Slam poetry has become a phenomenon throughout the world, and Ukraine is no exception. The popularity of the form is hardly surprising as this postmodern performance poetry gives young people the chance to express their thoughts and feelings at events called “slams”, at which competitors perform their own poems and are judged by people randomly selected from the audience. And in Slam poetry anything goes. Beginning in the 90s, it was very closely associated with the vocal delivery style found in hip-hop music and drew heavily on the tradition of dub poetry, a rhythmic and politicised genre belonging to Black and particularly West Indian culture. Poets who perform in a hip-hop style are likely to do well at slam, however the events draw from a much wider range of influences. It does not matter that Ukraine is not the first country to adopt such modern cultural formats, for the Ukrainian people take it and make it their own. For Ukrainian writers Slam is mostly about the performance, and the chance to get some much needed PR. Slam first appeared in Lviv as part of the annual Publishing Forum, but the first specific event took place in the Kharkiv cultural club ‘Ostannya Barykada’ when all the young stars of Ukrainian literature took part including Sophia Andrukhovych, Serhiy Zhadan (pictured), Irena Karpa, Svitlana Povalyaeva, and Lubko Deresh. Since then there have been many slam nights held in towns and cities throughout the country, including Kyiv where one of the Slam leaders Anatoly Ulyanov has even written a book on the subject. This spring a cultural revolution for modern Ukrainian and Russian poetry took place when a massive Slam tournament started in Lviv on 10 March in the club ‘Kult’ which gathered a whole host of fans from Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian poets Sergiy Zhadan, Svetlana Povalyaeva, Ilya Strongovsky and Pavlo Korobchuk battled it out with the Russian team of poetry giants German Lukomnikov, Andrey Rodionov, Arkadiy Shpitel, Danil Faizov and Anna Russ. Pavlo Korobchuk was the only Ukrainian to make it to the final, but in the end the overall title fell to the Russians and the wonderful words of German Lukomnikov who won 500 USD and the acclaim of the crowd. The evening was hosted by Anatoliy Ulianov who added a whole lot of colour with his angry satire and cutting jokes on Ukraine-Russia relations. A return leg was held in Moscow, but unfortunately the Ukrainians didn’t lift the title there either, but they did show they can battle-it-out poetically with the best of them.
The popularity of Slam poetry is evident in the rules and traditions of the events:
- Anyone can take part in Slam, as long as time allows, but the ideal number of contestants is ten to twenty. There are no restrictions on subject matter or style and there should be no discrimination or favouritism.
- Every participant has three minutes to perform and points are deducted if they over run.
- A Slam jury will be made up of random members of the audience, usually who don’t have any knowledge of literature. They mark each performer on a scale from 1 to 5. Bribing the jury is allowed.
- There are three rounds to each tournament – selection, semi-final and final.
- Heckling and distraction by the audience is actively encouraged
- It is important that the host of the event by highly-critical and disparaging of the participants
- Slam contestants are expected to act defiantly towards such deviant tactics and can amass points by doing so effectively.
- Contestants can only read their own words
- There is a censorship for censorship in slam. Censorship is forbidden in slam. As the rules show, Slam is an anarchic event without limits that gives you as many opportunities to show your individuality as you can think of.