I Witnessed a Poetry Slam and Didn’t Die

After browsing Groupon and Do512 for probably way too long and finding things that looked alright, but not quite right, for this next post, Do512 came through with a weekly poetry slam that goes on at Spiderhouse.

It was perfect: cover was a reasonable $5, the event was something within my realm of interests, and it also sounded terrifying.

It sounded terrifying because it seemed like the kind of thing where people and their work — which was likely a part of their soul — were ridiculed. And also like the kind of thing where not only was that allowed, it was encouraged.

To be fair, my entire understanding of poetry slams came from that one scene in She’s All That where Freddie Prince Jr. makes a poem out of a game of hacky sack to impress the girl he’s trying to fix…thinking about it, that scene could have been about performance art, instead…but potatoh/potahto, am I right?

Anyway, there’s an awful moment when you feel like he’s going to have nothing to give to the audience, and they’re going to eat him alive or, as Kimmy Schmidt would say, make waffles out of him. The idea of that happening — either witnessing it happening from the crowd or enduring it happening on the stage — is my hell.

Which is why attending this poetry slam was going to be good for me. It would force me to listen to creative writing be critiqued by a crowd that had no vested interest in the performer, other than to be entertained.

You don’t get that kind of real feedback from your family and friends. And that’s probably a good thing. After all, you’ll have to see those people again and again, and if they did give you that kind of feedback…things could get uncomfortable.

But that also means is people can’t get “real talk” about their work just anywhere. To do that, you have to present it to strangers.

I tried to semi-cheat with this new experience and get someone to come with me to help take off the edge, but no one was interested in my little poetry event. This probably (probably) had less to due with the fact that it was a poetry event, and more to due to the fact that it was mid-week, and my friend group consists of adults with jobs that they need to wake up early for. I understood this — I live this. But I wasn’t thrilled about it because it meant that I needed to go to this thing solo.

I hadn’t gone to anything alone in a while. That in and of itself is scary. I nearly chickened out three times before finally leaving my apartment. I said things to myself like, this event happens every Tuesday. Just because you couldn’t find someone to go with you this Tuesday, doesn’t mean no one will go with you next Tuesday. Maybe next Tuesday is the Tuesday to go. The golden Tuesday.

But in the end I watched a motivating YouTube video, put on makeup, threw on a dress, grabbed my purse, and headed out the door. The steps out the door are the hardest steps you have to take toward trying something new, I think. The second hardest are walking in the doorway of the place you’ve decided to try it.

I got to Spiderhouse, and by some Austin miracle I found parking that wasn’t too bad. It may have been because I arrived to the event on time, 8pm.That said, once I got inside the place was packed. The only seats available were a smattering of single seats on the aisles. Lucky for me, I only required a single seat.

I asked a girl if anyone was sitting in the one next to her, she said no, and I was in.

I sat down, sipped on my beer, and refrained from the urge to immediately check my phone — there was nothing to check it for. It’s force of habit. A habit that tells you if you look like you’re doing something when you’re alone in a crowd, you don’t look alone, you look busy and important. That’s not true, though. You just look disengaged and unapproachable.

It wasn’t long before they dimmed the lights and a youngish guy, the MC, walked onstage. This was a young crowd to begin with, mostly college kids . Exceptions included myself, the MC who looked about my age, his pregnant wife who was in charge of tallying scores, and a female judge who was some sort of professor at UT. (Not poetry, history, I think. The judges actually needed no qualifications to judge whatsoever, which I liked because then poets could probably justify any low scores as arbitrary or coming from someone who doesn’t know anything about the craft, man.)

The MC told us the ground rules, and it was just as I feared. The audience was encouraged to influence the judges. That meant you could respond however you wanted. That meant you could boo people.

Then, to my horror, the MC explained it’s been a time honored tradition since the slams started in the late 90s to kick it off with a sacrifice.

The rules of who can get picked as a sacrifice were unclear to me, but it seemed like it was a pre-determined thing that the sacrifice was in on and that, if this person was any good, he or she could earn the chance to compete in the slam.

The guy in town from Michigan who they let onstage was not any good. Or maybe he was, but he wasn’t trying to be any good. He was trying to make a scene, and, I think, a point, but he was doing it badly.

The first thing he did was throw water on his face. Then he said, “Is this poetry?” and the crowd yelled “no!”

“Then what do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Say something.” “Use your words.” “Speak!”

But he hadn’t prepared for that.

“Are you entertained?” he asked.

“No!”

“Are you trying to make me afraid?”

“No!”

“I’m not afraid!”

“Yes you are!”

Then somebody else yelled, “Do you want us to call someone?” Everyone laughed, and I wanted to bury my head in the ground, ostrich-style. This was so bad. I felt awful for this foolish, foolish man. I almost walked out right then.

It went on like that for far too long. As the MC explained in the ground rules, poets get a little over three minutes to deliver their poem before they start docking points. (I don’t remember the exact number. Maybe three minutes and fifteen seconds?) The guy from Michigan kept asking how much time he had left, but that’s part of it. They never tell you when you’re time is up. You have to feel it out.

In my opinion, his time should have been up after the thrown cup of water…

But in the end he waxed something eloquent about how he’d heard about this place and he was so glad that it existed as a medium for human expression. And he thanked everyone for letting him be a part of it. And then I silently thanked him very much for finally sitting the hell down.

To my surprise, the audience cheered. And not just because he was finally getting offstage. It sounded like it was in a way that was supportive.

That made me breath a little easier. This was a kind crowd. They hadn’t been nearly as awful to him as they could have been, and that guy had been stupid awful. A waste of a sacrifice, in my newbie opinion. I imagine the “sacrifices” can actually be pretty good poets, even dark horses of the evening who sometimes win. Well. Maybe next week.

Everything got better after that.

The first girl onstage read a poem she’d written about her grandmother’s death, and her soul’s flight to heaven. I cringed at that, thinking this crowd would not let that sentiment stand. I assumed the crowd was predominantly atheist, or at least agnostic, just based on their age and the times we live in. And I still think they probably were. But to my surprise, her piece was met with resounding applause.

The judges were harder on her, but they weren’t unkind, and the audience booed the lowest scores, rallying behind the poet with a sense of camaraderie that moved me.

I decided I was glad I’d come.

As the night continued, that was a recurring trend. Poets got applause, judges who gave low scores got booed. No soul-crushing was going on here.

The thing I appreciated most was that the poems and the poets themselves completely ran the gamut of the human experience.

There was a biracial, bisexual girl who talked about her frustration with being told her whole life to “pick one.” And I felt like I had it so easy — I’m so very white and so very straight, no one is confused about where I come from or what I’m looking for in a partner. At least in a partner’s gender. I can’t speak to biracial, but I’ve heard that argument about bisexuals before…that they’re “just being greedy.” And I was grateful to her for putting a face on an ignorant observation that’s thrown around as fact, and for reminding me and everyone else in the room that hers is a struggle and not a choice.

There was a black girl in her early twenties who talked about how the hip hop had died with Tupac, and how that was devastating to pop culture. You could make the same argument about Kurt Cobain and grunge, I guess. But I personally believe that the reality is that music evolves, and grunge and hip hop didn’t die with any one person, they just got left behind the way most music genres do, eventually. And it isn’t necessarily devastating…it just is what it is. But I liked her passion.

There was an overweight woman who wrote about how people are constantly telling her she’s “so pretty…but…” It was a poem about self-love and empowerment. She ended it by proclaiming she was pretty without anyone’s “buts.” And I thought about how unkind people can be without even trying. “You’re so pretty, but you could lose some weight.” What kind of thing is that to say? It’s cruel, no matter what place it comes from.

There was a beautiful, thin, white woman in one of those midriff top/bottom combos that are so popular as of like ten minutes ago — another fashion fad that’s snuck up on me and that I hope will sneak by just as quickly, though I have to admit it looked great on her. I don’t remember what she wrote about honestly. But I do remember being worried, because she looked the most mainstream of anyone who’d been onstage, and I thought, this is the point where the audience turns…But it wasn’t. She, too, received resounding applause.

There was a white man in his early fifties whom I feared for in from the depths of my gut as he took the stage. THIS guy, I thought, definitely has no chance.  But he’d written a sweet poem about his sister’s hopeless love for a verbally abusive, lazy, shitty man, and their relationship’s eventual end, and her consequent eternal bitterness. And about watching his daughter choose a similarly awful man, and being powerless to stop what he thought would be the inevitable course of events. Again, everyone clapped.

There was an arrogant ass with a poem about meta written in a way that was intended to make everyone in the audience feel like an idiot if they couldn’t follow it. You know the type. Apparently he’s kind of a regular. He gave himself a nice little intro before delivering his poem. And after he was through, again, everyone clapped.

There was a white lesbian with a shaved head in her early twenties. She recited a poem that pissed me off about how her allies were doing it wrong. Making your picture rainbow on Facebook in support of gay marriage means you don’t really get it, in her opinion. Showing up to gay pride parades in ridiculous costumes isn’t quite hitting the mark. You don’t know her struggles. And I thought, well, maybe not, but at least your friends are fucking trying. And I also thought, at least she has a place to voice that opinion, even if I believe it’s counterproductive to the movement. And also tacky. To voice my own opinion :)

There was a man with a poem about how torn he feels when he sees the homeless pan-handling. He talked about their potential drug/alcohol use and how that makes him not want to give, but also about how it also can’t be fun to stand in the heat and the cold and the rain and sleep on the hard ground, and how that makes him want to give. He ended it with something like, “and I don’t hate you, man. But I’m not giving you any money. And I’m not sure what that says about me.” I liked that a lot because I feel the same way. I mean, you can’t do anything, really…can you?…

There were many others I really enjoyed, but those were the ones that stuck with me.

I thought I’d stay through the end, but it got later and later. I hadn’t realized that an event that started at 8 could finish well past midnight, like this one looked like it was going to. I hadn’t realized this, even though everyone else clearly had, because at 27 I’d forgotten bar event etiquette. Bars don’t stop the entertainment at a reasonable hour — they keep it up until close. Great for selling drinks. Not so great for getting sleep.

I was considering staying through to the bitter end to prove some sort of point to someone, I couldn’t tell you exactly who, when something happened that made my embarrassment-sympathy radar go totally above the barometer I was willing to endure.

There was a Canadian poet they’d plugged at the beginning of the night who had recently published a chapbook and was on tour promoting it. She took the stage after an intermission, and it was clear that whoever had booked this for her (if someone had) hadn’t told her exactly what this was. It was a competition. It wasn’t a reading.

She began by thanking the venue for having her…which was a mistake because, as I mentioned, you only get a certain amount of time to recite your poem before they start docking points, and the timer starts as soon as you start speaking. So she was wasting time. Then after she read her poem, which I remember liking but don’t remember anything else about, she started to recite another one.

The MC had to tell her that she would only get to recite another poem if she went on to the next round.

And that’s when I had to leave, because it was too real…the idea of  thinking you’re at an event where you feel your work is highly valued — maybe even valued more than the previous works, and that all those other works were leading up to yours — the idea of thinking you’re the headliner, and then realizing that you’re just another member of the lineup — and realizing it publicly. Ugh. It was gut-wrenching.

The MC was nice about it, and the poet was gracious. But that happening combined with the reality that it was after 10pm on a weeknight were my signs to make my exit.

Still, I’m so very, very glad that I went. Normally on a Tuesday night I’d cook myself some dinner, watch a little Netflix or Hulu, then hit the hay. That night, I was engaged. I was listening to viewpoints I didn’t necessarily agree with, or that I hadn’t ever considered, or that finally articulated something I’d felt and hadn’t been able to put into words. It was awesome.

I highly recommend a poetry slam to anyone looking for something to different to do.

So, have you done anything different recently? Let me know in the comments below! Or give me ideas for the next thing I should try. I love those.

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