Some slams are judged by five members of the audience, selected at random. Other slams are judged by a panel of invited experts – successful poets, publishers or promoters. There are variations on these themes (I particularly like the system at Milk, where the whole audience decides the winner, by holding up coloured cards to indicate their choice), but essentially it usually comes down to either audience or experts. Poets often have strong preferences for one or the other.
If I were choosing entirely on the basis of self-interest, I’d go for expert judges every time: as someone who came to spoken word from page poetry and is a better writer than performer, I think I get scored better by judges who know a literary technique when they see one. Also, in major slams where a large sum of money and/or a career-changing opportunity is at stake, it, in a way, doesn’t seem fair that the deciding vote could come from five drunk people who don’t know the first thing about poetry.
Most slam judges, whether expert or audience, reach sensible decisions, but there are occasional exceptions and the only real WTF? moments I have experienced at slams have been with audience judges. I don’t always agree with expert judges’ decisions, but I can usually understand the basis on which they have been reached. For example, I was at a slam a while back where it seemed to me that the expert judges were giving a little too much weight to kooky, off-the-wall subject matter and to use of metaphorical language and that they weren’t crediting skilful use of rhyme, rhythm or wordplay enough, but at least I could see what they were rewarding. I have been at audience-judged slams where the scores have borne so little relation to what happened on stage that the only way I could explain them was to assume that they had been awarding points for best hairstyle.
Because I’m not very slammy, the kind of audience judge I dread the most is one who fancies they know a lot about poetry, but whose only experience of it has been at other slams. It’s the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” scenario: while both complete novices and experienced experts will usually approach the slam with an open mind and credit good execution in any poem that is put before them, whatever its poetic style, the uberslammy judge will sometimes think that if you’re not presenting them with a carbon copy of every other slam poem they have ever seen (usually either a Shane Koyczan-style emotionfest or a Harry Bakeresque hip-hoppy poem) you must be doing it wrong and mark you down hugely for it.
One reason why some slams opt for expert judges is because they believe they will be more objective and less likely to succumb to the two main factors which can skew judging :
- Scorecreep – that phenomenon that every slammer moans about, whereby, as the night goes on and the judges get drunker, the scores get more and more generous, so the performer who is drawn last has a significant advantage over the performer who is drawn first.
- Fanclubbing -that phenomenon whereby one poet brings about fifty friends and relatives to the slam with them, they cheer and clap at peak volume at the end of his/her set and insecure judges are frightened into thinking there must have been something amazing in that poet’s work that they missed, so they give him/her a 10, when they had been thinking maybe 7ish, because they don’t want to look ignorant.
Expert judges aren’t completely immune to either of these two phenomena, but they are probably more resistant to them than audience judges.
In my experience, however, audiences and slammers are far more likely to protest decisions by expert judges. It stands to reason really: nobody expects objectivity from non-experts and all audience judges are being asked to do is to say which poet they liked the best. You can’t really argue with their answer to that question – “I liked X best.” “No, you didn’t – you’re lying.”? People may not like the decisions they reach, but they usually just shrug their shoulders, say, “Well,that’s slams for you,” and move on.
When the judges are invited experts, on the other hand, people expect much more of them – they expect expertise. “I liked X the best” is no longer considered sufficient justification for choosing one poet over another and, if the winner isn’t the person the audience would have picked, they can cut up really rough and, in the ugliest cases, accusations of bias or cronyism get flung around. When this happens, it’s horrible for everyone involved.
But the main reason why, despite the expert panel’s undoubted advantages, I can’t altogether approve of its rise is that it can be argued that it runs counter to the entire philosophy that slams were founded on – that for too long poetry has been in the hands of middle-class literati and ivory-tower academics and that the person on the street should be allowed a voice. While it annoys the hell out of me when an audience picks an emotionally overwrought clichefest or a lowest-common-denominator comic poem about knobs over a well-written, startlingly original work, if a slam isn’t the place for them to reward the kind of poetry they like, not the kind of poetry an English Lit grad thinks they ought to like, then where is?