Eleven years ago next month, in Austin, TX, I took one of the most life-changing thrill rides ever when I attended my first National Poetry Slam, as a member of the 1998 team representing the Nuyorican Poets Café that would go on to become their first (and still only) team to win the Championship. The victory itself was amazing, but what really struck me and lasted much, much longer was the diverse community of poets in attendance, and their passion for the event that brought them together every Summer.
The competition was fierce, and there were some who took it way too seriously (myself included!), but late at night, after all of the bouts were done and people gathered in groups of old and new friends to talk, drink and trade poems, the true spirit of the slam always shone through: “It’s not about the points, it’s about the poetry.”
I came back from that first NPS inspired and on a mission, and in September of 1998 added a regular slam series to my fledgling reading series, a little bit louder, and the rest is history.
Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz (Soft Skull Press, 2008)
Next month, in West Palm Beach, FL, the 2009 National Poetry Slam will take place, and I have no doubt that there will be several poets who walk away similarly inspired.
An old friend from the slam, Scott Woods — slammaster of the Columbus, OH poetry slam and current President of Poetry Slam, Inc. — emailed me last month asking if I had any advice to offer the first-timers on his team, and it brought back a rush of good memories and a dash of “If I knew then what I know now…!”.
Here’s what I told him to pass on to them:
1) Memorize your poems. I almost always read from paper when I was slamming, EXCEPT at NPS. The energy can be incredible during a bout, and you want to be free to ride it, not constantly disconnecting from the audience by looking up and down from a piece of paper. Have it in your hand as a safety net, if you must, but commit to knowing each poem backwards and forwards before you step on the stage.
2) Make a chapbook, get a chapbook. Keep yours simple, 20-24 pages max, and include a range of poems that go beyond your slam repertoire. Give a copy to any poet whose work you enjoy, without expectation of a trade. Also, buy or barter chapbooks from any poets whose work you enjoy. (Avoid CDs; focus on the writing you like more than the performances.)
3) Enjoy the WHOLE week. Rock your poems every night, but don’t get so caught up in the competition that you miss out on the community. Check out as many day events and other bouts as possible and talk to people, both poets and locals. Soak as much of it in as you can because the experience WILL affect your work in ways you might not even realize until months later.
I’d give that same advice to someone attending their 2nd, 5th or 10th NPS — though the latter two would also get the “Why are you still competing?” lecture first! 😉
I made some great friends (along with some top-notch enemies) and had some amazing experiences during my years in the poetry slam community, but you always remember your first and, to this day, Austin remains my favorite city outside of New York City thanks to that first visit and the great people, poets and non-poets, I met there.