The best moment in the battle of poets is just when the first poetry slammer starts speaking. At that moment the audience will know if the next few minutes will stretch out like chewing gum or evaporate in a dizzying frenzy of words.
Competitive poetry slams mix recitation and improvisational theater. It’s the live literary form of entertainment of the 21st century.
Audience members aren’t silent but instead become the performers’ sparring partners. Poetry slams work only when everybody interacts. People whistle and boo when a dilettante with a reedy voice stutters and stumbles through a tiresome text. And the audience’s applause and laughter drive a true artist in an ecstasy of reading from one payoff line to the next.
For the poets on the stage, the people in front are merciless judges. They award points that decide the winner. The format is remarkably simple.
“You can present anything, and there are only two rules: Write your own text and deliver it in the time allotted,” said Christian Ritter, 32, a professional slammer who organizes events in Bamberg in southeast Germany and competes against slammers from throughout the country. “What is suitable always depends on the audience, sometimes it’s a funny storyteller, sometimes a serious lyric poet.”
“The German-speaking region is just starving for performance poetry.”
Audiences are growing because more and more people in Germany find excitement in this “literary and emotional drawing of the sword,” as Karsten Strack calls the poetry competitions. He is the founder and head of Lektora, the leading publisher of poetry slam texts.
“The German-speaking region is just starving for performance poetry,” Mr. Strack said.
Poetry passed on orally has always played a cultural role, but in Germany the reciting of self-composed poems has almost become forgotten “as the desire for the immediacy of this format shows,” Mr. Strack said.
The phenomenon started in Chicago in the 1980s, came to Berlin in the mid-1990s and is now in the process of leaving the backrooms of the music and cabaret bars. Today, more than 10,000 poetry slams are held annually in the German-speaking region. Now, Germany, Austria and Switzerland have long since left the United States behind. While slammers in America perform in relatively small venues, their German counterparts fill theaters and sports arenas. “We have arrived in the mainstream,” Mr. Ritter said.
The audience record set in 2011 was broken recently when Nektarios Vlachopoulos beat the defending titleholder, Patrick Salmen, in the finals of the official German-language championship in front of 4,000 onlookers in Hamburg’s O2 Arena. More than 5,000 people came to the “Best of Poetry Slam — Open Air” on the harness racing track in the Bahrenfeld section of Hamburg. Kampf der Künste (Battle of the Arts) has been organizing poetry slams since 2005 in the Hamburg region and has made the city the liveliest poetry slam scene by far in the German-speaking region.
About 200 slammers in Germany are able to make a living from their appearances, book sales and workshops, according to Mirco Drewes of the publishing house Satyr-Verlag.
Last year, the Berlin company published a compendium of poetry slams. Books are primarily marketed as fan merchandise at poetry slams. The poetry-slam niche has developed into an important business for some publishers. “We have increased our sales five-fold in the past five years,” Lektora’s Mr. Strack said.
The writer and poet Nora Gomringer has a simple explanation for why audience members hoot, laugh and clap when well-known slammers like Jan Philipp Zymny, Sebastian 23 or Andy Strauss perform: “Poetry slam is a constant bowing to the public — it is the only literature form that takes the audience more seriously than itself.”
Ms. Gomringer, 35, has performed on the stage since 2006 and in July won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt — a competition in which not the least decisive factor was how the works were presented before the jury.
“Of course, I liked it when I got the jury members excited and was able that day to thrill, dazzle, deceive and seduce them — because that is exactly what literature is supposed to do,” said Ms. Gomringer, who directs the International Artists’ House Villa Concordia in Bamberg and regularly stages competitions there.
She said poetry slams are the image of the whole business of literature in miniature. “You write a work that you hope is authentic enough to be from you and that at the same time is so striking that the audience will remember you,” Ms. Gomringer said.
The fixation on the audience is a reason why many in the literary establishment have long dismissed slams as opportunistic pandering to the tastes of the masses and as lacking in literary value.
It is an allegation that basically doesn’t bother slammer Christian Ritter — at least when you consider the texts by themselves. “But slamming is more, there the text and the presentation really has to fit together,” Mr. Ritter said. “I write explicitly with the performance situation in mind.”
No one is interested in whether a text works in print, he said.
“It has to work on the mike, that’s where the truth lies.”
Benjamin Wagener is a reporter for Handelsblatt in Düsseldorf. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org