How We Rocked National Poetry Month

*This is a “reprint”, as it were, of a piece I wrote for Shelf Awareness 05/08/08. For pictures of our PōM Night, click on the picture below!

April was looking sparse, and there’s nothing worse for PoM Night at TKEan events manager. What to do? I thought: Well, it’s April. It’s National Poetry Month. Why not have our very own slam? I wasn’t really sure what a poetry slam was, but it sounded like fun. We could even give it a fancy title, call it the First Annual Thingy, and start a new tradition. At this point, I envisioned maybe 10 poets, 20 chairs (but only 15 of them filled) and a quiet night in the store. What I got was 70 people, only 60 of whom had chairs to sit in, and two rounds of 20 plus poets each, slamming, declaiming and generally having a poetically fantastic time.

Sound like fun? You, too, can put on a poetry event. Here are three easy steps:

1. Seek help. Immediately.

As I mentioned, I wasn’t really sure what a poetry slam was. It sounded like more fun than a simple open mic night. So, like any good twenty-something, I went online to Wikipedia. Turns out, there is a LOT to a slam, and I knew right away that I would need help. Help as in experienced-people help–experienced people who also like poetry. I began e-mailing the published poets we’d had readings for over the past few months, asking them if they’d like to “host”–a code word that translates to “help me organize, publicize and fraternize with the poetry community.” One by one they turned me down, each with a different reason: vacation, prior engagements, ill health. One, however, who also teaches at the University of Utah, offered to put me in touch with some of his graduate students.

2. Don’t call it a slam.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting at a cafe table with three graduate students, all poets, some of whom also taught creative writing. It was starting to look like maybe this wasn’t going to happen, after all.

“You want to do a slam? I don’t know if I’d be comfortable helping with one of those . . . ” We talked in circles for a while before I realized what was going on.

It turns out that in Salt Lake, there are rival poetry gangs. The University scene is focused on the art of crafting a poem. Then there is the spoken word scene, which itself is split into different groups. There are the official slams, which are deadly serious about performance, points earned and involve national competitions; then there is the Ruckus, a spoken word group that doesn’t have points, doesn’t compete, but puts on shows every month, with music and performances, that gather hundreds of onlookers and dozens of participants. How to get them all together? The answer is to call it anything you want, so long as you don’t call it a slam.

Once I accepted that I would have to change the name and format of the evening I’d already started marketing as a slam, things started to go swimmingly. My new collaborators got excited and came up with brilliant ideas: prizes! judges! judges from each rival gang! the Utah Poet Laureate as a judge! flyers! extra credit for students who participated! And on and on, until my head was spinning and I had three pages of notes.

3) Get excited!

There is nothing as energizing as working with enthusiastic people, and I was lucky enough to have the three graduate students in addition to the energetic support of the bookstore staff. With their help, I secured three amazing judges: the Utah Poet Laureate Kate Coles; Jesse Parent, a Salt City Slam organizer; and Joel Long, a local teacher and City Arts organizer. We distributed flyers, teachers offered extra credit for students to participate, I sent out press releases and e-postcards to the store’s mailing list, and then sat back and crossed my fingers.

On the day of the event, at 5 p.m. I came out of my office to see if anyone was there to sign up to read and saw a line of 10 people waiting at the registers. Half an hour later, I had signed up 20 people for our First Round, in which participants could read either their own work or another poet’s, and 30 in the Second Round, for original work only; some even signed up for both! Our staff was busy setting up extra chairs for the many participants and their friends and family.

Poets ranged from the published, to the aspiring, to the nine-year-old girl who not only held her own but was so inspiring that we made an extra prize just for her: a $15 gift certificate for the Youngest Poet Present. In both rounds there was a winner who received $25 gift certificates for the store. Every performance, some as short as 30 seconds and some as long as three minutes, was greeted with wild cheers from the audience, and our two winners (one from each round) walked away with their $25 Gift Certificates and enormous smiles on their faces.

As for me, I’m still smiling, and I’m dreaming of next year. I may even add a monthly Open Mic night to our events roster to keep our poets in practice and ready for next year’s competition!

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One Response to How We Rocked National Poetry Month

  1. Great Post! I love hearing about poetry events and spoken word events going well. Keep up the good work and I might have to come out there rock it one time. Utah is not that long of a drive from Portland. 🙂

    Take Care,
    DLUX:THELIGHT
    http://www.dluxthelight.com

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