The Smallest/Biggest Internal Victories and the Continuum/Enigma of Slam Poetry

A small thing worth mentioning: On Monday night, I won a poetry slam for the first time in my life–more specifically, in my seven year history of participating in them. Since September, I’ve been attending and competing in Mental Graffiti slams. And it wasn’t until very recently that I fully understood why.

Since my move to Chicago, the hometown of slam poetry, I’ve had a really weird case of genre dysphoria in my work. I’ve been labeled as a slam poet by my academic peers and a “page poet” by my spoken word colleagues. Like many, I’ve been stifled by certain criticisms as a student of poetry. Coming into a poetic community in the city with a vibrant artistic history, I was unprepared for the amount of seriousness necessary to accomplish anything as someone seeking a career as a writer in any genre.

I started writing poetry seriously for the first time at age 15 while studying at Interlochen Arts Academy. When I was subsequently kicked out of aforementioned arts high school, I discovered slam poetry as an extracurricular activity in my public high school. My main motivation was always to express myself in a way that makes people understand me. I’ve been driven by a fascination with language and a musicality that drew me into verse. I performed in a lot of youth slams, even in college, but I also wrote sestinas, abecedarians, exquisite corpses, short stories, screenplays, collaborations with musicians, even soul-sucking copywriting.

Throughout all of this, I also participated in poetry slams from time to time, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I really thought about winning. I’ve been doing slams for fun, and for the creative challenge; I spent this whole last year memorizing poems I perfected for publication and performing them as a challenge for myself in pushing my work forward.

Like many others, I have a lot of stage fright. I start getting a rush of adrenaline that keeps me from getting any sleep or having any appetite days before a performance, competitive or otherwise. Written presentation has taking an unforgiving precedent in my work, helped by wanting to have my work read aloud. I also faced a lot of criticism within my college poetry program for writing for a live, rather than academic, audience. By my senior year, my biggest flaw, according to some of my professors, was writing poetry that was “too content driven.” I’ve felt a constant challenge to write perfect poetry for a long time–poetry that appears flawlessly when read on a page, sounds beautiful while still making sense when heard, that has the right amount of being about something while letting the language do the work.

So when I started going to the Mental Graffiti slam and making the attempt to get on a National team, I wasn’t too sure about my motivations, nor my confidence. My goal has been to slam every month (which I almost succeeded in doing) and hopefully accumulate enough points to make it to the qualifying slam, where I’d get the opportunity to perform alongside lyrical goliaths. I wanted to prove to myself I could keep up with them, but over time I’ve felt even more driven to prove to myself that I could write poetry to my standards without pandering to gimmicks and still do well in a slam. But up until last night I had performed only one poem that I’d written during the slam season.

After the last Mental Graffiti, however, I realized I would not be able to make it to the grand slam if I didn’t win the last chance slam (the last qualifying slam before finals). I exhausted my repertoire of memorized poems without doing any repeats, and I knew that if I repeated any poems I’d done before, they wouldn’t score well enough for me to place, let alone win.

I started getting advice from other slam poets on how to win a slam — “Admit it’s a competition, and that you’re doing this to win.” “I didn’t win a poetry slam until I stopped caring about the scores.” “You have to make the poem a part of your body.” “Just be yourself.” “Just write a poem and win.”

Eventually something clicked though. My friend Anthony told me, “You’re not competing against the other poets. You’re competing against the judges.” The judges in a poetry slam are usually completely unqualified. Usually, poetry slam judges are not poets, but people who come to watch a performance competition (at least in Chicago). The underlying motivator of slam poetry is to write poems that are engaging and meaningful to audiences who may not always understand or care about poetry. The challenge of a truly successful poem (I’m talking about the types of poems that knock the wind out of you the way a really good poem should) is not to underestimate the intelligence of that audience, let alone your own abilities. With this new understanding, I felt inspired to write a poem.

I’m still not sure what, exactly, it takes to win a slam. If it’s as simple as having fresh and exciting work delivered with the right amount of confidence, the challenge of winning can and should be a regular challenge to many poets. I wrote, meticulously revised, and memorized a new poem in the span of a week and a half before the competition. I didn’t anticipate winning, however. Winning a slam seemed like an impossible feat, something my work would never accomplish, and I’d fully accepted that fate. Instead, I wrote the poem I wanted to write and felt satisfied, going in, that whatever place I took, I’d make myself, and the handful of people cheering me on in the audience, proud.

But I did win. Through a twist of fate, it seems. The one poet who outscored me went over time by over a minute resulting in a massive point deduction. One poet choked on his second poem, leaving the stage after one minute, shaking his head and saying, “I can’t do this.” In the second round, the poet who scored best in the previous round read his poem off his cellphone. When we were called up on stage to announce the winners, though, I had no idea that I’d won. I thought I’d be taking second or third. I didn’t keep track of the scores.

So when Emily Rose announced that I was the winner, I, in so many words, freaked the fuck out and had a total Miss America moment. With one swoop, I’d met my goal for the season of qualifying for the grand slam. On a bigger scale, I’d done the impossible, something I’d tried so hard to do so many times in the past decade, with a poem that I felt could and should exist outside of the realm of competitive poetry. It felt amazing for my work to pay off, especially because I admitted my own control over the situation, finally, and wrote something I believed was beautiful. I had proved myself wrong. I could win a slam doing exactly the type of poetry I wanted to write.

The poetry slam is such an enigma to me. I fully intend on taking the competition seriously from here on out, to continue to push myself to produce new work, and, if I have the good fortune of making it on a team, to continue that effort all the way to the National Poetry Slam. But, whatever the scores may be, the biggest victory is the one that happened inside me. I proved myself wrong by proving to myself I have what it takes. No competition, for the rest of my life, can take that away from me.

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