On October 15, 2016, the World Slam Poetry season of 2016 came to its magnificent conclusion when 14 poets from around the world competed one last time for the title. Flagstaff, AZ hosted the finals, which meant that I got the amazing opportunity to attend.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with poetry slam, this may not seem like a big deal, so let me explain: Poetry slam is a competition, a community, and a form of expression for poets young and old. Poetry hopefuls and seasoned veterans alike compete in their local slams by performing their original poems. Typically, random audience members rate them on a scale of one to ten. Poets with the lowest scores are eliminated each round until there is only one winner remaining. Flagstaff holds its own poetry slam weekly at Firecreek Coffee House every Wednesday evening.
Never been to a slam before? I’d definitely recommend checking out our local slam. Flagstaff has a super supportive and creative community of writers and poets who love to participate.
The World Slam Poetry finals are a pretty big deal for poets who regularly compete in their local slams. Ninety-six of the best poets from around the world come together to compete in preliminary competitions, and those with the top 12 scores make it to the finals. I only went to see the last night of the competition when the remaining 14 poets took to the stage and performed their hearts out. As I stood around the crowded lobby of Prochnow Auditorium waiting for the doors to open, I was amazed at the diversity and genuine sense of community that I felt from a group of complete strangers. I didn’t actually talk to anyone I didn’t know, introvert that I am, but it was really something to just take in the enthusiasm of all the people around me. Some of these people had flown overseas to be here! These were people who take their craft seriously, who will go to great lengths to share their stories and their passions.
After the doors opened, we all took our seats (and waited, and waited). Finally, the show began. The first poets to take to the stage were honorable mentions, poets who hadn’t made the cut but whose poems were considered artistically or thematically beautiful. After they went, the MC came onstage and gave the traditional introduction to slam, amidst the crowd’s customary heckles and responses. After the MC made introductions and explained the rules, the competition began.
The poems I heard that night were a blur—a blur of heart-rending truths that swelled, rose, and fell like music, like waves. When I left the competition that night, I felt like I’d experienced real catharsis.
One poet spoke of her experience getting an abortion, how a protester had stood in front of the clinic as she walked inside, and how their words and their face still haunt her to this day. She spoke of how she wants nothing more than to be a mother, a good mother, and that she wasn’t ready for that, so how could she bring a child into the world she wasn’t ready to love? Another poet rose his arms like a conductor, performed for us the symphony of a young black boy who was shot and killed. His arms waved as he cued swelling instruments and percussion as that boy fell to the ground. One poet gave us her experience working in clinics in her home country, desperately trying to save women in labor. She declared that misogyny does kill, when men must sign the contracts of their women just to allow surgery to be performed on them.
One poet spoke of his depression and his multiple attempts to commit suicide. He told us of how he had spent years trying to make shiny and beautiful the ugliness of his suicide attempts through his poetry, but that he would do no such thing in this poem. And yet there still was that shining beauty, he told us, because he was still here, upon this stage, alive. Another poet told us of how he, a teacher, had asked his students to write and perform haikus. He said one of his students, who is deaf, stood before the class and performed three haikus in sign language. The poet performed for us both in word and sign, declared what a fool he had been, to ask his student to learn his language, and not to bother learning the student’s too.
There were poems about rape, poems about police brutality, poems about the violent and senseless killing of people of color. It was all I could do just to watch, just to listen, just to be witness to this explosion of passion.
As the competition came to a close and one last poet took to the stage, he performed a freestyle poem. He spoke of us, the audience, who were all here because we knew how much this all mattered. He told us that we are the change. He told us this work is not done when the poets leave the stage. He ended to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, and he won first place.
I cannot tell you what it means and what it has meant for me to be able to experience, in person, the magic of that night. Of course, not every local slam is going to have poets who can quite grasp at the intensity and magic of those who made it to the finals, but that’s not the point. The point is to get onstage, to open your mouth, and to say something that opens you up to other human beings. The point is to open yourself up to a poet and take in what they have to say and feel. The point is to practice empathy and to really begin to understand the unshakable power that words can hold. Trust me, go to a slam and you’ll see. Words can shake you to your core and maybe even change you.
Photo Credit: John Quinonez