Rewriting the Rulebook – Section 3f

Posted: November 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

This is the latest entry in the Rewriting the Rulebook project.

Now we are getting into some juicy stuff. This is the stuff that got this conversation started in the first place.

f) No props, music, or costumes are allowed in the competition. Poets may read from sheets of paper, non-commercial notebooks, or handheld digital devices (smartphones etc.) but not from published materials of any kind (i.e. pamphlets, books, chapbooks, etc.).

First off, notice anything missing?

There is no mention of ‘nudity’. That doesn’t make it legal. I will be adding it back in.

I am going to go out of order here. First off – music. Agreed. It is not allowed. There is an ‘unwritten rule’ that says you can make music with your body. I think we can fix that just by changing ‘music’ to ‘musical accompaniment’.

Let me jump to the large final clause about what you are allowed to read from. I want to replace that whole section with “The poet is allowed to bring up any printed or electronic copy of the poem to read from.”

I first heard of this rule out of nowhere in 2010 (out of nowhere likely meaning that someone had read the NPS rules).

This rule is nonsense. It exists to eliminate the perception that a poet is somehow more accomplished than another because they have something published.

This is archaic thinking. I have two full length books. Guess what it took for me to get them. Just under $9 each. (Well, if I only bought one copy it would be higher…)

That’s it. I had to prove nothing about my ability as a writer. I just needed a credit card number.

Chapbooks are even worse. Guess what it cost me to produce a FULL RUN of the 2015 CapSlam team chapbooks? I think it was $6.

Having a book does not make you any more ‘accomplished’ than any other poet. It is a nitpicky rule that should just be tossed out.

(I would rather ban electronic devices than books… but I don’t want to ban those either.)


Next… let’s talk about costumes.

What is a costume?

The ‘unwritten rules’ have called a costume anything that you wear just for the stage that you wouldn’t wear walking down the street.

Interesting but nonsensical.

Who are you or I to say what another person would or wouldn’t wear walking down the street?

A couple of years ago at the festival, I saw a poet walking around with fairy wings on her back. She was not ‘in costume’. She was just wearing them.

If she had worn them on stage, I guarantee that there would have been complaints.

I heard two ‘costume’ complaints at this year’s festival. (Keep in mind, I WASN’T the Slam Master this year, but I am still around, and we talk.)

The first was in a prelim bout where two poets performed a ‘mirror’ poem. They faced each other and spoke as if each were a reflection of the other. They wore matching t-shirts.

Were they dressed specifically for the competition? No question. But since those outfits were clothes that they would ‘wear on the street’, they passed the test.

The second was when a poet performed a poem full of sports metaphors and was wearing a football sweatshirt.

Was he dressed specifically for the competition? Probably. But since the outfit was clothes he would ‘wear on the street’, it passed the test.

Let me add a pair of situations that nobody complained about, but were every bit as ‘costumy’.

On the finals stage both of the last two years, a team got on stage wearing all matching black clothes. Is this a violation of the costume rule?



Because the costume rule is meaningless.

How many people do you think choose their clothes based on the fact that they are performing that night?

Over half, certainly. I saw a poet in a dress and the next day she was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans… doesn’t that mean she was wearing a costume to perform?

Does that sound ridiculous?

Yes. Because it is. All of it.

It is time to ditch the ‘no costume’ rule.

(Another thought… maybe we should add to the judges spiel that they are supposed to judge the poem and performance, but not the appearance of the poet…)


The PROP rules.

This rule needs to stick around, but I think it needs work.

The ‘unwritten’ part is that the poet can use anything that everyone has access to, but cannot make any reference to anything that only THEY have, like the clothes they are wearing…. BUT there is a waiver for parts of their body… things they cannot ‘take off’.

This seems simple, but the application of it is anything but.

Let’s start with the ‘access’ rule. I would drop this altogether. It is confusing to people. It is MEANT to give a waiver for the mic and mic stand. Let’s just say that. As (un)written, it is taken to mean poets can go into the audience, grab a chair, stuff from the merch table… whatever. I don’t think that is what we want so instead change is to ‘poets can use the mic and mic stand’, but nothing else they can pick up.’

Then there is the clothes thing. Let me be very clear that the rule as enforced was the rule that was announced at the start of the festival.

But I don’t like it.

There was also a fairly high profile incident with a women referring to her hijab and touching it at a big slam, and she was penalized. This opened up the argument about what is ‘part of someone’s body’.

I think that is an argument that shows we have gotten away from the point of the rule.

Do I want to get rid of this rule? No. In fact, getting rid of this rule AND getting rid of the costume rule would turn the event into a whole different thing.

What I want to get rid of is the idea that referring to your clothing in a GENERIC way is an issue.

We all wear clothes on stage. In fact, due to the no nudity rule, we HAVE to.

I would like to change the rule immediately so that clothes only become props if the poet refers to SPECIFIC clothing items.

I am sitting wearing a shirt with my name above my left pocket.

If I were touch my shirt and say “I would give the shirt off my back to ensure that…”

No penalty.

If I were to touch my shirt and say “Like my name emblazoned across my chest I know…”


“These boots” no penalty

“These red lace-up work boots” penalty

“My dress” no penalty

“My blue striped dress that I got for a great deal from Value Village” penalty

And to go to the controversial one…

Touch your hijab and say “My hijab” no penalty

Run your finger along the beaded fringe on a head scarf and say “These beads mark the times that…” penalty

Make sense?

Anyway… that’s my opinion. What is yours?

  1. […] – Sacrificial Poets Section 3e – Discussion – Time Limits & Penalties Section 3f – Discussion – Costumes & […]

  2. Dan(AKA Dan Murray(AKA Dan)) says:

    Published material!

    While you, I, and anybody who has ever done a chapbook understand that being in a book doesn’t make you any better of a writer or poet, the rule of not bringing up published materials is not for the sake of -our- understanding.

    It is because, theoretically, someone could bring up a published work as a “flash” to the judges. A subtle way of telling judges without speaking that your work is more important, or better, because it’s published. (This also borders on prop territory) The average audience member may not understand that being in a book doesn’t mean shit. That said, this rule is less because judges might be swayed by said books, and more because poets will complain about it. Some poets will feel it’s unfair to be showing off a publication while performing a piece, and technically, they’re right. It’s uneven.

    So what do you do when you get a situation like that where people are more likely to complain? Nit picky as it may be, the easiest and most level thing to do is just disallow published material on stage. I support this rule, and honestly believe it holds competitive merit.


    I’ve never seen a costume penalty called. I’m not sure if it was a problem back in “the day”. I’ve heard murmurings and complaints. I remember Lishai doing her “status” poem while wearing a traditional outfit, and some people were complaining behind the scenes about a costume violation, but no formal complaint was registered (thankfully).

    That said – Yes, most people dress to compete. I know several poets who have a slam outfit. I had my own at one time. There are subtle ways that clothing can accentuate a piece, and as a result, this rule is the most loose-weave there is.

    However! I believe the purpose of this rule is to create a distinction between slamming a piece and performing a full-ass theatrical monologue. Persona pieces are the place in which this would get most troubling. If we get rid of the costume rule, people then have free reign to dress as characters, and they will. Imagine Aaron Simm performing Mickey Mouse while dressed as the titular character. This is where the rule is needed. Remember that the costume rule is technically a subsect of the prop rule.

    For the most part? If the costuming seems subtle? Like matching t-shirts, like wearing wings (that don’t have shit to do with the poem), then leave it alone. This is the point of having a slammaster – to make judgment calls.

    But if somebody does a poem about the moon dressed as a bloody astronaut? Then we’re getting away from what slam is supposed to be – you and your words. We can’t stop everything from getting through as far as this rule is concerned, but abandoning it altogether I think is going to create problems.


    Fuck me I hate the clothing discussion. The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to call as a slam master is a pair of glasses. In my own head, my rule is “don’t touch it”.

    I do like the idea of the general clothing rule, like “shirt, pants, hijab, etc…”

    But I believe the second you touch it or gesture to it – you make the distinction between -any- article of the sort, and the one that you are wearing right then and there.

    Keep it general, don’t touch it. Only my two cents on this one, rather than the nickel ninety-five you’ve been getting on the others.

    • rpriske says:

      Books – well, obviously I don’t agree, But I have nothing to add from my initial post.

      Costumes – do you really think that would happen? I don’t. In fact, I think if it happened it would hurt the poet, because they would look kind of ridiculous.

      And, honestly, does it really matter if someone dresses up like an astronaut? Other than that person looking foolish, would it really affect the event?

      Props – the whole ‘just don’t touch it’ thing is the point. It is emphasizing the rule for the same of the rule. If I touch my generic shirt while saying the word shirt NOTHING about the poem or performance has changed. Under the current rule there is now a penalty… not because it did anything to alter the slam or change the outcome… but because there is a completely arbitrary rule against it.

      Rules should not exist to serve themselves. They should exist to serve the event.

      For the first two, there is a purpose. (I happen to disagree with that purpose, but that is definitely open for debate.)

      The last one, though, serves no purpose. Telling a poet that they can’t touch their shirt while saying the word shirt serves the rule, but nothing else. It does not change the fact that they are wearing a shirt. It isn’t like the judge suddenly notices (Hey, yeah… they ARE wearing a shirt!)

      When you (and I, and everyone who has ever coached anyone) says ‘just don’t touch anything’, are we telling them that because touching their shirt will give them an advantage in some way? No, it is just because we don’t want to get nailed by a rule that would only ever be noticed by the slam master and the anal few who are watching for it.

      The RULE detracts from the slam.

  3. Dan(AKA Dan Murray(AKA Dan)) says:


    We can agree to disagree on this one. But I’m reasonably certain that if this rule is dropped, you’ll be hearing complaints every time it happens.


    Don’t sell this crowd short. There are a lot of very effective ways poets could use overt costumes. The astronaut thing is just a hyperbolic example. The thing about looking foolish is – if you OWN it? it stops being foolish, and becomes effective. (own as in rock it, not as in proprietary).

    And -especially- in comedy pieces – in which foolish may very well be the goal. “I don’t think it will happen” is very different from “I won’t let it happen”.


    This is the problem with rules that are up to interpretation on a case by case basis – they need a hard line. And I don’t believe this hard line is arbitrary. The gesturing changes the identification of “a piece of clothing” to “my piece of clothing” – it’s the first line of specification, and while it’s not as overt as identifying specific patterns on said piece of clothing, it stops any and all identification, and further, stops challenges in their tracks.

    With only specifying general clothing, where is the line? Are pockets a prop? Is stitching? Is fabric? What’s the difference between saying “my jeans” and “this denim”? Where is the line drawn between general and specific? For the sake of fairness, it needs to be drawn -somewhere-. I adhere to “don’t touch it” because it stops me from having to write a list of clothing and identifying which is prop and which is not. And it stops a bunch of semantic-based arguments and challenges from forming afterwards which (especially at a national event) – really WILL detract from the slam.

  4. Steve Currie says:

    I’ve read through your discussion on props a few times and I really can’t make sense of it. But it seems to make a lot of sense to you so maybe I’m not getting something. It seems to me like “these boots” and “my hijab” are entirely specific, pointing to precise on stage items. The only differences in your ‘not allowed’ examples is that they have more details, which makes enforcing the rule a difficult and subjective job of choosing which bit of reference (the colour, the pattern, the label, the beadwork) is “one detail too far”

    I think we should scrap both rules. Let performers dress up their pieces however they want and let the audiences decide. I doubt it will turn Canadian slams into some weird prop comedy night but if it does and audiences are responding to that, why not?

    At least it would mean organizers never have to tell someone what to wear or what to write about or what to touch during a performance.

    • rpriske says:

      First off, I am personally not drastically opposed to just scrapping those rules but I have a feeling that would not be widely accepted.

      On to the first point, these are dramatically different things.

      If someone follows the current rules and says ‘my pants’ and doesn’t touch their pants, nothing changes the fact that they are standing on stage, wearing pants. Everyone can see that they are wearing pants. Touching them or not touching them changes nothing.

      Under my proposal, if that same poet does that same poem but touches their pants while performing, they have still changed nothing. They are still wearing pants. The fact that they touched them did not alter their performance in any meaningful way.

      If, however, the poet said ‘my right and white striped pants’ while wearing red and white striped pants, they have now made those pants part of the performance. They have CHANGED the performance by the fact that they are wearing something that they made part of the show.

      As I said at the start of this comment, that actually doesn’t bother me, but what I am trying to do with this proposal is create a rule that fits the SPIRIT of the current rule without its current anal nature.

      (When someone gets a penalty because they pointed down when they mentioned their shoes, that makes the penalty about the RULES rather than about the poetry and competition. I want to change that. The rules should be METHOD of getting a result, not the thing that creates the results.)

      Let me reiterate, if there was a push to just scrap these rules, I would be right in line with that.

      • Steve Currie says:

        Yeah scrap them both! Let’s make the push happen.

        On one hand we have more options for artists, fewer poems disqualified, fewer decisions for bout masters, no arguments over what makes a costume or a prop or a reference. Hurray!

        On the other hand we have.. a worry we will see too many poems about pants? That our vision of what slam should be will change?

        Also I think the nudity rule should be scrapped, for all the same reasons

      • rpriske says:

        The nudity rule won’t be scrapped.

  5. Shawna Dimitry says:

    Hey Rusty.

    I see what you’re doing here and I agree with how it’s going. I’m going to bring up a question that Steve began to discus: what detail is too much?

    I was one of two poets this year to get deducted for a prop violation. The deduction I received largely started this conversation. The line in my poem was “I’m 5’5 and worn out boots”. I gestured to my feet when I said this line (the video is proof). My boots were brand new (I’d bought them the day before the performance in question). Based on your proposed new envisioning of this rule, how would I fare? Would I receive a deduction or not?

    I know I’m asking this question in reference to my particular situation, but situations like this are very likely to occur. How much detail is “too much”? And what happens if you have one detail, but the detail doesn’t supper-obviously fit or non fit the object in question? I can’t think of any analogous situations right now, but they’re sure to arise.

    • rpriske says:

      Under the proposed rule this would not be a violation. That would be a generic comment. (As opposed to “I’m 5’5″ in red, lace-up Timberlands”, while wearing and referring to red, lace-up Timberlands. Which would be a violation.)

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