This past week, I participated in the 2014 National Poetry Slam’s 25th Anniversary competition in Oakland, California. The National Poetry Slam is an annual poetry festival in which teams of poets from up to 72 different cities converge in one location for a week of readings, workshops, showcases, events, and of course, poetry slam competitions.
A poetry slam is a competition of reading or reciting poetry, and each competing poet is given three minutes to share their poem for the audience. Before the competition starts, five random judges are selected from the audience. These judges have no qualifications and cannot be familiar with any of the poets. They judge each poem on a scale from 1-10, and the highest and lowest scores are dropped to give the poet a score anywhere from 0-30. No props or music can be used by any competing poet—the stage solely showcases the writer and their poem.
In order to compete in the National Slam, each city has to hold its own local slams to determine who will win a spot on the city’s national team. In these local-level competitions, a slammaster manages the event to make sure that everything runs smoothly. This year, I competed and earned a spot on Detroit’s National Poetry Slam team, but I also served as one of the co-slammasters that made sure the slams were fair for every competitor, and that the team was able to make it out to the national event. This year was only my second time on a national team, and my first time being a co-slammaster for my hometown.
I was introduced to slam poetry around the same time I was introduced to poetry in general, during my undergraduate years. The written and spoken word have become passions of mine. As I’ve grown and experienced more in one realm of poetry, I have had the same progress in the other. This year, I was also the facilitator of the Midwest Regional Poetry Slam, so it has been a very exciting year.
Nationals began on Monday night with the first ever Last Chance Slam, an event where poets who weren’t part of a team could compete, and the top finishers could make a pick-up team to compete in the National Slam. On Tuesday, registration, orientation and a few meet-and-greet events took place before the competitions began. I attended a performance workshop where poets were allowed to share their work for a set period of time, and a panel of experienced writers and performers would give critiques to help the performers grow, which was eye-opening. After walking around and getting to know Oakland for a little while, I went to one of the bouts (preliminary competitions) to support the team from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I competed in the poet basketball tournament on Wednesday, which provided a little fun and excitement, and gave writers at the festival an outlet outside of their poetry. After the basketball tournament, I spent a good portion of the day preparing with my slam team, and that evening we competed in our first bout against teams from New Jersey, Portland, and Arizona. We finished second place in that competition.
On Thursday, there were specialty open mics for those grieving a loss of a writer from their locale, for self-identified nerds, for the disabled, and many more. That evening, we had our second preliminary bout against teams that won their first competition from Washington DC, Durham, and Seattle. We unfortunately came fourth in this competition.
Friday was a busy day. My morning began with the slammasters meeting, where all of the different managers from the various cities met up with the Executive Committee and Director of Poetry Slam Incorporated (PSI), voted on various changes, and discussed updates that are happening within the organization. PSI is a non-profit organization that oversees many events like the National Poetry Slam. This was my first time taking part in this democratic process. Later in the day, the semi-finalist teams competed, and the group poem finals took place as well (group poems are performed with two to five people on stage, sharing what they’ve written together).
On the last day of the festival, there was a picnic and a few more bonding events before the finals competition, where the top four teams (from DC, New Orleans, Denver and NYC) competed for the title. It was a tight competition, and in the end, Washington, DC won the National Poetry Slam for the first time. After finals, there was an after party where everyone got to celebrate the good times shared before departing back to their respective hometowns the next day.
The National Poetry Slam exposed me to what the writers of our generation are writing, and what similarities and differences I may have with them. Being around so much poetry inspired many ideas for my own writing, and also showed me what important learn how to foster community amongst writers, and how to also get them involved in the local community of the host city as well. I’m currently in the process of organizing the qualifiers for Detroit’s team next year, and I look forward to return to the National Poetry Slam again.