Poetry slams in Germany
Poetry slams, despite being a relatively recent import from abroad, have built up a huge following in Germany – so huge, in fact, that they are officially recognised by UNESCO as a part of German cultural heritage.
A deep breath to calm the nerves. A quick last glance at your notes. And you’re on! It takes a lot of courage to step out on stage at a poetry slam and share your own creation. But the audiences are respectful and supportive, eager to see what you and your fellow contestants come up with as you go head-to-head in a sublime battle of words, possibly baring your soul in the process.
Unlike a conventional book reading, which generally involves an author reading passages from their latest work, a poetry slam really is a contest. Also, the readings are much shorter – we’ll get to the rules in a moment – which means the audience gets to listen to several poets in a single session.
While in the early days poetry slams were mainly confined to pubs, bars and small theatres, they are now fairly mainstream and are held at a wide range of venues. For example, they are organised and run by student bodies in the humanities departments of many German universities. Poetry slams also often feature at open-air festivals, town fairs and various other events.
Generally speaking, the slammers present their poems and are scored by a panel of judges and/or the audience. Most slams involve several rounds, with the winners of each advancing to the next round until an overall winner emerges. In some formats, the slammers advance through the rounds based on the level of applause they get from the audience. In terms of scale, slams range from small local events all the way up to national championships.
You learn a lot about yourself from the shared experiences of others, even if your life is nothing like theirs.
While poetry slams are contests of wit and verbal prowess, the contestants don’t diss each other like they do in rap battling, for example. In terms of subject matter, slammers often share their innermost thoughts and feelings and make observations on everyday life. That’s one of the things Roberta, a student from Italy, likes so much about these events. “Poetry slams provide a very friendly, supportive environment, where the poets feel valued and respected.” Roberta really loved the poetry slams she attended in Italy and is looking forward to more of the same in Germany. “You learn a lot about yourself from the shared experiences of others, even if your life is nothing like theirs.”
Some also comment on social and political issues, often to howls of laughter from the audience. There are several highly successful German comedians (yes, they do exist!) who first learned their craft on the poetry slam circuit.
Because poetry slams are competitions, there has to be a few rules to keep everything fair:
As mentioned, it takes a great deal of courage to get up on stage and perform your own work, so, as a matter of courtesy, the audience is expected to applaud each slammer when they take the stage and again when they are done. In other words, even if you didn’t like a particular slammer’s poem, you should still applaud them as a sign of respect and recognition for their courage. The slammers themselves must also be respectful: there is absolutely no place for discriminatory language.
Poetry slammers are only allowed to present their own work, although they are permitted to quote other works – a line from a song, poem or movie, for example.
Poetry slams are not theatrical performances, so costumes and props are not allowed. Slammers must wear everyday clothing, and the only thing they can bring up on stage with them is a copy of their poem.
A poetry slam is not a singing competition either – the focus is on the spoken word. You can read your poem out or extemporise, but you can’t break into song.
Time limits vary from slam to slam, but the general rule is that each slammer should speak for no more than six minutes. If you decide you want to give poetry slam a try, it’s best to practise beforehand to make sure you can keep within this time limit.
There are exceptions to these rules. Song slams, for example, call for music and singing, and some even feature accompaniment by a band. Some formats also allow or even require the competing poets to don costumes.
Many German and German-speaking media personalities made their first stage appearances at poetry slams. For example, the actor and author Sophie Passmann started out as a poetry slammer, as did Thomas Spitzer and the Swiss comedian Hazel Brugger. TV presenter, author, podcaster and blogger Ninia Binias also began her career on the poetry slam stage.
Back in 2014, when she was still a student, the musician Julia Engelmann presented her poem ‘’ at a university slam. Her poem, which referenced a song of the same title by was about constantly putting things off until tomorrow instead of just living in the moment. The video of her performance went viral. , from Bochum, is also one of Germany’s successful slammers. She is both a slammer and a prolific organiser of slam events, some of which feature jazz accompaniment. Jacinta Nandi is another inspiring poetry slam success story. The British ex-pat made a name for herself in Berlin a few years ago with her poems about life in Germany, motherhood, and living in Berlin – often written in a side-splitting mix of German and English. Her latest book came out in 2022.
With the exception of official competition slams, which have entry criteria, most poetry slams are ‘open’, meaning anyone can take part, numbers permitting. If you’d like to give it a try, simply contact slam organisers in your area to find out how you can get involved. Roberta can see herself presenting one of her poems one day: “I’d be a little anxious of course – who isn’t afraid of being judged? But then, perhaps that’s precisely why I should do it.”
Remember: you don’t need to be a native speaker of German. It’s probably a good idea to ease into it gently by just going along as a spectator to start with, though. From there, it’s a simple matter of getting your ideas down on paper, taking a deep breath and stepping out on stage. You can do it!
You need fear to be brave. The world belongs to the brave.
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