How to host a poetry slam online

The Toronto Poetry Slam organizing team cancelled our regularly scheduled slam at the Drake Underground on Saturday, March 14th because of the COVID-19 pandemic and public health social distancing measures.

I was signed up to be the host of that poetry slam. However, I am immunocompromised and had been watching this virus carefully, suspecting that I would have to cancel my participation as a personal safety precaution. I have been wondering what this time will mean for me, my family, and our communities.

The more I thought about the slam itself, the more it seemed possible and important for artists and arts organizers to be of service at this time. On March 14th, I pitched to the Toronto Poetry Slam organizers that we move the event online and that’s what we did. It worked.

Before I give you all the details, I want to encourage you to try this out in your communities to:

  • Inspire people to be together online at a time of uncertainty.
  • Prepare to offer any further online events until we’re all back together in person.
  • Provide continuity to audiences, keep audiences engaged.
  • Re-engage inactive audience members who now have kids or are travelling or have been too busy to come out or for whom venues are inaccessible.
  • Build the know-how to provide online access to events to bridge the gap until all venues are fully wheelchair accessible.
  • Expand our audiences.
  • Learn how to slam online and inspire people to continue to access the arts.

How did we do it?

  1. I was the host from our home office. We used my wife’s Zoom account that allowed up to 100 people to join us at a time. We announced the slam online at 3pm and told poets that the sign up was first come, first slam. We took DM in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts and put the first 12 people to message us on our slam list. The list was full in less than an hour. We asked for performers emails and sent them this information on how the event would work.
  2. Our slam master and scorekeeper, Alyssa Ginsburg, was on the test call with me and our feature before we opened the show up to poets. To do this we used a different Zoom link.
  3. We set up the Zoom room so that there was an automatic waiting room. All participants had their audio and video muted upon entry. I manually admitted the poets whose names I could recognize into the pre-slam huddle at 7:30pm. Each performer tested their audio and video set up by running a few lines.
  4. We had 1 judge who had agreed to the role ahead of time. We asked others who had been let into the call early if they would judge. We found 5 judges.
  5. We let everyone else in and were ready to start the show by about 8:05pm. I said a few words about why we were doing this and thanked everyone for joining. I offered a land acknowledgement and content warning, like we do at every show and event. I asked that people practice consent by checking in with poets before approaching them online about their poems.
  6. We had two people volunteer to be active listeners by asking at the top of the show.
  7. We decided to record the show so that we could offer back some of it online on our social media channels. We asked anyone who didn’t want to have their work shared there to let us know via private message. The integrated chat function was instrumental for inviting audience participation, which is essential to the phenomena of a poetry slam. We told people where to find the chat box and encouraged them to post their positive feedback. We opened the show with a sacrificial poet.
  8. I asked for folks to pause on sending comments while we heard the scores from the judges. This took a bit of practice and there were a couple of hiccups through the show but overall it worked quite well. The judges gave their scores and I read them out so everyone could hear them. Some people were just watching online and did not open or have access to the chat function.
  9. We had a time keeper, TPP team member Ian Keteku, who kept track of the time from the first engagement with the audience. He was bearing in mind there might be a bit of a delay in setting up their audio and video. Each performer managed the transition from my introduction of them to their performance remarkably well.
  10. We had 12 poets in the first round. Took a 7 minute bio break, since we had run about to about 9:20pm already. We opened the second half of the slam with two poems performed by our feature poet. He was supposed to perform in person that same night but was able to do something really unique for his two pieces online. Thanks C-Command!
  11. Then we had a second sacrificial poet to recalibrate the judges. One judge had to leave at the break — this happens in person too — so we did a call out for a judge in the chat. We continued with the top 6 poets in reverse order. We used cumulative scores to announce the top 3 winners, two of whom would have prizes mailed or would be able to pick them up at a later date. The winner, Cassandra Myers, would be e-transferred our regular prize amount of $80. The ranks and scores won’t count towards our regular season, since we’re not yet sure of how these online events compare for poets and audience members.
  12. The next step is: try it yourself, have fun, and let us know how it goes! Our team can be reached via info@torontopoetryslam.com.

How did it go?

We had some positive feedback online, like this Tweet: “Can we just do this every night with different Canadian poets until this thing is over?” — Magpie Ulysses. We provided a bit of online coverage of the show via Twitter and Instagram. We had 73 people online at the top of the show. People came and went throughout — which makes it important that you don’t have a Zoom door chime set up. We had just over 50 people still online as we ended.

The slam spots filled up fast. It was a lot of tracking to monitor the time stamp on messages. As we go forward we will ask poets to register by email only.

Our scorekeeper was tracking the scores in the chat box to ensure I only read out numbers from our designated judges. Once or twice I had to ask people who weren’t judges to keep their numbers to the times when we were encouraging audience members to chat. I differentiated in a nerdy way by saying once, “Alright! I love all that qualitative feedback. Now let’s get the quantitative feedback from our judges.”

There were a lot of claps 👏👏🏽👏🏿👏🏻 before, after and during each poets performance. There were warm and wonderful comments like “Let’s go poet”and “Wooooooow” and “Ouuuf that was fire” for the first poet and for others throughout the show.

By the end, people in the chat said: “This was incredibly fun! Thank you!” “Thank you so much for this beautiful platform!” “Incredible work! Impressed at how smooth it was, everything considered.” “Wonderful way to keep the event going.”

What if scenarios:

Of the what if scenarios that we anticipated, a few of them happened and others haven’t yet. For example, if anything racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, classist, xenophobic, etc, was said in the public chat, we would have to ask the slam master or one of our team members to address it in a private message. If anything like that persisted, the slam master or team members would private message me and I would drop the person from this event.

If the chat room was too active or disruptive to getting the scores publicly, they would be sent via private message to the scorekeeper. This would be good to test with judges before opening the event. If the host’s internet goes down, we planned to use my phone’s data and tether to my computer. When a poet’s internet stalls, I jumped in after 10 seconds, to hold the audience. If the poet didn’t respond after another 10 seconds, we planned to score the poem and move on. We did have a stall for one poet but they backed up their performance part way and then, if I remember correctly, were still within the time limit. We did have two poets go over time.

There are still some details to work out to improve our next online slam, scheduled for March 22. Join us and see this in action!

If this was helpful to you, please make a donation via etransfer to info@torontopoetryslam.com or via Paypal. Thanks for organizing your own local, and hopefully now online, poetry slams.

PS We sent each poet this information ahead of time to prepare them for the event:

PPS We’ve posted an edited version of the slam online. See it here.

Toronto poet and educator