Two weeks ago, I competed for a slot on the HawaiiSlam team that will represent the state at the National Poetry Slam in Oakland this August. At their best, slams are a clever way to attract an audience for a skilled display of creative writing and performance. At their worst, slams foster unhealthy attitudes toward competition and create false hierarchies of ability. At this stage in my slam "career," I'm able to recognize and critique both tendencies within and without myself.
The image above contains the first round scores from last night's slam. After a sacrificial poet to calibrate the five random audience judges, the competition begins between the initial twelve poets. The poets proceed in sequence, sharing their poems and receiving scores from the judges. The HawaiiSlam Grand Slam Finals consists of three rounds, with three poets cut after each of the first two rounds. Here, Jesse Lipman, Christian Tautua and Samson Tafolo have been cut after receiving the three lowest scores in Round 1.
With a method to measure the quality of poetry, hierarchical comparison becomes possible. Granted, a numerical value cannot and should not be substituted for a poem, but the scorekeeper cares not for your subjective ideals. The slam continues into Round 2 with the initial order of poets (minus the three eliminated) reversed, and Noa Helela, Eli Litzelman and Hong Guong Pyo exit the competition following low scores.
In the final round, six poets compete to determine which five will represent the state at the National Poetry Slam. In the four years since my first slam, I've competed in dozens, and by my count, I've won eight First Thursdays slams. In Hawai'i, I'm reasonably sure I have the highest ratio of wins to losses, and I've never failed to qualify for a team. I know these statistics because they stick with me. While poetry is emotional, I find myself deeply analytical, and I often perform rhetorical analysis in order to determine the proper course of action. In every slam, I perform calculus based on past experiences to determine the appropriate poem to perform in each round.
Often, I find myself chastising judges when they score a poem higher than I thought it deserved. Similarly, I wince when a poem is underscored. These reactions are informed by having watched hundreds of poems. I have particular ideas about the poetry I like, and my own criteria for excellence is novelty. For me, it is rare that a poem addresses an issue in an entirely new way. For many slam audience members, each poem is a new and fresh experience. My own reactions reveal me as jaded.
Still, I find excitement in slam. I enjoy the thrill of competition: reading an audience and determining the appropriate material to share with them. I've slammed to participate in six teams representing Hawai'i at national competition, and I've never failed to make the team. I recognize this as anomaly, but I'm committed to carrying the stories of my home to audiences. I'm stoked to have made this team and I will make the most of another opportunity to share stories.