Slam Ethics: Once Qualified, Should you Continue Competing?

Last week (Thurs., Jan. 22) I was delighted to win the Edinburgh University Literature Society January Slam, thus qualifying for the Scottish National Slam (which will be held Feb. 26 in Edinburgh). However, I faced a bit of a dilemma because I was also slotted to compete in the National Library of Scotland Burns Night Slam the following Monday (last night, Mon., Jan 26). Part of me felt that it would be unfair to compete in the Burns Night Slam considering that I had already qualified for Nationals and, in the chance that I were to win, I would be removing someone else’s opportunity to qualify (especially considering that the NLS slam was the last open qualifier for Nationals this year). However, I had been invited to compete in the slam and my name had been used in promotional material, so it also felt unfair to the host to remove myself from the slam with only a couple days’ notice. Currently there are no rules regulating whether poets who have already won a slam are permitted to continue competing, so this decision was entirely up to me. It sparked an interesting question that I’ve been discussing lately with other poets in the Scottish slam scene: should poets who have won a slam and thus already qualified for Nationals be permitted to continue competing at slams?

My first reaction is to say no: once you have won a slam and qualified, it is good practice to remove yourself from the competition and allow others a chance to qualify. This ensures that the same people do not continue to dominate the poetry scene, winning slam after slam. It is important that the scene feel accessible and open to fresh voices rather than becoming stale. So far the Scottish Slam Champions of the past three years have generally abstained from competing in qualifier slams and have declined the opportunity to defend their titles: this may be out of a desire for fairness and allowing new voices to come through, to not intimidate newcomers to the scene. From my observations it seems that many poets in the Scottish slam scene who have already qualified tend to remove themselves from the competition, although this is a personal decision that individual poets make differently and some do continue to compete.

However, I also understand why imposing the rule that poets who have already qualified are ineligible to slam until Nationals could be problematic. Poets need to perform live in order to hone their craft and stay sharp. Performing at open mics and feature sets is one way to practice, but a slam is a different atmosphere: for one, it’s timed, but there are also additional stressors due to its competitive nature. If a poet wins a slam in March (the month after Nationals) and consequently becomes ineligible to compete for the next eleven months until Nationals, that would make him/her lose the opportunity to practice competing and seems an unfair disadvantage. Furthermore, poets who have been successful with one set of material may wish to see how another set goes over at a slam. A poet who has already qualified but continues to compete in slams with the exact same set seems unfair, but a poet who has qualified but competes with all-new material seems more acceptable.

In terms of the NLS slam, I ended up alerting the organiser of the slam of my situation, thanked him for his invitation to perform and for hosting the event, but declined the opportunity to compete and opened my slot to the first reserve. There were five reserves for the evening, which made me feel more comfortable with my decision: if there were no backup poets I would not have wanted to place that organiser in the position of being down a person, especially since the event was ticketed and high-profile. However, the situation changed on the evening of the slam: about an hour before it started, the organiser emailed me stating that five poets had just canceled, so he had called up all of his reserves and still required another poet. Since I was still planning to attend the slam anyway and was grateful to the organiser for his understanding earlier, I accepted and competed. In the final round I tested out a new, not-yet-performed-live poem because I didn’t want to use the same set I’d performed at the Literature Society slam the past week. I ended up winning the slam.

I do feel bad about claiming one of the final spots at Nationals when I’ve already qualified. The poets I was competing against at NLS are incredible performers who I very much admire and would love to see at Nationals. They are also friends, so there is an odd sense of having taken away a chance for them when that wasn’t my intention. It’s a strange position knowing that I have not broken the rules around slamming while qualified because there are no rules to break, but feeling that what I did wasn’t quite kosher. However, I do realise that the situation was unique due to the poets dropping last minute, and the other poets did seem to understand that my intent was not malicious. Sometimes in the competitive craze of slamming we tend to forget that it’s really meant to be all about the poetry. What I am most proud of last night was not the fact that I won but the feeling that onstage I was truly engaging with the poems I performed (I’ve been working on my physicality onstage) and knowing that now I have a better sense of how to perform the new piece I was testing out. Regardless, I am quite honoured to have won the slam and am very much looking forward to Nationals in February!

Poets and poetry slam organisers: Do you think that poets who have already won a slam should be ineligible to compete until Nationals? Should this be regulated or up to the individual poet’s discretion?

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3 responses to “Slam Ethics: Once Qualified, Should you Continue Competing?

  1. It would seem like the ideal system would be for those already qualified to be able to compete, but for the additional slot to just “pass over” them, should they win again, to the top competitor who hasn’t already qualified. That way you have the maximum of great poetry at every individual slam without limiting the field of poets who’d be able to perform at Nationals.

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  2. Tracey S. Rosenberg

    I think you raise very good points. Another issue is that slams are so unpredictable that winning one is no guarantee of winning another. Case in point: three poets who were in the Scottish slam championships competed the very next night in a different slam. One of us didn’t make it out of the first round, and the other two (one of whom came in 3rd at the championships) didn’t get to the finals. It’s not the first example of this type I’ve heard.

    “Best” is always subjective, and when it comes to slams this can be bewilderingly applied. I do think if someone is starting to dominate the scene, it’s a good idea if they dial back – but on the other hand, having a highly competitive scene means that everyone else ups their game. I’ve walked out of many a slam determined to write something better to compete with the people who won it. And if someone wins many slams and then gets knocked out in the first round of the next one, maybe it’s a wake-up call not to get too complacent!

    One way to balance this might be for slam winners to try and get out of their immediate area. Even going from Edinburgh to Glasgow means a whole new crowd, and it’s a way to keep competing and keep your skills up without being in the usual circle. I love going to slams in completely new places – gets me out of my comfort zone!

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    • Thanks for your comment, Tracey! That’s a great point about the unpredictability of slams and the subjectivity of the judging (and audience reactions) that evening. Definitely not smart to assume that winning one means automatic victories in the future! I agree as well that slamming in new places is such a great experience; hoping to do more of that soon!

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