When a poetry slam is staged at “Substanz”, a club in Munich, hundreds of young people come to listen. Such events are not exclusive to big cities, however – in small towns too, countless writers get together to pit their texts against one another in the hope of victory. So what exactly is a poetry slam, where does it come from – and why is it so successful in Germany?
The poetry slam is a relatively new format that brings literature first to the stage rather than onto the pages of a book: poems are presented to the audience one after another by their (mostly young) authors – the order is determined by a draw, and a strict time limit is set for each reading. A jury or the audience then chooses a winner.
Slamming from Aachen to Zwickau
The format emerged in the 1980s in Chicago as an offshoot of open mic nights; in the early 1990s, the trend also caught on in Germany when artists, journalists and writers brought the idea over from America.
Soon the first slams were launched in the big cities – in Munich, Hamburg and Berlin. The Munich poetry slam, which is held on a regular basis at the Substanz club, has been in existence for more than 15 years, and with average audiences of 400 is one of the biggest slams around.
The format is so successful that many smaller towns also regularly play host to poetry slams these days: more than 500 German event organizers are registered on the central myslam.net platform, from the “satznachvorn” slam in Aachen to the “Brandsätze” slam in Zwickau. In addition, a national slam is held once a year. Regional contests take place, the winners of which then battle it out in the German final – a style of competition otherwise found only in the world of sport. This “championship” sells out weeks in advance.
Permeable boundaries – both downwards and upwards
Poetry slams can be defined only by their external characteristics – typical elements being verbal delivery coupled with a performance and competitive character. The types of texts that are performed at poetry slams could not be more varied: alongside poems that function primarily via rhythm and rhyme, prose in miniature also features.
Not even music is off-limits, and the boundaries – whether to rap and hip hop or to cabaret – are permeable: these days, poetry slammers Marc-Uwe Kling and Sebastian Krämer have also made a name for themselves as musicians and cabaret artists. Anything goes, so long as it finds favour with the audience.
“Texts performed at slams tend to be geared very much to generating laughter and applause. To put it simply, they need to tell ten jokes in five minutes. They have very clear mechanisms by which they function,” is how Finn-Ole Heinrich describes the principles. At the same time, he admits: “Texts are loud. Nuances, embellishments and quieter sections get lost in the general hubbub, or are difficult to get across.” Perhaps because this is exactly what their literature intends, some authors go beyond the poetry slam scene in their writing and sooner or later leave it behind them in search of success in the established literary world, as in the case of Michael Lentz, Tanja Dückers and Judith Hermann. And indeed like Finn-Ole Heinrich, who won the 2012 German Children’s Literature Award.
Verbal delivery and performance characterIt is here that the upwards permeability of the boundaries is most clearly evident – when authors devote increasing attention to the performance of their texts. Nora Gomringer believes it is important “generally to propagate the verbal nature of the written word and to fight to ensure that the performance of a text is taken at least as seriously as its creation.” Finn-Ole Heinrich also confirms that preparing his delivery is an important element of his art: “Sometimes it is a good idea to work with film snippets, sounds, music, dancers or actors. I am fundamentally open to other art forms, because they interest and inspire me, and because they often give rise to new and unexpected things. And because one can shake up reading formats and audience expectations. I take my audiences seriously, and expect quite a bit from them.”
This is precisely what former slammers bring to the established world of literature. Nora Gomringer agrees: “A live performance offers both speaker and text the opportunity to put themselves to the test and act as a mouthpiece. Audiences judge, laugh, yawn, leave or stay on the ball. I take the audience seriously.” The desire to break free from conventional reading formats and perceptions of literature and instead to edge closer to theatre and performance is a phenomenon that is also currently reflected in the search for new formats at literature festivals like the Prosa Nova in Hildesheim.
Literature event – or original literature?But why is the poetry slam experiencing such a boom in Germany – why is it so successful? There have been many attempts to explain why this should be the case. For example, because it is a platform upon which young authors can present their own texts to the public, providing access, in other words, to the literary world: a place – even before the days of the Internet – where anyone can get up and present or perform their writing.
Another part of the slam’s appeal lies in the close interaction between audience and artist. Because the poetry slam is a format that has given literature back a small part of its original raison d’être – its verbal nature, its direct interaction with the audience, its proximity to music and to public performance. Because the poetry slam is a format that is fun, turning literature into an event a bit like a rock concert or a football tournament. In this sense, the poetry slam is therefore a format which puts the excitement back into literature.