Last Friday my husband and I went on what we thought would be a cool date night: we attended one of four semi-final bouts being held in Oakland for the National Poetry Slam title.

Although I didn’t compete, I ended up being alternately booed and cheered by a vocal and enthusiastic SRO crowd for over three hours. Because when I entered the Shadow Ultra Lounge that night, the event organizers asked me if I would be one of five judges charged with determining which of the five competing international teams would advance to the finals.

What can I say? It sounded like fun. I had no idea it would be such a big thing. Here’s a little background for the uninitiated. Slams are fast-paced, competitive poetry performances in which poets have a limited amount of time to impress judges–who are randomly selected from the audience, as I was.

The first National Poetry Slam took place in San Francisco in 1990, marking the beginning of an artistic phenomenon that has caught the imagination of passionate audience members around the world. This summer, the National Poetry Slam returned to the Bay Area to celebrate its 25th anniversary, with Oakland as its central location.

Hundreds of top-level performance-poetry teams from the U.S. and Canada convened in Oakland for a week of slam poetry competition, educational workshops and community outreach events. Festival organizers described the week as “part championship tournament, part poetry summer camp and part traveling exhibition.” Thousands of people came to the Bay Area to attend this celebration of the spoken word.

The other four judges and I were given about five minutes of verbal instruction: Decimal points are important. Leave your prejudices and politics aside. Follow your gut. We were also given a handout titled, “So You’ve Been Chosen to Judge a Poetry Slam.”

“Remember,” it said, “a poem that deserves a 10 is like a grand slam in the World Series, and a poem that deserves a 0 should never have been performed.” One prejudice is actively encouraged: to favor “the true and the beautiful over the mundane and superficial, the original and enchanting over the boring and pedestrian.”

Trust me, there was absolutely nothing boring or pedestrian coming out of this group. Seventy-two teams started the competition, including The Philly Pigeon, Slam Free or Die (New Hampshire), The Wham Bam Thank You Slam! (St. George, UT), Lawn Gnome Slam (Phoenix, AZ), and our own city’s Oakland Poetry Slam.

The five semifinalists I was judging were Rain City Seattle, UrbSLAM (St. Louis), Toronto Poetry Slam, NYC louderARTS, and NYC-Urbana. Urbana was hoping to bring home a record fourth National PS championship.

Performers use all the techniques of storytelling, songwriting, theater and stand-up comedy to score their points. At the heart of each performance, though, were the poets’ powerful words. I quickly came to realize that slam is not a passive performance. Audience members are strongly encouraged to participate by cheering, whistling or mildly heckling the hosts or judges.

Thank God they kept their heckling of me mild. I really was trying my best. Here are some of the subjects that the remarkably diverse performers chose to cover in their performances:

  • The experience of being gay and black
  • Families’ shame of the alcoholic and the autistic
  • Blacks in horror movies
  • A conversation between a daughter with depression and her mother
  • The magic of women
  • Inside the mind of a fat girl
  • Racial profiling in Arizona
  • Who you want with you when the Zombie Apocalypse happens

We judges were told by event organizers that our scores might rise as the night progresses. It’s called “score creep,” and we’d be OK if we stayed consistent. I was tickled that another judge, who was across the room, and whom I never met, often came up with the same score that I did, decimal point and all.

In the end, NYC-Urbana walked away with the prize and went on to the finals the following night: a sold-out show at the Scottish Rite Temple where Beltway Poetry Slam, from Washington, DC, claimed the title of National Poetry Slam Champions.

The next time my husband and I attend a slam—and there will be a next time; we’re completely hooked—I think I just want to be an audience member, without the pressure of being a judge. Because although the Slam organizers thanked us for “having the courage to put your opinions on the line,” while I was judgin’ the slam, they were definitely slammin’ the judge.

One Response

  1. Mike

    I regularly go to slams to compete or to watch, but I hate judging. Some people really take things personally (which they kinda should, because the poems are personal).


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