Poetry Slam Strategies: How to rule round one

In the poetry slam world too many poets focus on the points, or they focus on performance over content, or basically they focus on anything other than the poetry. As long as poetry slam exists, these issues will linger. With that being said, let’s talk poetry slam strategy!

I know what you’re thinking: didn’t I just say that poetry slam should focus on the poetry and not the points? Yes, this is true. However, I’m going to assume that you’ve got your poetry chops sharpened and you have some kick ass material (and I’ll be writing further on these topics, just in case you need some pointers). Let me say this briefly: have good poetry.

You may have great poems but you need to know how to navigate the murky waters of a poetic competition. Winning isn’t everything but anything worth doing is worth doing well. And I feel like sometimes a poet has to get out of their head, off the page and on to the stage. The strategies I will be discussing will not lead you to fame and glory. They will simply help you have a more successful slam experience. And maybe you’ll win a competition or two along the way.

Let’s begin at the beginning: the first round of the slam competition. The first round of the slam is crucial. This is where you make your first impression. There are two major elements to consider during the first round of a poetry slam: (1) the audience/judges and (2) yourself.

Here is the core of a successful round one slam strategy: lead with a strong piece. Of course you think all of your poems are great, but you want to start off with a poem that is road-tested and ready to wow the crowd. Here is how to choose a solid round one poem:

  • Select a familiar piece that you’ve read at least a few times
  • Make a statement but don’t take sides straight out of the gate
  • Stay away from anything preachy (this is a rule in general)
  • Choose a piece that uses your full performance range (slow, fast, loud, soft, etc.)
  • Don’t pull out the emotionally devestating poem yet

So, why do this? You want to come out of the gate confident. You want to walk onto the stage for the first time in each bout feeling like you’re in control. You want to walk on to the stage in full command, knowing that the poem you’re about to perform will deliver. This confidence will show, trust me.

If you decide to try out a new poem, or a weird poem that you’re not sure about, then you’re starting off on shaky ground. And you don’t want set the evening off with a low score. This can wreck your confidence and then you’re fighting an up-hill battle in rounds two and three.

Let’s talk about the audience and judges. You know what they say about first impressions and this goes for slams as well. Go ahead and wow them from the start (with a strong poem). This way, you start off on top and you’ve built up a little equity when you decide to bust out a new/b-side/weird poem later in the bout.

Remember, for the most part, the crowd and judges are here to be entertained and stimulated. They are rooting for you and they want to hear something awesome. Deliver a piece that gets you excited and will get them excited as well.

This is a rough outline on how to rule round one in a slam. Start off strong, confident, and ready to command attention for the next two rounds. Save the “difficult material” for later in the bout. We’ll discuss rounds two and three later… so stay tuned!

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