The reason for judging slam poetry is to add drama to poetry events. Impromptu audience judges have done this job so far. But this poetry form was introduced 30 years ago. That’s before the internet. It is time to kick up the drama several notches and focus on the next level. The explosion of visual, on demand media requires a more compelling spectacle to keep interest from sagging in old venues and to jump start future venues.
The judging aspect of slam poetry has not developed over time. If judging is primarily for drama building then there should be no objection to more and better dramatic devices. I’ve been annoyed for years by meaningless one to a hundred scores (1 to 10 by tenths of a point) based on spot impressions in a context free setting.
Fake judging does not substitute for real drama for long. Real drama is found in the real world where there is a clear distinction between winners, losers, and big losers. The existing “sacrificial poet” concept for attempted calibrating purposes admits to the problems of point creep and fake precision. It is clear from watching slams that the patch isn’t holding.
I am offering an alternative that is more than a patch or a gimmick. I call it “racehorse slam” because it is based on 3 and only 3 judgements: “win, place, or show” in heats (races) of 5 or 6 poets in each heat. Rather than baseless “points”, poets are judged by their relative “place” within a small group. It is not necessary to have an overall winner between the heat winners in the same night. That can be a separate event.
How do we make this process visual? I believe multi track marble runs, one track for each poet, is the way to go. These runs can be simple structures or elaborate kinetic sculptures. I recommend that the runs have lights and sound effects. I’m experimenting with several designs.
You can’t talk about judging without talking about judges. Currently, the audience judges are not clearly seen by the rest of the audience. They are not part of the visuals. Being selected on the spot out of the audience is real randomness but fake democracy. Everyone has biases and the elimination of the top and bottom scores is another failed patch to moderate that bias.
Why not celebrate that bias in the service of drama? Select 3, not 5, judges in advance. Because we’re not doing the patch thing we don’t need 2 superfluous scores to eliminate. Judges should be costumed in plain view. For example: Riot gear, clown face, and reaper outfits. So people will be judged by “the Man”, “some joker”, and “Death” – just like in real life. How much more dramatic can you get?
Here is how it all works. After each poet has taken their best shot, each judge will drop either a blue (3 points), red (2 points), white (1 point), or green (0 points) marble into each poet’s track. All marbles will be released at once to much fanfare. They drop out of the run into clear bottles with the poets’ names on them. The results are immediately obvious. Ties are possible.
A separate, straight track is used to enforce the 3 minute rule. At 3 minutes into a poet’s slam a judge releases an old bowling ball down the track. The poet’s grace time is the amount of time it takes the ball to run down the track and into a garbage can which triggers an annoying alarm. This is another added source of drama.
Obviously Slam Poetry 2.0 has a lot of changes to get used to. That is why I’m waiting to see if these catch on before implementing some others. At some point a venue will be ready to move to Slam Poetry 3.0. This will move the poetry spectacle into audience participatory theater. It will involve the marble runs but also add a dramatic opportunity to over ride the judges’ verdicts. It is time that slam audiences get a chance to do something creative about the judging other than heckle.