, however, not to overdose chorusing, otherwise, it will kill your performance.

Information overload: Too much information, too many details spoil the flow and understanding of a message being delivered. This information overload is burdensome and hurts the brain, ending up boring and irritating the audience. Plus, the last thing a Slam needs to become is a TedX Talk event or a dissertation defense session. Poets must cleverly, minimally, and precisely share information in their poems in a way that does not seem too lecture-ish or seminar-ish. People come out to slams to wind down, to cool off from the pressures of the world, so give them a rest–a pool, a space-ride, an experience full of ease and excitement–even if your message is serious and boring. Make it work.

Simplicity: “Easy, does it.” Whatever you do in a slam keep it simple, sometimes silly, and relatable. Use common images, topics, and experiences to explain even the most uncommon, seemly inappropriate, and harsh subjects or events of life. Half the time, by stepping on that podium people think you are smart, you have no business coming off as complicated or an expert at diction working to confuse them (unless you can handle that well). There are so many forms of poetry you can use to write and perform your poem, make sure you pick a form and style that allows you to be your best and gives your poem the best chance of appealing to the audience.

Technical-overload: Just because poems need to be poetic does not mean that all we should hear is this thing rhyming with that even if they do not make sense or have no necessary business in the thought or poem. You cannot afford overcrowding metaphors, puns, rhymes, etc., around in a contest without deliberateness. Any word you include in your performance must be good for the performance, must be helpful increasing chances of you winning. At the end of the day, in a slam, judges and audiences want to experience more than just your rhymes. Know why you are using what you are using in your poems and performances, it must be in the best interest of your performance.

Theme: Respect the theme, which is usually the why the event is on. You can be good everywhere and still miss on the theme if it is a themed event. Acquaint yourself really well with the theme as you prepare your assault. 

Glitching: Practice, practice, and practice your performance before you get on a slam stage, it is not a place for rehearsals. It is a contest stage, a stage where only the best work should stand. When you choke or forget your lines at an Open Mic, that is beautiful and poetic, but when you do that at a slam that is an insult and assault at the art form; it shows sheer lack of preparation, lack of respect for the event and the craft, and unworthiness for the prize. Reading sometimes can cause this glitching; it is advisable in most slams to not read because it robs the audience quality engagement with the material being recited, and also weakens the poem’s ability to immure the audience in its full quality. Should you read at a slam, do it perfectly in a way that the reading does not sway your audience from the whole performance to it.

Alternating Pace: You do not want your performance to sound like a Gen-set, or a hammer mill, monotonously irritating. Eventually, people will grow tired of your voice and words, and then you. You want to be alternating the pace of your performance; sometimes it is fast and other times slow; sometimes loud while other times low. This “wakes up” the audience keeping them on their toes, and energizes them.  Above all, it keeps your storytelling flowing well and being followed attentively.

Body Language: Some of my favorite slam-winning poets use this to their advantage: Vanessa Chilufya, Chris Njamba, Chindo Na Matthew, MessenJah, and Mwelwa Oncos come to mind. There is something they do with their hands, their faces, their whole bodies that is deliberate and attention-demanding in their performance. Performance is a luring activity, you are selling yourself to the audience for them to give a care. Your body language is part of the performance, and it asserts your confidence and composure. Performance poetry, slamming for that matter, is largely a battle of confidences. It is basically a match of who will say what confidently and convincingly.  When you emote your poem’s message and words, you begin to control those in attendance and manipulate them into feeling what you want them to, thinking how you want them to, and owning your performance in ways they would not have if left to chance. By doing so, you develop a greater edge over an opponent who just stands still and recites his or her poem.

Audience: The audience is your main ally and competition, always remember this. They are the ones you should prepare to matter to. They are easily swayed but if you do the right thing, touch them in new and genuinely creative ways, they will defend and carry you throughout the entire contest. No audience or stage is the same. With this, comes wisdom that you must take some time to understand the moods and kinds of people present before the event, research it. Speak with the audience in your performance, do not talk at them or talk down on them, but converse with them. With the right words and the right tone, they will agree with you, join you in chorusing your lines, and will repay you with similar kindness and goodwill. Now, if this happens, chances are that they are not wrong and the day may eventually be yours too.

In all, Poetry Slams are a good experience for a growing poet. They are a learning experience, a baptism by fire if I may; filled with different artists representing different issues, realities, and schools of thought. At a slam, you find poets who make people laugh, and do not proceed to the finals and then you find others who move audiences to certain emotions or truths through their well-put-together performances, and these poets often win. Reading this, I hope you will look within and correct what must be. Good luck to you all in your future poetry performances and slam appearances.

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