It may sound violent, but the new craze is really performance poetry in motion
Forget quizzes and one act plays about waiting for the gas man to arrive, quite the latest use for the upstairs room in a pub is for a slam. Indeed, slamming is positively storming across London, though for the lack of reverberating doors you'd be forgiven for not having noticed. For slamming is about performance poetry.

Sitting round tables in a candle-lit room listening to the bearded Bob Cobbing growl and holler while his partner punctuates the sounds with his own brand of music involving a mutilated guitar, a bow and a deeply concentrated expression, one feels transported back in time to a Bohemian London of the Sixties. Anything goes here and the variety of material on offer would make a seamstress blush.

The focal point of the evening is a competition in which anyone and everyone is encouraged to step up on to the stage, blow the dust off rhymes penned during their adolescence and offer their souls up for judgment. The experts with the scorecards are picked at random from the audience so if you're taking the plunge bring a lot of friends.

Francesca Beard set off the proceedings at Babushka's on Monday night, the new regular slot for slammers, with the spine-tingling "Rehabilitation", a lament to a friend who used to be wittily, if narcotically, inspired until he underwent: "... sardonic irrigation ... All your bitterness was washed away with rehabilitation."

Beard suffered from what's known in the trade as "first person point drift", that is to say, sober voting.

She was easily the best but didn't win. First prize went to Sally Smithson and her own ode to addiction, at least in preference to a man:

"An addiction is stable.

You know where you are

With a fix or a joint

Or a choc-o-late bar."

But by now the scorers were vying for first place in the generosity stakes and had stopped listening to the poems long ago. Slam Master in London is John Paul O'Neill. On hearing about slam's popularity in the US, he set up the first Annual Slam Championships in 1994 and filled the Chats Palace Arts Centre in Hackney with 17 competing teams of poets and a theatre full of spectators. Since then he's toured the world with his gig and even won slam awards for his own entries right across the US.

O'Neill reels his performers in with promises of prizes, which consist of an assortment of literary must-haves, like a manual on how to grow your own strawberries and a pop-up dinosaur book.

"Finally slamming is starting to take off in Britain. Audiences are getting bigger and rowdier, though they're still too polite to boo the no-good acts off stage," he said.

Now, visiting established American slammers contact him when they're in town, so that they can appear in his gigs. Enter the unbearably young genius from Alberquerque, Amy Helms. With her sing-song voice Helms puts the "performance" into performance

poetry. Using repetition, rhythm and astonishing truthfulness, she bewitches her audience with stories about violent relationships or the nature of nightmares. Far too much wisdom for 20. She and Alanis Morrisette must have been raised on the same baby food.

So you're not a poet? No matter. If you rap, play an instrument or sing, you too are fair game, so long as your material is original. But if, like me, you'd rather undergo a spot of water torture, be sure to go along for the laugh. As Jude The Observer did, indeed, observe of his rival poets on Monday night, "my soul has been fed tonight".

The 5th Annual London Slam Championships will take place on March 28 and 29 at the Post Office Theatre, Hewer Street, W10. Slam Showdown is 8.30-11pm Mondays at Babushka's, Tavistock Crescent, W11.