Poets from around the U.S. and beyond gathered in Madison last week to compete in National Poetry Slam 2008 and to share their love for spoken word at the Lyrics on the Lake festival. Kyle "El Guante" Myhre, a member of the 2008 St. Paul slam team and a former Madisonian, shares a few closing thoughts.
It's very easy to criticize slam poetry as an art form, and even easier to criticize the biggest poetry slam in the country. Yes, there is a lot of style over substance; yes, the most thoughtfully written poems rarely beat the loud and/or flashy poems; yes, the judging can be inconsistent and random. But when all is said and done, the thing to remember is that slam is giving poetry back to the people; it's making the general population excited about creative expression. Despite, and sometimes because of, its perceived flaws, it's one of the most vital, powerful and engaging artistic cultures around.
At any National Poetry Slam, you're bound to see some stuff that disappoints you, but you'll also see a whole lot of stuff that inspires you. This year's gathering in Madison was no different.
I watched my friend read her poem -- her first spoken-word performance ever -- to a group of some of the most talented performance poets in the country and receive thunderous applause. The open mics and workshops that took place during the "Lyrics on the Lake" festival weren't as showy as the competitions, but they allowed beautiful moments like that one to happen.
I saw a powerful tribute to Shannon Leigh Lewis, a gifted poet who passed away after an accident this past summer. The National Poetry Slam's "Spirit of the Slam" award was given to her mother at the finals bout on Saturday, whose words left this all-too-small community in tears.
I saw poets from every corner of the country, from big cities, small cities and everywhere in between, representing a multitude of poetic styles and approaches. From Boise's all-female team piece about the Sirens of Greek mythology, to New York's Rachel McKibbens' devastating exploration of domestic violence, to Madison's Josh Healey performing a local slam swan song at Overture Hall before leaves town, to Chicago's Green Mill team recruiting dozens of poets and audience members to mimic the movements of sperm; the range of topics covered was similarly breathtaking.
Most of all, however, I found a renewed energy to keep writing and performing. Competitive poetry isn't for everyone, and it's certainly not perfect. But the energy generated by a good poetry slam is undeniable; we are, after all, a bunch of artists, and that calling isn't always easy. Sometimes a big, community-building event like the National Poetry Slam is just the kind of spark we need.
In the end, as is repeated at every slam, "the points are not the point; the poetry is the point," and no matter who won or lost, I think we're all going back to our home cities hungry and inspired, ready to create.