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From Chicago to Manchester, slam is one of the largest poetry movements in recent decades to take the world by storm. This is the abridged story of slam, travelling thousands of miles, from humble beginnings to a global phenomenon, and how it became an important thread of Contact’s DNA.

Slam Papi

In his own words, Marc Smith, A.K.A. Slam Papi, is ‘the culprit who started the poetry slam’. In his TEDx talk, he says ‘there’s a tradition in the slam world that when I introduce myself, the audience responds with ‘so what?’, so let’s start there.

So what? Why was the poetry slam movement so important and, why was Marc Smith so integral to it? The movement began in 1986, hosted by Marc at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown Chicago. He believed that “the very word ‘poetry’ repels people… we need people to talk poetry to each other”.

Slam was his solution. It brought the art of performance and poetry back together again, and ‘gave it back to the people’.

Now for an introduction from Slam Papi!

That’s right. You, the audience, are in control. If you don’t like it, dig your heels in!
In the end, that’s just what Marc did with Slam: he stuck it to the man.

    ‘Performance, in my opinion, reveals the genuine meaning and passion of a poem. It is no longer a dusty museum piece or stuffy scholastic exercise. Its life, it’s immediate, it’s vital…’

    Poetry went from dry readings by establishment poets, where ‘no one was listening’, to a place where the audience didn’t have to endure poetry they didn’t like.

    Now, here’s a game of spot the difference.

    Going Global

    ‘There are now Slams all over the world!’ despite being called an ‘abomination’. The performance of poems in this way, rather just reading, remains a controversial issue in the elite corners of the poetry world.

    Harold Bloom from Yale University’s, the Paris Review, wrote ‘Of course now it’s all gone to hell… this isn’t even silly, it’s the death of art.’ The resistance from academics and elite poets did nothing to stunt the widespread growth of poetry slam. It entered the mainstream; Roger Ebert journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote it ‘was a pop culture phenomenon’

      ‘…and we been keepin‘em up to date with sacred gibberish like ‘sho’nuff’ and ‘it’s on…’

      Saul Williams

      In 1990 the first National Poetry Slam was held at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Just four years after inception it was a national event. The event has taken place every year since and often attracts audiences in the thousands. Paul Devlin’s feature-length documentary film, SlamNation (regarded as “Slam’s Second Bible”) follows the Nuyorican Poetry Slam team (Saul Williams, Beau Sia, muMs da Schemer and Jessica Care Moore) as they competed in the 1996 National Poetry Slam.

      Here’s Saul Williams.

      On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

      At either side of the pond, a rise tiding in spoken word and performance poetry was happening simultaneously. Two decades before slam landed on our shores, Apples and Snakes was hosting weekly spoken word events upstairs in a London pub called Adams Arms. Early flyers describe these events as ‘poetic cabaret’, and billing usually included music acts as well as comedians. Here’s the full story of Apples and Snakes.

      At the new millennium, Apples and Snakes began looking to establish new settings for live poetry, some of the most memorable are ‘Aisle 6’ (at Asda) and ‘Bus Jam’ (on London Transport double-deckers). At about the same time, slam poetry became a popular form of expression in youth culture. In an interview with The Independent, Saul Williams says:

      ‘The resurgence of poetry is cyclical and perpetual. It’s always engaged a new generation of youth who have brought it back to the forefront of culture and put new terms on it, whether it’s beat poetry, bebop poetry, slam poetry – there’s always been these resurgences. But it’s ancient.’

      Making it Manc

      Spoken word took an important place in Manchester’s history as well. In 2004, Young Identity was founded, beginning as a youth art and performance project. Since then, it has grown massively, and Contact has been working in partnership with them since 2008, regularly co-presenting slam events in and outside of the building.

      In 2006 things came to a head. Across the UK, youth slam poetry and spoken word movement were making waves; arguably the largest poetry movement in recent decades. Young poetry pioneers were demanding to be heard, to compete and to express their passions and frustrations on their own terms. WordCup, a knockout spoken word competition in which poets are judged for their composition and performance, came in answer to the rising youth culture and was officially the UK’s first national youth slam event. Founder, Apples and Snakes, described it as ‘a national spoken word event for young people’.

      This competition happens once every four years to coincide with the football world cup, and in 2010 it was held in Manchester. Can you name the building in this short film documenting the competition? Hint: it begins with a ‘C’.

      It’s safe to say spoken word and poetry slam is alive and well. We’ve got an event coming up, don’t you know? But don’t just take our word for it, trust Doug instead. If something can be stereotyped in mainstream media, well then, you know it’s gone big.


      Thursday 28 November, 7pm
      Band on the Wall

      Join us for a boisterous night of poetry and music at Manchester’s legendary Band on the Wall.

      Book here