Australian Slam Poetry Winners 2023

Rebecca Varidel
12th Oct 2023

Australia Crowns Two Slam Champions

There was a roaring crowd at Sydney Opera House on Sunday 8 October. Sixteen poets, two representing each state/territory, are tearing up the stage. The audience cheers wildly. Judges, trying to keep up with these verse hurlers, narrow the talent down to the top five, when the unbelievable happens.  

NSW First Nations poet Rob Waters with 20 years of writing packed into his notebooks – faces the infectious wit of 16-year-old K.J. Hayward from Ballarat, Victoria. They tie for the top spot – twice. The baffled host turns to the organisers with a shrug and declares, “Welcome your Australian Poetry Slam 2023 – National Champion x 2! We have two winners!” 

Australian Poetry Slam is the largest spoken word prize in Australia, with 70 heats across the nation. The National Final is the culmination of Story Week, Word Travels’ annual celebration of performed writing.  

Rob Waters, 2023 Australian Poetry Slam Co-Champion, a Gomeroi man, resonates as a poet, storyteller, cultural educator, and spoken word artist. Rob impressed the audience and secured the dual win after performing a powerful poem about the Stolen Generation.

K.J. Hayward a 16-year-old self-taught poet and home-school student from Victoria, was crowned the 2023 Australian Poetry Slam - Youth Champion. Her journey from an open-mic night in Ballarat to clinching the Victorian State Final and now the National Championship is a testament to the power of raw talent and passion. K.J. 's poems hit against our flawed education system and handled toxic masculinity with compassion.

Rob's mastery in performance and spoken word touched the audience. Reflecting on his win, Rob said.

"It’s an exciting time at the moment. People are listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices being heard. Despite the negativity that’s out there at the moment, I feel a shift and there’s a lot more people wanting to listen to our people’s stories, to hear what we have to say and what we have experienced.

“Some of the stuff I talk about can make people feel uncomfortable but it’s the truth we live everyday. This isn’t about truth telling but truth listening, and it’s about time Australia started listening because we’ve been telling the truth for a long time. At the end of the day, our culture is grounded in love, and when we speak with love and listen with love, that is where progress can happen.”

Of her win K.J. said “I never once in a million years thought that this was going to happen. I’ve gone from performing my first open mic night in Ballarat to winning the Australian Poetry Slam at the Opera House, in the space of two months, this has all happened so quickly!

“Performing for the APS has always been a dream of mine but if I could go back and tell the 12 year old me who read and re-read former APS winner, Solli Raphael’s book, that she was going to be a champion one day... she would never believe me. I am super honoured to come to a draw with the amazing Rob Waters, this has really put into perspective just how much my poetry has moved the audience because his words are just beautiful.”

Miles Merrill, Creative Director of Word Travels, said, “Slams represent poetry for and from the people. Personal stories and everyday life shape the Australian literary landscape. Events like the Australian Poetry Slam National Final celebrate the range, diversity and depth of our culture.

“We’ve got a 20 year poetry veteran steeped in Gomeroi culture sharing the stage with a 16-year-old with just two months of slamming on her literary CV. Cross generational / cross-cultural experiences like this create the kind of empathy, understanding and listening Australia needs.”

As Australian Poetry Slam Champions, Rob and KJ will share a prize pack worth $20,000 which includes professional mentoring, publishing, touring and performance opportunities in 2024.

Previous APS winners include: Novelist Omar Musa, poet Solli Raphael and Stephen Oliver (from ABC’s Black Comedy).

The APS National Final was the crescendo of Story Week, which unfolded from 1–8 October and reverberated with multilingual musings, First Nations voices, spirited discussions, and of course, poetry that set the stage ablaze. The Australian Poetry Slam National Final, now a landmark event for spoken word, wrapped up the celebration with an energy that promises to linger long after.

National Finalist performances, ranging from the contemporary to the deeply traditional, can be revisited on the Australian Poetry Slam YouTube channel》