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Haiku Slam: Counting Syllables and Connecting Community

By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine

Back in 1980s Chicago at the Green Mill Jazz Club, a group of local poets were trying to get the broader community involved in the tight-knit poetry scene. By fusing together writing, performance, competition and audience participation, slam poetry, or slam events were created. At a slam, random members of the audience judge the poems, and the poet with the highest points at the end wins. In a similar fashion, to bridge the gaps between the literary and poetry community, the West Florida Literary Federation’s newest formed Poet’s Roundtable is hosting a haiku slam.


The slam is the brainchild of the Poet’s Roundtable, a collaborative group of local poets consisting of newly appointed poet laureate of Northwest Florida, Katherine Nelson-Born; Charles McCaskill, a finalist for poet laureate and author of three poetry books; and Asia Samson, a prolific spoken word artist and slam poetry coach. Aimed at bringing the community together and celebrating the multiple facets of written and spoken word, the roundtable is working together to promote writing challenges, workshops and new events, like the haiku challenge and slam.


“The haiku challenge was born from the Poet’s Roundtable as we discussed how to bring a slam to the community,” Nelson-Born explained. “We wanted a place to encourage new and experienced writers in the same space while bridging the gap that exists between some of the older population in the literary community and some of the powerful younger voices in the poetry community. The haiku is a short but very powerful form of poetry that everyone can relate to. Plus, performing a quick three-line poem is less nerve wracking to people who haven’t performed before, so it lowers the pressure.”


Drawing from the Japanese poetry form with a 17-syllable count of five-seven-five, or the American model championed by Jack Kerouac, the haiku challenge tasked members of the community to write a haiku every day in the month of January based on writing prompts posted to the West Florida Literary Federation’s social media.


Prompts range from your last Google search and first childhood memory to reflecting on nature and historical moments. The challenge served as a prelude to the poetry slam being hosted in February, where participants are invited to share their haikus. Don’t worry—there’s still plenty of time to read the prompts and get involved if you missed the daily prompts in January.


“Being limited to how many syllables you can use forces you to get creative,” McCaskill said. “It’s not limited to just haikus, but any writing form that has guidelines can open up possibilities to a writer. It really encourages this creative and intentional use of words. Throw in the performing nature of slam, mixed with the discipline to choose the right words to convey a message, and I’m excited to see how poets step up to the challenge of it all.”


Both Nelson-Born and McCaskill accredit Samson to really ushering poetry slams to Pensacola.


Touring universities performing spoken word and competing in slam competitions since 2004, Samson began hosting poetry slams in Pensacola and formed a team to attend the regional Southern Fried Poetry competition in 2019. The Pensacola Burn Beautiful slam team took third place at the competition in 2019, bringing Pensacola back to the table after 15 years of being absent from the competition. While many poets embrace the style of slam in their writing, as Samson explained, it’s the judges that really differentiate a poetry slam from a standard open mic.


“The whole purpose of slam is to get the community involved in poetry. They aren’t just listening to poetry anymore— you give them the reigns and let the audience judge the competition,” Samson explained. “In the National poetry scene, they do haiku death matches or slams, so I decided to host one here in Pensacola and everyone loved it. I couldn’t wait to host another one and then COVID happened. So, I’m really excited to see the poetry community come together to show everyone what a haiku slam is and to welcome new people to the world of slam.”


Three judges, 17 syllables, sanitized microphones and the social distanced beer garden at Emerald Republic Brewing Co. add up to the perfect haiku slam. As Samson explained, three random members in the audience will be given color coded batons to judge the winner of rounds while two poets face off on each side of Samson, who will be hosting the slam. As the poets and participants work their way through a bracket competition, the haiku slam champion will be declared at the end of the event.


To learn more about the haiku challenge writing prompts and get involved in the challenge and slam, visit the West Florida Literary Federation Facebook page. The haiku slam will take place at Emerald Republic on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 6-9 pm. Come out and enjoy a delicious craft beer, put your thinking caps on and listen to some poetry!


Prompts for the #HaikuChallenge

To prep for the February Haiku Slam, each day in January, WFLF Facebook prompts challenged community members to write a Haiku or a short three-line poem based on the weekly theme provided. The poem can be traditional Japanese style with a syllable count of five-seven-five or the American model championed by Jack Kerouac.


Week 1 Writing Prompts:

  • Your year in review (Jan. 1)

  • A pet peeve (Jan. 2)

  • A message to your younger self (Jan. 3)

  • Inspiration from a dream you’ve had (Jan. 4)

  • The last text you sent (Jan. 5)

  • Your last Google search (Jan. 6)

  • Your morning routine (Jan. 7)


Week 2 Writing Prompts:

  • Your first smartphone or camera photo (Jan. 8)

  • Your first childhood memory (Jan. 9)

  • Your first heartbreak (Jan. 10)

  • Your first triumph (Jan. 11)

  • Your first road trip (Jan. 12)

  • Your first moment or image sparking political awareness (Jan. 13)

  • Your first or favorite concert (Jan. 14)

  • Your first memory of a famous person or event (Jan. 15)


Week 3 Writing Prompts:

  • Your response to an image of an approaching storm (Jan. 16)

  • Your image of nature’s fury unleashed (Jan. 17)

  • Your image reflecting a historical figure or event (Jan. 18)

  • Your image of beauty amidst carnage (Jan. 19)

  • Your image projecting calm in the midst of chaos (Jan. 20)

  • Your image of a spirit/deity/mythological figure (Jan. 21)

  • Your image of the resilience of humankind (Jan. 22)


Week 4 Writing Prompts:

  • Your image of climate change (Jan. 23)

  • Your image of the natural world’s resilience (Jan. 24)

  • Your image from a weekend camping trip (Jan. 23)

  • Your image reflecting a natural wonder of the world (Jan. 24)

  • Your image of a favorite plant/tree/flower (Jan. 25)

  • Your image of a favorite animal/insect/amphibian (Jan. 26)

  • Your image of an extinct species in today’s world (Jan. 27)

  • Your image from hiking/walking (Jan. 28)

  • Your image contrasting manmade construction with nature (Jan. 29)

  • Your image rendering large something small (Jan. 30)

  • Your image rendering small something large (Jan. 31)


The month-long event is free, and participants can present their work in the February Haiku Slam celebrating National Haiku Month, designating the shortest month of the year for the shortest form of poetry. For more information, visit wflf.org, WFLF on Facebook or contact Katherine Nelson-Born at bcs.editor@gmail.com.

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