An Evening of Pain, Anger, and Beauty

I’d never attended a poetry slam before. This was the grand slam for Seattle. It was the final competition from which the winner will go on to the national finals in Georgia (apparently the heart of poetry in America; who knew?).

Not surprisingly, all eight of the contestants were pretty young. I’m guessing that all were under forty and probably most were under thirty.

The rules were that the poems had to be original and under three minutes long.  No props were allowed (sorry Gallagher).

Five people in the crowd were randomly selected to be judges. They graded on a score of 0.0 to 10.0. The low score and the high score were tossed out. There were three rounds of poems. The winner obviously would have the highest collective score.

The first interesting thing is that the time limit seemed to force a very consistent style; namely talking fast in an almost rap rhythm.  All poets took a moment to collect themselves, and then launched into their poem at breakneck speed. This reminded me of the Radiolab episode that discussed college debate. College debate has devolved to this state where all participants shout out facts as fast as they possibly can, not sounding like any debate I’ve heard.

Secondly, these are not Robert Frost poems. They were all, at least as far as I can tell without actually knowing any of the poets, intensely painful, personal experiences. For example, the so-called warm-up poems (to give the judges practice in scoring) were centered around a Jewish grandfather that survived the Holocaust turning his back on the Civil Rights movement and a man trying to break a multi-generational cycle and be gentle with his son.

Most of the poems were intensely moving. It was if the poets were trying to tear out their still beating hearts out of their chests and show them triumphantly to the audience. There were poems about being an illegal immigrant, raising a black son during the time of Trayvon Martin, a sister with breast cancer, several about the difficulties of being transgender, and several about being black in a white dominated world. The poet that spoke of immigration and one of the transgender poets were particularly eloquent, earning standing ovations, and scores of 10.0.

The audience was hugely responsive and encouraging.

I did find it interesting that all of the poets were men of color, women of color, or transgender. The audience, since this is Seattle, was pretty overwhelmingly white, and considering that most people brought dates, was at least majority straight.

So, you had poets primal screaming their pain, anguish, and despair to the very people that at some level are representative of the systemic environment that brings about those very emotions. The audience was supportive and empathetic, but the dichotomy of the poets and their message and the audience that they were passing the message on to seemed incongruous.

Of course, I myself am a white male. I paid a grand total of $10 to listen to eight marginalized artists cathartically (hopefully?) express their marginalization. Did they even get paid to do this? How much could they have been paid? Sure, I’ll probably donate some more money to help pay their way to go to the nationals in Georgia, but still, is this truly helping or this just another way to assuage the white guilt that I feel when I’m face to face with the systemic oppression of the marginalized that still takes place today?

There was one poet that was actively heckled by the audience. His first poem was not warmly received, so perhaps he thought, fuck it, if I’m going down, I’m going down in flames. His second poem was about a teenage girl’s abortion, told from the viewpoint of the teenage boy that impregnated her. As you can probably imagine, this did not go down well. Women were yelling and hissing at him throughout the poem. He received virtually no applause and received several scores of 0.0. It was interesting because the poem was as well constructed, as emotionally intense as the others, and was clearly an honest expression. This was clearly not a night for such a poem, and I had to think that the poet knew it and did it anyway. Was he taking the risk of honest expression knowing that he’d be shouted down or did he knowingly troll the audience?

The final interesting thing is that the Town Hall is an old building. It has a very limited number of bathrooms. With such older buildings, the usual case is that the men’s bathroom moves along fairly briskly while a serpentine line forms for the women’s bathroom. Tonight, next to both bathrooms were paper signs stating that both bathrooms were gender neutral. Therefore, both bathrooms had pretty long lines. I did not go myself so I do not know if the urinals were somehow now concealed or women had to stand waiting while men openly urinated in front of them. I also don’t know if this was a one time deal or the new normal for the Town Hall.  I do know that we are certainly not in North Carolina.

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