On Friday, May 6, Seattle Poetry Slam hosted it’s annual big event, The Grand Slam. The Grand Slam takes the eight top scoring poets of the slam season and gives them a chance to duke it out for one of four spots on Seattle’s 2011 Slam Team going to the National Poetry Slam in Boston. In addition to the slam, the event hosted a showcase and featured poet, Ken Arkind.
The Seattle Poetry Slam is the longest running weekly show in Seattle and one of the older slams in the country. Back in the day, the Grand Slam was held in smoky Seattle nightclubs, like the Crocodile, Chop Suey and Numos, with the occasional foray into a theatre like The Moore. Since slam started as a counter-culture response to what was then seen as staid, academic poetry readings, the venue made sense and lent to the raucous, noisy attitude of the crowd and irreverent performance by the poets.
Now, the Grand Slam is held in Town Hall, a former church complete with stained glass, pews and “soloist room” back stage. As the artistic movement known as Poetry Slam approaches its 25th anniversary, it seems appropriate that the genre move from underground, anti-establishment form into the daylight of Town Hall. The event is now all-ages with a large youth following, and even sees families in attendance. The audience is spirited instead of rowdy, supportive instead of vaguely menacing and Poetry Slam takes a seat at the table of modern poetry movements.
Last night’s event featured a strong showcase, with newcomer Oscar McNary performing a truly exceptional persona/letter poem titled, “Lucifer to the Almighty,” and the duet of Daemond Arrindel and Roberto Ascalon with a duet ode to Boddy McFerrin as hip hop icon.
The showcase was followed by spoken word legend from Denver, Colorado Ken Arkind. I came to the show expecting Ken Arkind to redefine/refine my notion of spoken word and I wasn’t disappointed. His poems ranged between rough and challenging to tender and sad, and never compromised poetic value. After starting with “An Open Prayer for the Soul of Ken Buck,” a poem about an anti-gay legislator in Colorado, Ken read “Summer, 2001,” a piece that opens with the line, “If Williamsburg, Brooklyn is the old country for hipsters, then Portland, Oregon is the promised land.”
Ken’s set contained a host of brilliant moments, but during every performance by a a gifted artist, there is one number in which the mastery of the work shines through. For me, that was during Ken’s poem about Los Angeles, titled (I think) “Maggie.” Please note that this video contains lots of graphic language and imagery.
I love the way Ken uses a spoken word cliche, (“I love you for your fault lines“) to comic effect, pointing out to the audience that he is aware of the cliche and that using it in a poem about Los Angeles makes it doubly humerous. Ken ended his poem with my favorite of his pieces, “An Experiment in Noise in A Sharp Major.” Fabulous feature by an astounding poet. Ken will have a new book coming out this summer on Mahogany L. Browne’s poetry press, Penmanship Books.
After Ken Arkind came the slam. Sacrificial poets included Amber Flame and wonderful newcomer Frank O’Brien. The poets in the slam competed in this order in round one, reversing the order for round two:
1. Rose McAleese
2. Jack McCarthy
3. Greg Bee
4. Maya Hersh
5. Sara Brickman
6. Roma Rae
7. eLa Barton
8. Mary Lambert
Rather than provide specific details (and odious scores) for each poet, I would rather hit some highlights of the slam overall. First off, all of the poets made a great accomplishment by making it to the Grand Slam and I thought the contest was very close. The talent level was impressive and there was a lot of new work being presented.
Some highlights for me included Rose McAleese’s first poem about the fear of giving birth to a white male child and what he might grow into, the idea of giving birth to someone with more power and privilege than yourself. The poem was brave, questioning, powerful, a great way to open the show. I liked Maya Hersh’s new poem in the first round for the way it injected positivity about life into a conversation that can be dominated by suffering and society’s ills. Sara Brickman’s first round poem, “Crazy Girls,” demonstrates Sara’s quirky, unique dark humor. Sara was lovable and powerful on stage and she gets better every year. Mary Lambert brought some mastery to the stage when she placed a second microphone for her first poem, using it to add a second “voice” to her piece about meeting a woman in an abusive relationship. Mary is an accomplished singer and she uses her singing voice to add complexity and delight to her pieces in a way that few poets can. She’s a true performer.
Greg Bee and Roma Rae both seemed to bring all their power and honesty to the stage in the second round last night. Bravo to both performers. You might not have made the team this year, but the audience has decided to love you. eLa Barton is a genius of creating structures for her pieces and her use of a narrative about scrabble players, spelling out and giving point awards to the words in her second round poem was a amazing!
Lastly, I must say some words about Jack McCarthy. It is widely known that Jack is the closest thing Poetry Slam has to a National Treasure. Poets come from around the country to pay Jack respects and the briefest of compliments from Jack is tucked away as a private treasure by many young poets. Last night, Rose McAleese interrupted her performance to tell the audience, “My dad is going to be mad (about the outcome of the slam) because Jack is his favorite poet.” The audience burst into wild applause for Jack, who we were lucky to see in yet another Grand Slam, and even luckier that retirement drove him to the Pacific Northwest. His performance last night, as always, was exceptional.
With all this good feeling and talent in the house…who will represent Seattle at the National Poetry Slam? The 2011 Seattle Team is Maya Hersh, Rose McAleese, Sara Brickman and Grand Slam Champion, Mary Lambert.