With a population of about 2.7 million people, Chicago is known for its art, diversity, and, of course, deep dish pizza. But there is another, perhaps lesser known, invention attributed to the Windy City that deserves to be brought to the spotlight: slam poetry.

Spoken word, or slam poetry, is a form of self-expression that allows participants to verbally present their poetry to an audience, creating an engaging, and often emotional, atmosphere. It lifts the artist’s words off of the page, inviting listeners to form an empathetic connection with the performer.

This art form is a fairly new phenomenon. Marc Smith, the founder of the slam poetry movement, first performed his poetry at an open mic night at the Get Me High lounge in November of 1984. By ’86, he had hosted his first slam poetry event in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, before founding its permanent home at Chicago’s Green Mill Tavern in ’87.

Smith sums up the heart of slam poetry:

“The very word ‘poetry’ repels people. Why is that? Because of what schools have done to it. The slam gives it back to the people…. We need people to talk poetry to each other. That’s how we communicate our values, our hearts, the things that we’ve learned that make us who we are.”

Perhaps you remember Jeffereson Bethke’s spoken word video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” that exploded throughout the internet universe last year. With over 26 million views, Bethke’s call to stop playing Christian and start living out a passionate relationship with Jesus sparked conversation both within and outside of the Christian circle.

Bethke’s video is just one example of the impression that words can make on a community, especially among teenagers.

Young adults have plenty to say and a desire to be heard, and slam poetry is an avenue that allows them to do just that. It’s no wonder that it has grown exponentially in popularity over the past 30 years.

Chicago is not only the birthplace of this unique form of expression, but also the center it flourishes from. “Louder Than a Bomb,” the largest youth poetry slam festival in the world, has been up and running in Chi-town since 2001. The annual competition creates an environment in which Chicagoland youths can share their own stories and hear the perspectives of those from other areas of the city. In fact, this event has been so popular and impactful over the years that a documentary was recently made about it.

Like all art, spoken word has the ability to break down cultural barriers and unite people of different backgrounds. Our words give us the power to express ourselves, build each other up, and set us free.

So even if you think poetry isn’t your thing, add “check out a local slam poetry event” to your bucket list. I guarantee that it’ll leave you breathless and make you think. And who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired to to grab a pen and a mike, too.


Featured photo credit: csmonitor.com