Who knew that while I was busy growing up in Wisconsin
, that only 3 hours away in Chicago
, Marc Smith was busy creating this thing that would have such a huge impact on my life: The Poetry Slam.
My mom didn’t get cable ‘til I was nearly in college, so I didn’t see Def Poetry until years later. In fact, my first live exposure to the Slam was in Brattleboro VT
during grad school where the scope of my writing became completely narrowed down to academic papers. It did for me then what it does for me still. It put me back in flow, it knocked me into that stream of words that exists in my mind just waiting for me to tap in and create something.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, there is this thing that exists in many cities around the world called a Poetry Slam. The Slam is a competitive poetry reading. There are 3 rounds and each participant has 3 minutes to give a compelling reading or recitation of their original work. The judges are random and so is the judging. They literally hold up score cards to tell you what they thought. It can be brutal. It can be awesome. But it is always interesting.
My first attempt at slamming was in 2008, when I made it my New Year’s resolution to slam once a month or until I won. I didn’t win until many moons later in 2010 in Des Moines, Iowa
. That night was really special because it was the first time my mother had ever seen me on the mic and I actually won…I couldn’t have planned it any better.
Sometime I felt frustrated by the arbitrary judging and the samey poetry. My presentation style was a bit less dramatic than the poets who were winning. I didn’t (still don’t) do that labored breathing- I’m having a seizure-over pronunciation thing. Nor did I only read the same 3 poems. When I read, I read it the way I hear it in my head…and sometimes it’s soft and quiet, and sometimes it’s angry or emotional, but it is always true to me and to my words. I also like to read new pieces, because writing has always been a way for me to process, a way for me to take what is in my head and see it spread out like the pensieve in Harry Potter. I can look into the lake of me and fish out what I really want to say, remember, or release. But many poets spend more time on their delivery than on their content.
In general I am a competitive person. I played soccer all through high school and turned every game into a grudge match, so naturally I became equally competitive about my poetry. This is one of the great criticisms of the Slam, that poetry is a such a unique and personal art form, that maybe it shouldn’t be competitive. I wrestled with that one for a while. In fact that was the reason that I stopped slamming for a few years. I wasn’t in place where I wanted my work to be graded by some stranger’s score card.
If it hadn’t been for the boredom that overtook me while staying with my Grandma in Iowa
, I might not have even gone to the Slam, but I’m glad I did. Not because I won, but because I reconnected with a community of poets and perhaps even more importantly with my own voice.Years later I feel like I’m finally able to really appreciate the Slam motto. “It’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry.” And that keeps me going back for more.
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, YA fiction aficionado, afro-punk, international educator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. You can find her most Tuesdays at the Seattle Poetry Slam or maybe just being nerdy at her favorite bookstores.