Poetry Slam

The Henry Brothers recently hosed down their trusty tour bus, filled her with diesel and set out on the road with their much lauded Poetry Slam. From Istanbul to Antalya, at conferences and in workshops, creative juices have been flowing in veritable torrents as English teachers and students alike have written and performed their own mini-masterpieces.

So what exactly is a poetry slam? A competition at which poets read or recite original works within a set time limit, usually two minutes. These performances are then marked by a panel of judges drawn from the audience. Performers must demonstrate their word play, performance skills and inventiveness over two or three rounds, and poets are knocked out until one top scorer emerges as the winner.

Poetry slams were started by Mark Smith at a venue in Chicago in 1984. In July 1986 the competition moved to a permanent address, The Green Mill Jazz club. In 1990 the first national competition took place in San Francisco involving a home team, a team from Chicago and a lone poet from New York. From these humble beginnings the competition has grown and the format has spread throughout the world; from Canada to Australia via Portugal and Britain.

Smith, says a slam, ‘ is about poets performing …….to an audience they care about, allowing the audience to enjoy themselves, while presenting them with the most profound and hearfelt poetry the poets can muster.’

Slam poetry combines writing with drama, presentation and public speaking to make poetry dynamic, accessible and fun. Performing also helps build confidence and self esteem. Poetry slams can feature competitors with a broad range of styles and cultural traditions and differing approaches to writing and performance. Hip-hop and dub poets rub shoulders with theatrical poets who use voice and intonation or highly rehearsed gestures and movements.

What is a fashionable style one year may be old hat the next. Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, slam poet and author of Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, was quoted in an interview on the Best American Poetry blog as saying: ‘One of the more interesting end products (to me, at least) of this constant shifting is that poets in the slam always worry that something – a style, a project, a poet – will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.’

As English teachers The Henry Brothers were interested in adapting the format and using it in an ELT context. To date the brothers have hosted slams in Istanbul, Bursa, Ankara and Antalya and they hope to cast their poetic net further afield in the coming months.

So what about writing a poem in a foreign language? Says John Henry, ‘Writing poetry in your own language is difficult enough. In a foreign language it can be a rather daunting experience. Consequently we employ poetry frameworks or patterns. These are very simple to follow, similar to following a recipe and the results are equally delicious. Concealed inside, each of us has a bit of the poet and these recipes bring out that hidden bard. Students write poems in groups and either the group or a representative from the group performs the poem. Every time we’ve done this in schools, with students or teachers, the participants have always applauded each other’s work. Such collaborative writing and performing is highly motivational.’

Poetry is infectious and habit-forming and once successful poems have been shared with other students and teachers everyone wants a copy of the recipe. Isn’t it about time you got the poetry habit?

Poetry from the Antalya slams – Atatürk Anadolu and Süleyman Demirel Üniversity

On Monday I saw Spiderman.
On Tuesday I touched his mask.
On Wednesday I heard him tapping on my window on the twentieth floor.
On Thursday I smelled his web in my palm.
On Friday I tasted an omlette made with spider eggs.

Public transport is tiring
Public transport is tiring, exhausting
Is tiring, exhausting, time-consuming
Tiring, exhausting, time-consuming, ever-lasting

On Monday I saw a cat.
On Tuesday I touched its ears.
On Wednesday I heard its mew and its purr.
On Thursday I smelled its wet fur.
On Friday I tasted its food – Whiskas.

An orange
An orange is round, delicious
Is round, delicious, juicy
Round, delicious, juicy, full of vitamin C

Chocolate is sweet
Chocolate is sweet, enjoyable
Is sweet, enjoyable, amazing
Sweet, enjoyable, amazing, fattening,

On Monday I saw a great lahmacun restaurant.
On Tuesday I touched its gorgeous windows.
On Wednesday I heard the joyful laughter of the customers.
On Thursday I smelled the lahmacun.
On Friday I tasted the delicious, crunchy, hot lahmacun.

On Monday I saw a new girl in class.
On Tuesday I touched her fine hands.
On Wednesday I heard her angelic laughing.
On Thursday I smelled her beautiful perfume.
On Friday I tasted her soft, red lips.

Bibliography – Writing Simple Poems- Pattern Poetry for Language Acquisition – Viki L. Holmes and Margaret R. Moulten – CUP
The Inward Ear – Poetry in the Language Classroom – Alan Maley and Alan Duff – CUP


About The Henry Brothers

We are English teachers involved in ELT publishing in Turkey, and also touring the country giving workshops and presentations to English teachers, mainly on the use of poetry, storytelling and other lively activities in the classroom. We can be contacted by e-mail to canmoorcroft@gmail.com or paul.zarraga@gmail.com
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