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Simply put, poetry slam is the competitive art of performance poetry. Established in the mid-80s as a means to heighten public interest in poetry readings, slam has evolved into an international art form emphasizing audience involvement and poetic excellence.

In the majority of slam series, organizers stage weekly or monthly events in a public space, such as a bar or cafe. Poets wishing to compete sign up with a host, and the host finds five audience members who wish to serve as judges. Poets must follow a series of rules: the poems must be of each poet's own construction, the poet may not use props, costumes, or musical instruments, and if the poet goes over the time limit (three minutes plus a 10-second grace period), points are deducted from his or her score. Judges, who are encouraged to factor both content and performance into their evaluations, judge each poet on a 0.0 to 10.0 scale. The high score and low score are dropped, and the middle three scores become the score for that particular poet. To insure that the entire audience is involved, the host encourages the audience to respond to the poet in any way they see fit, be it impassioned cheering or lusty booing. The judges, in turn, are encouraged to remain consistent with themselves and not let the audience influence them.

In a typical competition, all poets read one poem in the first round. Based on the scores they receive, the top-scoring poets go on to the second round, and from that pool, a smaller number of the highest-scoring poets in the second round go on to the third and final round. While the specifics vary from slam to slam, certified slams adhere to this basic structure, insuring that poets must seek to make immediate connections with the audience in order to continue on. Cash prizes or other prizes are offered to the winner as further impetus for performing well. In most cities, the slam series culminates with a final slam at the end of the season to determine which poets will represent the city at the National Poetry Slam.

By adhering to a structure that factors in the audience at such a basic and integral level, slams have emerged as the most vital and best-attended of many cities' regular poetry events. Whereas many open mike events tend to serve either the poets who participate or a particular target community, slam's emphasis on addressing the audience has garnered slam a more inclusive, more diverse audience than the typical poetry reading. By marrying poetry with competition, slam has allowed non-traditional audiences a tangible and intriguing avenue for experiencing poetry in a live prime-time setting.