We Need More Poetry Slams

Photo courtesy of Katrien Grevendonck.

I found my first poetry slam in my freshman year of college. Not Cleveland State, but Lakeland Community College—a school that sat just a brief trip north along I-90. My English professor hosted what he called Artageddon: an opportunity for students to showcase their talents through poetry, short stories, and more. When the first speaker stepped onto the stage, all eyes fell on them. The only thing left to do was listen.

The readings were passionate and provocative. Every speaker had something to say about the world and their place within it. There was a palpable energy to their words—a vibration that hummed just beneath the surface. I could sense, even then, that their words had power.

The word “slam” itself comes from the idea that an audience can either applaud a performer’s work or tear it to pieces. The first poetry slam presumably took place in Chicago 1986, after a writer named Marc Kelly Smith transformed dull poetry readings into something more explosive.

Over time, slams have grown into what they are today: groups of people, big and small, who gather to listen to each other recite poetry. In most settings, the slam is a competition with judges who select a winner, though this is not always the case. Sometimes they simply give space for poets to hone their craft and meet others in the community. Poems are usually written by the poet themselves and can be about anything under the sun. It doesn’t matter who you are or how you identify—anyone can perform.

Poetry slams can take place almost anywhere, including coffee shops, libraries, parks, or bars. Colleges are also known to hold poetry slams on campus to grant exposure to writers and performers.

That’s the heart of slam poetry—the performance of it. It’s one thing to write a poem, but quite another to stand in front of a crowd of people and move them with its meaning. The poet is judged as much by their words as they are by their use of tone, pacing, inflection, and volume.

While there are certainly merits to reading traditional poetry, slam offers something new and exciting. It’s a chance to share your thoughts on anything from race to gender to religion, whether that means shouting your words at the top of your lungs or bringing it down to barely a whisper.

So, here’s my question: If there are so many advantages, why doesn’t Cleveland State hold any slams of its own?

There’s CSU’s Poetry Center, which has hosted readings and other events in the past besides publishing the works of local authors. As noted in their mission statement, the Poetry Center’s goal is to promote poetry through its readings and community outreach. We reached out to the Poetry Center directly, and they confirmed it: they are a small press poetry publisher and do not host student-run poetry slams.

What about other opportunities on campus? There is the One Mic Series, “a celebration of music, art, and poetry” hosted by The Office of Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement. The One Mic Series will only last for the duration of Black History Month in February. But that’s about it.

Poetry slams are in short supply at CSU. Maybe it’s time we changed that.

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