"It's anybody in the audience saying whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it," explains Richard Green, an amateur poet and founder of the first ongoing slam in South Florida.
As usual our isolated tip of the Sunshine State is a little late catching up with major trends; the slam concept was introduced by poet Marc Smith at Chicago's Green Mill Tavern in 1987, and slam circuits now exist in most major cities. Teams from various coffeehouses do battle regionally and at an annual national slam.
For just over a year, Green has hosted a slam every Tuesday at the tail end of the general open-mic night at the Underground Coffeeworks in West Palm Beach. Becoming an instant poetry critic is apparently a popular pastime, because the slam has become so crowded that it now has its own night every Wednesday. Last week 19 poets read in front of some 130 people.
And because the five judges chosen from the audience each week aren't lit scholars, it doesn't take a profound slice of free verse to win. Rather, striking a chord with the audience is the key. For example Green, who's been writing poetry for five years, has won in the past with poems like "Picket Fence": "I drove my car through a picket fence/Don't ask me why, didn't make any sense/I didn't do it for vengeance/I didn't do it for fun/ Just seemed like something that needed to be done."
"For some reason people really like that one; I guess they can relate to it," says Green. But, he admits, "most of the slam poets that win don't do rhyming-type poetry, they do free verse." Winning entails getting the highest scores out of the judges, who score Olympic style, holding up placards that display numbers from zero to ten.
Green himself no longer reads, because as slam host his competing was seen by some as a conflict of interest. A laid-off construction worker, he now devotes his time to organizing other slams. He hopes to foster a circuit and hold a regional competition, the winners of which will represent South Florida at the nationals in Seattle next summer.
If the slamming sounds a bit one-sided, don't feel sorry for the poets. By stepping up to the mic, they knowingly open themselves up to ridicule. And besides, says Green, "the poets have comments of their own for the judges who give them low scores."