NaCl Journal of Performance Poetry: Curriculum

Over the years, I have been invited to a few classrooms to do features. Following these features, I have had conversations with teachers about seeking resources to teach slam or performance poetry. I created this curriculum with one teacher in particular. I consider it more or less incomplete. I would like to cover writing strategies for high school and beginning writers to go along with the lessons and discussion plan below. I would also love input from other educators on how this can be improved.


Slam Poetry Curriculum for High School and Beginner Slam Poetry Workshop Groups


  1. What is Slam Poetry?  What makes a slam poem?  What separates slam poetry from regular poetry?


According to Marc Smith, the forefather of Slam, slam poetry was meant to be a gimmick to get people at bars and open mics to actually listen to poetry by adding a scoring and competitive element to slam

Since the 80s, slam poetry has evolved greatly, and with the time limit element creating a unique temporal form that is not prevalent in written word.  Most performance poets who started out in slam, for instance, will have a majority of pieces that average under 3 minutes, but over 2 minutes and/or poems that average between 400-550 words.  Rarely will a performance poet go over 4 minutes.  Many will follow a particular structure that is conducive to these time constraints and utilize certain techniques that are not available to page poetry.  As live performance, slam is a blend of original writing, and theater.  One of the goals of this curriculum will be to analyze those structures, and their effectiveness.


Discuss: compare and contrast slam and performance poems to page poems. 
Read: Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Watch: Omar Holman – Anatomy of a Prayer

Read: ee cummings – Silence

Watch: Jared Singer – Silence

Read: Edna St. Vincent Millay – I Being Born A Woman Distressed

Watch: Rachel McKibbens – Last Love

Note: Use of language, difference in syntax, adherence to space versus adherence to time.



10 minute free write.  Attempt to write a poem that uses spatial qualities, like ee cummings.

10 minute free write.  Attempt to write a performance poem that uses temporal qualities, or performance qualities that cannot be written out.



  1. The Basics

—It’s not just what you say, but how you say it—


There are several ways to compose a slam poem, but slam poems that garner a lot of attention, and continue to receive attention long after the competition, share some basic commonalities.


Discuss: watch the most watched slam poems.  After each piece, talk about how the piece made you feel.

Neil Hilbourn – OCD

Taylor Mali – What Teachers Make

Patrick Roche – 21

Lily Meyers – Shrinking Woman

Jesse Parent – To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter

Note similarities:



-Passion and/or conviction.

-Simplicity in construction.  That is, they follow a single line of logic to reach their goal or conclusion.

-Are there any other similarities that can be found?  What are some other pieces that can be considered?


Consider: on page, a reader can reread a poem.  On stage, a listener only gets the poem once.



10 minute free write, focus on a piece that uses narrative, and follows a structure.  Keep the elements discussed above in mind as you compose the piece.  Consider 21 by Patrick Roche.

10 minute free write: what are some other structures that can be explored creatively, such as the TV Guide, or How-to guides?


III. Common Slam Subforms
Note: This section is intended to be instructed over several different classes, and should be supplemented with writing prompts to develop the range of the writer in areas such as metaphor, simile, irony, symbolism, etc.  These will also be covered in later sections.

The types of poems identified below are referred to as “subforms,” since slam itself can and should be considered a form of its own, as outlined above. The variety of subforms and structures in slam are limitless.  There are a few subforms that you are virtually guaranteed to hear at least once in a bout.  This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, and new forms are explored and utilized all the time.  A few of these include:


-Open Letter



Each one of these forms is unique in their restraint as well as possibility.  As these forms are explored, consider how the restraints of each type of poem can create possibility.

Persona: Persona poems are pieces that assume the voice of someone or something.  While most poems assume the voice of the speaker and not that of the poet, these are poems written from the perspective of someone or something specific.  This technique can add new light to an event, or view a common occurrence through a new perspective.

Discuss: find poems that are written from a specific perspective.  Talk about restraints and possibilities in these representations.

The Prayers of Bullets – Chris Leja

Wiley Coyote – Shane Hawley (May not be suitable for younger audiences)

Mrs. Dahmer – Sierra DeMulder

A Tree Story – Seth Walker


The Piano Speaks – Shira Erlichman

Note: Is this fiction or non-fiction?
What are some of the restrictions of this form?
10 minute free write: from the perspective of a historical figure.
10 minute free write: from the perspective of an inanimate object.

Open Letter: Open letters are typically essays that the writer has written to another person while allowing a general audience to read the letter.  These are typically letters that express some complaint, dissatisfaction, address a need, or some other reason for which the writer of the letter is attempting to garner approval or support from the audience.  In slam poetry, it is one of the most common types, with messages ranging from political, social, and confessional.  These types of pieces also contain a type of restraint which allows possibility.  This style of writing allows the writer to be direct, confrontational, and deeply personal.

Discuss: Watch various open letter poems and discuss restraints of the form.
Open Letter to Black People in Movies – Omar Holman and Anthony Ragler

A Letter to the Girl I Used To Be – Ethan Smith

To JK Rowling from Cho Chang – Rachel Rostad

Letter from a Toilet to a Bulimic – Megan Rickman

Note: Two of these pieces are also persona pieces.  How does that enhance to piece or detract from the piece?  Open letters are perhaps the most common types of slam poems.  What are some other open letter poems that are effective?  What are some restraints and how do these restraints allow possibility?

Free Write: 10 minutes each
Write an open letter to any person. Example: politician, a parent, historical figure, etc.
Write an open letter from an inanimate object to yourself or to someone. Example: from a tree, from a weapon, from a musical instrument, etc.


List poems are can cover a fairly wide range of topics.  The conceit of these pieces are to create a list, or respond to a list, or add detail to a list.  The list is usually numbered in some way.  This allows the writer to experiment with direction and cadence of the piece.  This should not be confused with pieces that have several parts and the poet states the number of each part (see: Scars/To the New Boyfriend – Rudy Francisco).

Discuss: watch examples below of list poems and discuss restraints and possibilities.
40 Love Poems – JeanAnn Verlee

5 Reasons to Date a Girl with an Eating Disorder – Megan Maughan

10 Honest Thoughts on Being Loved by a Skinny Boy – Rachel Wiley

Times I’ve Been Mistaken for a Girl – Alex Dang


Why he Should Not Have Been Sold Six Thousand Rounds of Ammunition – Suellen

Note: How does progression of the list allow the poet to change mood, escalate content, or de-escalate comment.  How does returning to the numbers help the listener in following?

Free Write:
Write a list.  Focus on what a list can reveal about a speaker.  Example: List of things to remember on your way to ___________.  List of things to do after ______________.  Choosing what your list is about is almost as important as the list itself.  Try to go with your second or third idea or thought.
These types of poems use the concept of an instructional guide to push forward what the writer would like to say.  These pieces assume the listener is unaccustomed or foreign to the topic discuss, and that the speaker is intimately familiar with the topic.  With this is mind, the speaker can elaborate on certain thoughts, and use the power of implication that allows the writer to add depth for the listener, who must ask “for whom and why is this piece being written?”  Additionally, the instructional format can aid in pushing a narrative forward.

Discuss: Watch poems below and discuss limitations and possibilities
How to Cure a Feminist – Kait Rokowski

How to Love Your Introvert – Kevin Yang

How to Love Your Body in 10 Easy Steps – Ollie Sminkey

Note: how can this form be used to inform the audience on a rarely-discussed subject, or taboos?  How can this form used to subvert the authoritative voice?

Free Write:
Write an instruction manual on something seemingly simple.
Write an instruction manual from the perspective of another person.


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