Falling Back In Love With the Poetry Slam

love/hate by Patrícia Lobo
love/hate by Patrícia Lobo

Eleven years ago, I very publicly and definitively stepped down from running louderARTS (back then, still a little bit louder) for the second time, frustrated over the state of the poetry slam community after my return from a year in Virginia, away from it all and intensely missing it. It was a bittersweet departure as that community, both local and national, had become so deeply embedded in my life it felt like an anti-climactic divorce and I was giving up custody of the kids knowing it would dramatically change my relationship with them.

And it did.

For the next six years or so, I returned sporadically, each visit becoming more about drinking and snark than poetry (thankfully, this was all pre-Twitter), and during that particularly jaded period I did the interview with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz that would end up in her excellent history of the NYC poetry slam scene, Words in Your Face. Fortunately, Cristin’s editing softened the bitterness and disappointment that was on full display that day, but it was obvious.

Fast forward to this time last year and something changed. I was in a different place, less jaded, far removed from my own disappointments, and it seemed like the community had changed, too. Or, at least, there were pockets of the community coming together in ways I recognized and liked.

And in the months after, even more changed, and I went from just showing up regularly on most Mondays and occasionally reading a poem, to easing back in to help Lynne run things in the midst of a tough transitional period, to fully taking over the poetry slam mid-season and blowing it up.

The poetry slam was both my gateway into the world of poetry, and eventually became the exit ramp that launched me out of it, but after sitting back watching the early part of the season progress, enjoying a variety of interesting new [to me] voices remind me what’s always been special about the slam — not the competition, but the community that forms around it, despite it — I jumped back in with both feet.

The slam isn’t the automatic audience draw it used to be (for us, at least), and I can’t help but wonder if that’s partly because, a long time ago, the organized slam became much less about putting on a good show for the audience and providing an open forum for a variety of voices, and more about establishing an alternative career path for a select group of poets. The revolution gone corporate, as so often happens.

My first step was getting us back to the basics. Over the years, so many arbitrary and convoluted rules had been added to our slam format it had literally gotten to the point where poets had “slam cards” to track their activity, with an “extra credit” opportunity where you’d get an extra point towards your rank by inviting another poet to the slam or open mic. It was the worst combination of protectionism and a complete lack of understanding of what makes a community tick that I could imagine, so I blew it the fuck up and stripped it back to the bare essentials: a stage, a mic, three “judges,” an open format that encourages all voices, and a host who remembers the points aren’t the point.

And now, after three great semi-finals featuring some excellent work by a diverse mix of poets, we’re a week away from our Finals. While the lineup is a bit of a sausagefest with only one woman in the mix, all six poets are good writers and performers who will put on a great show: Thomas Fucaloro, Jamie Martin, Tatyana Muradov, Anthony Ragler, Gabriel Ramirez, and Brendan Wolff.

In another break from the old structure, the Finals will be, first and foremost, about choosing a Grand Slam Champion, while constructing a team for the National Poetry Slam takes a back seat, with only the top two finalists making the team. In a nod to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where I got my start, we’ll have two slam-offs to select the other two members of the team that will represent louderARTS in Oakland in August. Unlike in several years past, there’s not a single one in the mix that I’d not want on our team, and that’s a great feeling.

One thing I didn’t change was the format of the slam itself, retaining its challenging mix of 3-minute, 2-minute, and 1-minute poems that force poets to focus on their craft and editing just as much as their memorization and performance. One of the hallmarks of louderARTS has always been that we value craft above all, and a well-written poem read simply from the page will trump a pop culture-riddled rant performed with gusto every day, if not in points, then where it really counts.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that this little series I started in 1998 with Lynne and Roger is still running, especially in NYC where independent art and culture are aggressively being pushed out of Manhattan, but we’ll be celebrating our 16th anniversary during our show on May 12th, and I’m absolutely thrilled that it will combine our poetry slam finals with a feature by one of my favorite poets, mentors,  and friends: Willie Perdomo.  by an old friend of louderARTS, the incredible Eboni Hogan!

It really does take a clean break to heal right, and I think the louderARTS community is healthier and more vibrant than it’s been in years.

If you haven’t hung out with us in a while, come on back. I’ve witnessed it first-hand: you can go home again.

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