Friday, August 07, 2009

The National Poetry Slam championships 10 years later

Ten years ago, I was 22 years old and competing in the National Poetry Slam Championship.
Just writing that sentence is proof of how old I am, but also proof that at one time in my life, poetry was really the only thing I truly cared about.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the National Poetry Slam, taking place in West Palm Beach, Florida. More than 60 poetry slam teams from across the nation competed.

For the uninitiated, a poetry slam is competitive poetry match where judges, picked at random, give numeric scores to poets based on performance and content. It was invented by Chicago poet Marc Smith as a means of promoting poetry in the community beyond the academic set.
I discovered in 1998, at the urging of a friend. I was writing a lot of rap lyrics at the time, not doing much with them. My journalism career was already well underway, but I still had a strong desire to do something creative.
My friend would pick me up at random to go out of town and hit up open mics, wherever we could find them. Sometimes, we'd travel as far as San Francisco and Oakland just to get our creative fix.
One night in Santa Cruz, we stumbled upon a poetry slam, signed up, and proceeded to earn a majority of 9 and 10 scores for our two poems. From that point, I was hooked.
That lead me on a path to the 10th annual National Slam Poetry Championships in Chicago, where I competed as a member of the first and only Santa Cruz/Salinas national slam team.
Competing in the National Poetry Slam is like being in the freak olympics. There were cross-dressing poets. And cowboy poets. And hip-hop poets. And Guatamalan/Iranian/Muslim/Catholic poet.
To fit in, I died my hair green. It just felt right.
Over the course of five days, I experienced a flash flood of culture and talent that would carry over for a decade. I still slam on occasion, nowhere near the number of times from those early days.
I've been in a bit of a creative rut of late, and I know at some point I'm going to have to get over it. But thinking back to those early slam years, and marking more than 10 years as a slam poet, I'm reminded of how awesome an experience it is.
So props to the folks out in West Palm Beach duking it out right now to be slam champions of the world. Hopefully one of these days, I'll be able to get back there myself.

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